Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
- This poem begins with a smack in the face. Ouch. There's no slow build up or dancing around the subject. The poem gets right to the point: Greece hates Helen. The end. (Well, not quite the end. There are sixteen more lines to go.)
- But let's be a bit more specific. The poem tells us that "All Greece hates" Helen. "All," means, well "all." Everything, everyone in Greece hates Helen. There's no room for disagreement here. 100% of Greece is on the hate train.
- We're thinking that the poem is being hyperbolic in this moment. Is it going over the top? Is it overstating the hate? We're not sure about the level of hyperbole, but we are pretty sure that there aren't exactly Helen fan clubs in Greece.
- And to be a bit more accurate: we find out here that Greece specifically hates "the still eyes in the white face." (We know that these eyes refer to Helen because, well, "Helen" is the title of the poem.)
- By referring Helen's various body parts (eyes, face), instead of referring to her as a whole person, the poem dismembers her in a way. Ew. We get a piece of Helen here, and, as the poem continues, we'll get a piece of Helen there. For Greece, Helen's just a bunch of body parts.
- For you advanced poetry nerds out there (holla, nerds): you might recognize an old-school poetic device in these lines: the blazon (also sometimes referred to as a blason). In the blazon, the speaker of a poem enumerates the various body parts of a woman, usually while praising her beauty—her bright eyes, her red lips, her rosy cheeks, etc. Usually blazons are all about how smokin' hot the woman is.
- Check out this famous and influential blazon by Edmund Spenser. You might also want to check out this gem of a poem, which is Shakespeare's way of poking fun at the blazon form.
- But in "Helen," the blazon is darker, which is to say creepier. This poem is not about how awesome Helen is. (You'll see what we mean as you read on.)
- Helen's eyes are still—they're not moving. Her face is white—it's super pale. Helen does not sound like a traditional blazon lady with rosy cheeks and big smiles.
- Let's now think for a sec about the speaker of the poem. We don't know too much about the speaker, actually, but it's someone who definitely understands the complexity of the Greece-Helen-Troy situation. The speaker seems detached but knowledgeable, like she gets what's going on but is somehow outside of it all.
- Before we move on, there's one more thing to think about: sound. This poem is written in free verse; it doesn't have a regular rhyme scheme or meter. But there's a whole lot of soundy-ness in the poem that begins with the assonance of "hates" and "face." Keep an eye out for more moments like this, and be sure to click on over to our "Sound Check" section for Shmoop's take.
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.
- Okay, this is getting creepy. Everything in this poem is so still.
- We find out that there's a "lustre" (we Americans would say "luster") surrounding Helen. A luster is a type of shininess or glossiness, even a radiance. But the poem compares Helen's luster to olives. Olives are of course a traditional Greek food (mmm, delicious), but olives are not traditionally thought of as shiny—they're usually dark green or black in color. We've got kind of a mixed metaphor here.
- Also, we've got more stillness. All Greece hates Helen's dark radiance, which is standing still. We're imagining her white hands folded in her lap in these moments.
- This is all part of the bizarro blazon, in which Helen's body parts are enumerated as objects of hate. What's next, Greece? What else do you hate about Helen? (Don't worry: the poem will soon tell you.)
- Oh and one last thing: we've got nice little rhyme here on "stands" and "hands." Between the assonance in lines 1 and 2 and the rhyme here, this poem is really starting to resonate.