To Helen (Jane Standard) : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

What does the poem To Helen, the one about Jane Standard, mean?

-- Anonymous, March 30, 2000



The poem To Helen was written by Edgar Allan Poe, most likely, prior to 1828 but, curiously, was not included in the 1827 printing of Tamerlane and Other Poems in Boston. The first printing of this poem was in Poems in 1831 and then reprinted again in the Southern Literary Messenger magazine in March 1836.

It is important that you understand that while this poem may have been written for or dedicated to Ms. Jane Stanard, it does not necessarily follow that the poem was about Ms. Stanard. Nor should it be presumed that it was intended to convey a portrayal of her specifically; but more to convey his memory for the depth and breadth of his personal feelings for her or what she may have meant to Edgar. Jane Craig Stanard was a pretty young matron of Richmond, Virginia that Edgar had met through his boyhood friend, Robert Stanard. She was very kind and sympathetic to Poe, a young and impressionable 14 year old, and it is my guess (I have no historical proof) that they shared a mutual interest in classical mythology. Ms. Stanard died at the age of 31 and this loss had come as a blow to young Edgar.

According to some, the name Helen was selected by Poe for its poetic qualities and, perhaps they are correct. However, I would respectfully argue that the perspective of the poem left Edgar little choice in selecting a name, assuming of course, that he wished to express his passions in verse filled with legendary allusion. The name Helen is spoken once, once only and immediately establishes the context of thought behind the verses and is intended as a reference to the Greek Helen of Troy. You must understand that the "romantic" Edgar Allan Poe was extraordinarily well versed in the classics, Greek and Roman mythology and the romantic languages. His expertise in Latin, French and Spanish was well established by the time he entered his twenties and all this exposure to these studies only served to feed his idealistic nature and incredible imagination.

The poem was intended to honor Poes love of beauty and the name that most symbolized the classical ideal of beauty for Edgar (and many others that study the classics) was "Helen". In Greek mythology, Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leda, was the most beautiful of all women. Helen had many suitors but married Menelaus, the King of Sparta. While he was away, Helen, influenced by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, allowed Paris, the Prince of Troy to carry her off to the City of Troy. Enraged, Menelaus enlisted the help of the Greek chieftains to rescue and return his wife and set sail for Troy, committed to doing what ever was necessary to return his beautiful wife to Sparta. Helen's was "The face that launched a thousand ships".

Subsequently, following a nine year war, Troy had been utterly destroyed and lay in ruin; thousands of men had died and while the Greeks had claimed victory, the conflict remained indecisive. The final outcome was left between Menelaus and Paris in a duel. Helen was brought to observe the contest and her beauty was still so great and her sorrow so profound, all felt nothing but compassion for her. Menelaus defeated Paris but, once more, Aphrodite helped him escape to Helen's chamber where she was compelled, unwillingly, by Aphrodite to stay with Paris. Following the death of Paris, Helen was returned to Sparta. After ten years of war, death and misery, nothing had been achieved and all for no other reason than the love and desire to possess Helen's matchless beauty. These were the tales that stirred Poe's romantic imagination and are symbolized in the poem "To Helen".

There have been many meanings suggested for specific references in "To Helen". I lean toward those offered by Edward H. O'Neill in his book Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems. In it he states, "Among the various meanings suggested for "Nicean barks", the best is probably that the reference is to Nicea, a city founded by Alexander the Great on the banks of the Jelum or Hydaspes River, where a fleet was built to convey a portion of the army homeward through the Red Sea (the "perfumed sea").

I thought, perhaps, some explanations might help you understand some of his other references as well.

A bark, sometimes referred to as a barque is a three to five masted and square rigged sailing ship with its after-mast, fore-and-aft rigged.

"Naiad airs" - Generally, Naiad is used as a Latin term but taken from the Greek "nan" which means 'to flow'. Naiad is a noun and refers to the nymphs in classical mythology that give life to lakes, rivers and streams. I think in this context, Poe seems to have used it as an analogous reference to the flow of the currents or breezes of the "perfumed sea" that returned the armies of Greece to Sparta. Personally, what I think he meant to convey, (and again, I cannot support it with documentation) by using this term was his deep and sincere appreciation to Mrs. Stanard for her kindness and their sharing a mutual love for stories from classical mythology.

"Psyche" was a mortal princess in Roman mythology who loved and was loved by Cupid, the immortal Roman God of love. Because Psyche was so spectacularly beautiful, and a mere mortal, she was jealously condemned by Venus, the Goddess of Love, to marry a hideous, ugly monster. Venus sent her son, Cupid, to ensure the deed was done but, instead, Cupid fell in love with Psyche and secretly kept her in a beautiful gardened palace. Visiting her only at night so that Psyche could not see his face, they lived and loved in darkness until Psyche, driven by curiosity and the jealous goading of her sisters, hid a lamp in her chamber so that when Cupid fell asleep, she could see his face. When Cupid fell asleep, she lit the lamp and as she gazed upon the handsome features of Cupid, hot oil dripped on his face and awoke him. Furious at her disobedience, Cupid left her alone. Poe's reference to the "agate lamp" is representative of the lamp used by Psyche.

Desperate to regain his love and trust, Psyche ultimately went to Venus to beg forgiveness. Still angry and jealous, Venus was touched by Psyches deference and despair and gave her three tasks to test Psyches worthiness for her son. The last was for Psyche to enter Hades and retrieve some beauty potions from Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The only way into Hades for a mortal was to die and as she prepared to throw herself from the highest tower of the Temple, Cupid intervened and showed her a secret passage to the underworld. There is much more to the tale but this should give you the drift of the story.

Hope this is what youre looking for and answers your question, Angela. Good Luck on your assignment.

-- Anonymous, March 31, 2000

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