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To Helen
By Edgar Allan Poe  (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Background Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2005
.Background 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.
Theme 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 the poem.
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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To Helen
By Edgar Allan Poe
Complete Text With Annotation by Michael J. Cummings
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Complete Text of the Poem Comments
1
Helen, thy beauty is to me
....Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
....The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
 
 
 

 

Helen: 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 vessels.
End rhyme: A, B, A,B, B.
2
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
....Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
....To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

wont: 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 memorable.
End rhyme: A, B, A, B, 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
3
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
....How statue-like I see thee stand,
....The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah! Psyche, from the regions which
....Are Holy Land!
 
 
 
 

 

agate: 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 of glass).
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 her.   
End rhyme: A, B, B, A, B.
from the regions which are Holy Land: from ancient Greece and Rome; from the memory Poe had of Mrs. Stanard (Background). 

THE END
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