Poe Study Guides
Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..©
Edgar Allan Poe wrote “To Helen” as a reflection on the beauty of Mrs.
Jane Stith Stanard, of Richmond, Va., who died in 1824. She was the mother
of one of Poe’s school classmates, Robert Stanard. When Robert invited
Edgar, then 14, to his home (at 19th and East Grace Streets in Richmond)
in 1823, Poe was greatly taken with the 27-year-old woman, who is said
to have urged him to write poetry. He was later to write that she was his
first real love.
Date of Publication
1831 in a book of poems.
The theme of this short poem is the beauty of a woman with whom Poe became
acquainted when he was 14. Apparently she treated him kindly and may have
urged him–or perhaps inspired him–to write poetry. Beauty, as Poe
uses the word in the poem, appears to refer to the woman's soul as well
as her body. On the one hand, he represents her as Helen of Troy–the quintessence
of physical beauty–at the beginning of the poem. On the other, he represents
her as Psyche–the quintessence of soulful beauty–at the end of the poem.
In Greek, psyche means soul. For further information on Helen
of Troy and Psyche, see the comments on the text of
Imagery and Summary of
the Poem Poe opens the poem with a simile–“Helen, thy beauty is to
me / Like those Nicéan barks of yore”–that compares the beauty of
Helen (Mrs. Stanard, Background) with small sailing
boats (barks) that carried home travelers in ancient times. He extends
this boat imagery into the second stanza, when he says Helen brought him
home to the shores of the greatest civilizations of antiquity, classical
Greece and Rome. It may well have been that Mrs. Stanard’s beauty and other
admirable qualities, as well as her taking notice of Poe’s writing ability,
helped inspire him to write poetry that mimicked in some ways the classical
tradition of Greece and Rome. Certainly the poem’s allusions to mythology
and the classical age suggest that he had a grounding in, and a fondness
for, ancient history and literature. In the final stanza of the poem, Poe
imagines that Mrs. Stanard (Helen) is standing before him in a recess or
alcove in front of a window. She is holding an agate lamp, as the beautiful
Psyche did when she discovered the identity of Eros (Cupid). For further
information on the agate lamp, Psyche, and Eros, see the comments opposite
the third stanza (below).
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By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Annotation by
Michael J. Cummings
|Complete Text of the
Helen, thy beauty is to
those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed
weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
An allusion to Helen of Troy in Greek mythology. Helen, the wife of King
Menelaus of Greece, was the most beautiful woman in the world. After a
Trojan prince named Paris abducted her, the Greeks declared war on the
Trojans, fighting a 10-year battle that ended in victory and the restoration
of Greek honor. Helen returned to Greece with Menelaus.
Nicean: Of or from
Nicea (also spelled Nicaea), a city in ancient Bithynia (now part of present-day
Turkey) near the site of the Trojan War.
barks: small sailing
End rhyme: A,
On desperate seas long wont
hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought
the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was
accustomed to (usually followed by an infinitive, such as to roam in the
first line of this stanza).
Naiad: Naiads were
minor nature goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology. They inhabited and
presided over rivers, lakes, streams, and fountains.
Naiad airs: Peaceful,
gentle breezes or qualities
the glory that . . .Rome:
These last two lines, beginning with the glory that was, are among
the most frequently quoted lines in world literature. Writers and speakers
quote these lines to evoke the splendor of classical antiquity. The alliteration
of glory, Greece, and grandeur helps to make the lines
End rhyme: A,
Half rhyme: Face
and Greece are similar only in that they have one syllable and the
same ending–"ce." The vowels "a" and "ee" do not rhyme. Thus, face
and Greece make up what is called half rhyme, also known
as near rhyme, oblique rhyme, and slant rhyme.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
statue-like I see thee stand,
agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah! Psyche, from the regions
a variety of chalcedony (kal SED uh ne), a semiprecious translucent stone
with colored stripes or bands. The marbles that children shoot with a flick
of the thumb are usually made of agate (although some imitations are made
agate lamp: burning
lamp made of agate.
Psyche: In Greek
and Roman mythology, Psyche was a beautiful princess dear to the god of
love, Eros (Cupid), who would visit her in a darkened room in a palace.
One night she used an agate lamp to discover his identity. Later, at the
urging of Eros, Zeus gave her the gift of immortality. Eros then married
End rhyme: A,
the regions which are Holy Land: from ancient Greece and Rome; from
the memory Poe had of Mrs. Stanard (Background).