The abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of Menelaus, by the Trojan Prince Paris, was the catalyst for the Trojan War. Because of the ambiguity of the occurrence, there exist feelings toward Helen that are at odds with one another. There are those who feel as though Helen was unjustly snatched while others believe she willingly followed Paris to Troy. Not only was the kidnapping a reason for fighting, it left conflicting roots of admiration and antipathy for Helen as seen in the diction, form, and imagery of poetry.
Edgar Allan Poe’s “To Helen” is a poem written as a tribute to Helen. One of the most noticeable characteristics about this poem is the vivid imagery. Even in the opening lines, Poe immediately introduces the topic of Helen’s renowned beauty. “—like those Nicean barks of yore” (Line 2). He compares her attractiveness to the small, yet delicate sailboats of ancient times. Poe continues to add on to this imagery of travel when he mentions that Helen alone, with her lovely face and hair, was enough for the speaker to arrive at Greece. He then paints an image of Helen standing angelically by a window and compares her to Psyche, a beautiful princess. Poe masterfully uses diction to accentuate his awe for Helen. There are words he uses to almost mimic the language and feel of ancient times.
“Thy hyacinth… Thy Naiad airs have brought me home” (Lines 7-8). Helen’s hair is described as a gem-like transparent red and gentle airs have presumably been sent by nature goddesses known as naiads to guide the traveler home to Greece. One of the elements of the poem that might go unnoticed is the form. There is a musical, rhythmic quality to both the words and resulting sentences. “That gently, o’er a perfumed sea, The weary, way-worn wanderer bore” (Lines 3-5). The poem flows in likeness to sea, of which much of this poem includes. There is a simple, yet fluid rhyme scheme that is often a pattern of alternating end rhymes.
“Helen”, by Hilda Doolittle, is a poem meant to pierce through the superficial beauty of Helen and manifest the antagonism felt for her. The first thing in this poem that stands out is the immediate use of livid diction. The speaker begins with the words, “All Greece hates…” (Line 1) and starts the second stanza with a similar, “All Greece reviles…” (Line 6). The words hate and revile make the speaker’s view of Helen very clear: Helen is not deserving of praise, but instead, should be deplored. The imagery in this poem is interesting in the fact that it puts the characteristics of Helen’s above those other normal people, but still finds a way to bring her down.
The poem gives Helen unnatural qualities such as the gleam of her face and hands, but portrays them as unworthy of adoration. In the last stanza, the author depicts Helen as an unmovable and cold statue. “…unmoved, God’s daughter” (Line 12). Not only does this imagery help to visualize her representation, it parallels with Helen’s disposition throughout the incidence of her abduction and the fighting following it. The form of this poem is very different in comparison to “To Helen”. Instead of the smooth flow of its counterpart, “Helen” is composed of three clean stanzas. The parallelism of the opening lines of each stanza and the infrequent end rhymes seem to create demarcations as opposed to melding the lines together. This gives the poem a more rigid feel than the flowing and dreamy effect of the lines in “To Helen”.
Although about the same person, these two poems represent two very different perspectives. While one praises the aesthetic qualities of Helen, the other emphasizes her detachment as well as the ill feelings the country of Greece has for her. Both works focus on her appearance yet differ in terms of imagery, diction, form, and the effect these elements have on the poems.