To Helen

For the snobbish, Poe’s poetry seldom ever reached the caliber of the other Romantics. ‘The Raven’, of course, was unique and striking. But for my money, one of Poe’s most Romantic poems, where he managed to avoid his favorite trope of gothic gloom, is ‘To Helen’.

To Helen (1845 version)

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.

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.

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!

Poe lore has it that when he was only about 14, a Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard encouraged Poe to pursue his love of poetry. Though the final version of this poem wasn’t completed until decades later, it’s believed she inspired this paean to Helen.

Despite its title, Poe doesn’t only compare Mrs. Stanard to Helen of Troy–a physical beauty–but at the final turn of the verse he compares her to Psyche, a more spiritual form of beauty. Finally, because she encouraged Poe at such a young age, this verse is also seems to be an homage to Poetry itself, in that it employs allusions to classical Art and mythology: Art is eternal, Art was Poe’s religion.

The image comes from the 2004 movie The Ladykillers, where Tom Hanks, playing a whacked-out kind of faux Poe, recites ‘To Helen.’

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