by Edgar Allan Poe
To Helen Introduction
In A Nutshell
Edgar Allan Poe. He's usually associated with crazy, bloody, macabre stories that have been puzzling and terrifying readers for over a hundred and fifty years. Just have a look at our modules for "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum" to see what we mean. Poe, however, was never one to limit himself, so to speak, and he was a fairly accomplished poet as well. He could write extremely bizarre stories worthy of Stephen King, but he also wrote beautiful love poetry, like "To Helen."
Still, beauty can be a relative term. Let's back up: It all started way back when Poe was around 14 years old. His childhood friend, Robert Stanard, took him to his house after school one day. When Poe saw Robert's mother Jane, he was instantly infatuated with the 27-year-old woman (or so the story goes). One way to read "To Helen," then, is a declaration of love for Poe's buddy's mom. Wow.
Now, it's not totally weird for a teenager to fall in love with an older woman, but the fact that she was his friend's mom is, well, a bit strange. But look at it like this: Poe was orphaned at the age of three. His father, David Poe, abandoned the family, and his mother died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis (they used to call it "the consumption" back then). He was taken in by John and Frances Allan (hence the name Edgar Allan Poe), but never officially adopted. Frances Allan was never exactly the mother figure young Edgar needed, so when he met the beautiful and kind Jane Stanard, it's possible that his love for her was of the… ahem, filial kind (i.e., the love of a son for his mother).
Then again, in "To Helen" the speaker compares himself to Cupid, and Helen to Psyche. In other words, the speaker paints his love for Helen as romantic. Either way, Poe's elation at finally having found a caring, older woman—or a mom figure—explain the metaphors he uses in this poem (written much later in life). Poe published the first version of "To Helen" in 1831 in a book simply titled Poems that was dedicated to his fellow cadets from West Point. The poem was reprinted in 1836 in a periodical called The Southern Literary Messenger, a publication that Poe worked for from 1835 until 1837. The poem was published again in 1845, with some revisions, which is the version we use.
In it, the speaker compares himself to a guy lost at sea, a "weary way-worn wanderer" who is finally carried home by the beauty of a woman he calls "Helen" (in Greek mythology, she was one of the most beautiful women ever). Poe's life before he met Jane Stanard was rough (with strict foster parents, lots of moving around, etc.), so it doesn't seem all that bizarre that he became infatuated with a woman who encouraged him to write poetry (as some scholars think) and who was a kind of savior to a child that had been tossed around a bit. Whether this poem is an expression of on-the-level admiration, or something a bit creepier than that, is up to you. We'd like to give Poe the benefit of the doubt, though, and appreciate the beauty of the sentiments he expresses here.
Why Should I Care?
Beauty is a loaded word. Everybody knows that there's a big difference between saying that somebody is "hot" and somebody is "beautiful." Huh? Look at it like this: You're at the mall, and you see a girl or guy at the food court who has the most amazing body and the prettiest face you've ever seen. Later, while talking to a friend on the phone, you might say something like "I saw the hottest guy [or girl] at the mall today."
In contrast, when talking about your spouse, you might say that he or she was hot, but you'd be more likely to use the more serious term "beautiful." This is because beauty is about a whole lot more than just looks. It's a word that you're more likely to use once you've gotten to know somebody, once you've become familiar with their personality, their attitude, how they make you feel, and the like. It's about looks too, but also about a lot more than that.
Edgar Allan Poe's short poem "To Helen" is all about beauty. The speaker of the poem doesn't just come out and say "OMG! Helen is such a babe" or "Helen has the greatest body I've ever seen!" Far from it.
In the first stanza of the poem he starts talking about Helen's beauty in terms of how it has made him feel; it (Helen's beauty) has been like a ship to a guy lost at sea. Helen is an object of fascination for the speaker, not just because she is good-looking, though she is that (the second stanza is all about her face and hair), but because she makes him feel a certain way. Beauty does that. It has the ability to transport us, you might say.
That's an important realization to keep in mind the next time you scope out that hot guy or girl at the mall. Sure, they may be fun to look at, but do they make you feel as though you had been taken back in time, or finally allowed to come home from a long and painful journey? Yeah, we didn't think so.