In A Nutshell
Helen who? Here's the skinny: Helen's a famous a figure from Greek mythology. She's the daughter of Zeus (the king God) and Leda. As the stories go, Helen grows up in Sparta (in Greece) and marries a dude named Menelaus. But it isn't always wedded bliss. Oh, and did we mention Helen's beautiful? Like, the most beautiful woman ever?
Here's where the story gets tricky. A Trojan prince named Paris falls in love with Helen (she's a total babe, after all) and he takes her away from Menelaus and back to Troy. It's unclear whether Helen fell in love with Paris and wanted to go with him, or if she was taken by Paris against her will. But either way, Menelaus is, well, pissed. And so he starts a war between Greece and Troy to get Helen back. The war—the Trojan War—lasts ten years. And if you want more scoop, you've just got to read the Iliad.
As you might guess, Helen's beauty caused its fair share of problems in her day. Christopher Marlowe even called Helen "the face who launched a thousand ships," because, well, her beautiful face did cause a war after all (or so the legend goes). But is her beauty her fault? Can we blame an entire war on just one lovely face? Have mythology, history, art, literature, and culture really been fair to our gal Helen?
Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), the modernist poet who went by the name H.D., didn't think so. Or at least, not exactly. See, H.D. was fascinated by Greek mythology in general and with Helen in particular. She wrote about Helen a whole bunch of times from a whole bunch of perspectives in an attempt to see the story from all angles, so Helen might get a fair shot.
In the 1924 poem "Helen" she considers the point of view of the Greek people, but in the long work "Helen in Egypt," she tells the story from Helen's point of view. She tackles a whole bunch of issues when it comes to Helen—beauty, hate, war, gender roles—and in this short poem, her elegant and spare words really boil the story of Helen down to its heart. And be forewarned: the heart of the Helen scenario ain't all that pretty. The Greeks straight-up hate our girl. Is she deserving of all this hate? Read the poem and let us know what you think.
Why Should I Care?
The story of Helen has been around at least since Homer wrote the Iliad (which is to say: thousands of years). There's a reason this story has persisted through millennia: it's juicy, and it's about all those big issues in life, like war, hate, love, beauty. What more could you ask for in a poem?
H.D.'s "Helen" can be your intro to the story of the Trojan War. (And hey, at only eighteen lines, it's a heck of a lot shorter than Homer's epic.) But it's also more than just a retelling of Homer. "Helen" is a powerful study of what it means to be a powerful woman. And not, like, Hillary Clinton-Secretary-of-State-style powerful. More like Tyra Banks powerful. The poem is an investigation of the powers and pitfalls of sheer, unadulterated, awesome-sauce beauty. And it's not all sunshine and rainbows; Helen's stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty is the cause of a ten-year war. How's that for a heavy burden?
"Helen" shows us that with great beauty comes great responsibility. Or, more accurately, that great beauty comes with a whole lot of people having a whole lot of opinions about you. (Including hate.) It ain't easy being the most beautiful woman ever.