Analysis of To Helen (1831) : LUSENET : The Work of Edgar Allan Poe : One Thread

Please help. I need to do a poetic analysis of To Helen (1831), and am having a bit of difficulty. It has to have details about symbolism. Thank you for your help!!!!

-- Anonymous, March 01, 2003


Diane, i guess that you have been able to solve difficulty in analysis Poe´s poem ¨To hellen¨- I´m really in the same situation you were then, so i would like to know if you could please help me. Any analysis of it would be of great help. Thanks

-- Anonymous, February 17, 2004

These are the first three pages of a research paper I did on this poem. They cover a complete explication, line by line.

“To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe is more complicated that it seems and contains many symbols of Poe’s life. This poem is often commented on for its spoken beauty. However, there are many more symbols the reader may not pick up the first time. As well as not noticing all that is in the poem, one may not know there are many symbols from Poe’s own life that he writes about in this poem. Although no one can be sure, there is enough to evidence to prove it is about Poe and his love for a certain woman. The poem begins with the speaker addressing "Helen," a reference to Helen of Troy (Exploring 1). Helen of Troy is, of course, the woman, according to legend, whose beauty was so great it caused the war lasting ten years that led to the destruction of Troy. In the first and second lines, the speaker makes a simile to compare Helen's beauty to that of ancient ships. The ships spoken of, Nicean barks, were ones well-known for their beautiful sails, curved lines, and ornamentation, and that carry, in this case, the “wanderer” back home. The image of “perfumed waters“ makes the trip seem pleasant to the reader (Exploring 1). It is also another image the author uses to enhance the seeming beauty of Helen. “The speaker, in a parallel development, would be associated with the wanderer, and so he is characterized as someone who is given easy passage to a secure atmosphere (his "native" shore) just by seeing Helen's beauty” (Exploring 1). The tiredness he feels before he sees Helen receives an emphasis through alliteration of the sound of w in "weary, way-worn wanderer." (Exploring 1). The repeated sound of the “W” even also can suggest a weak condition for which the wanderer is described. In line six, the speaker refers to himself as someone who has long been used to traveling at sea (Exploring 1). The journeys were described to have been "desperate,” which entails a waning hope. If the situation is read metaphorically, his life, being represented in the metaphor by the phrase “desperate seas” reveals that the speaker's life has been full of despair (Exploring 1). This is one of the specific sections of the poem that ultimately leads to the conclusion of Poe being the “way-worn wanderer”, and it is Poe’s life the “desperate seas” are representing. The connection between this poem and Poe’s own life will be discussed following the explication. Both lines seven and eight describe Helen's beauty and its continuing positive effect on the speaker. “The phrase ‘hyacinth hair’ suggests hair that is curled and sweetly fragrant as are the petals of the hyacinth flower“ (Exploring 1). The alliteration between “hyacinth“ and “hair“ is especially unique. Not only does Poe continue to use beautiful adjectives, but he enhances the poem even more with this alliteration. “The soft ‘H’ can be compared to a sigh of love” (Exploring 1). Poe’s ability to use techniques like this leave this poem to be a great one. Poe adds more to the classical theme of the poem in lines seven, nine, and ten. In line eight Helen is said to have "Naiad airs," that is, nymphlike or fairylike qualities (Exploring 1). The word "classic" to describe Helen's face calls up images of the statue-like beauty (Exploring 1). The metaphor of Helen as a statue is used again in the poem and should be taken of importance. Lines nine and ten bring the poem again to figurativeness. “They indicate that the speaker has been metaphorical in his description of himself as a sailor. The ‘home’ to which he refers is not a physical location, but a frame of mind and a source of inspiration; it is an appreciation of the great works produced by the ancient empires of Greece and Rome” (Exploring 1). When the traveler beholds the beauty of Helen, his life turns from despair to now having a firm footing. The alliteration of the hard “G” and “R” in the words "glory," "Greece," "grandeur," and "Rome" can be understood to affirm this. In the last stanza of the poem, there are a few comparisons presenting the woman in the poem as an inspiration. Continuing with the metaphor from before of the traveler returning home, the eleventh and twelfth lines contain a scene where Helen is pictured as a beautiful woman sitting by the window. The traveler sees her from afar as he returns home. The window is made "brilliant" not only by her beauty but also by the lighted lamp she holds, a lamp that could guide the traveler’s ship into harbor (Exploring 1). The statue-like qualities that Helen has are displayed here again. Because the base of the lamp is made of "agate," a translucent, precious, and colorful stone, it associates those qualities with the woman herself (Exploring 1). There is an allusion to Psyche from classical Greek mythology in the fourteenth line. In the literal interpretation of the lamp in line 13, it is held by Helen so that the traveler can find his way back to her, but a symbolic reference comes from the story of Psyche's lamp, the lamp which allows the soul to see love, revealing the truth about love to the soul (Exploring 2). In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche is kept in captivity by Cupid, the God of Love, without knowing his identity. He visits her every night and she is not allowed to see him. To Cupid, this arrangement proves Psyche's faith in love. Even though she is treated wonderfully by him, she fears that he may be a monster. The one time that she shines a lamp on him to discover his identity while he is asleep, he wakens and deserts her immediately. The suggestion is that love cannot remain in the soul if the soul questions it. When this speaker concludes with the exclamation "Ah, Psyche" he calls upon all the powers of beauty, truth and love, as they reside in the soul, to praise Helen (Exploring 2). The fact that she and these powers originate from the "Holy Land" elevate them above any mortal love. Elevating Helen above anything mortal thus does the same for the love between the traveler and her. Now that every line of the poem has been explained, how the poem correlates with Poe’s own life can be explained as well.

-- Anonymous, April 26, 2004

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