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Themes

Art is all over the place in "To Helen." The first stanza contains a complicated allusion to the Roman poet Catullus, another one to a famous woman from Greek mythology and literature (Helen), and, possibly, yet another one to the famous Greek hero Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses). In the last stanza the speaker compares Helen to a statue, and he even mentions an agate lamp, which sure sounds like a work of art to us. The poem is about love, but it's also about art, and about how we use art as a way of thinking about, and describing, our world.

Questions About Art and Culture

  1. The speaker compares Helen to a statue. Do you see this as a compliment? (After all, statues are essentially lifeless.) Why or why not? To what kind of art work would you compare somebody you loved?
  2. Some scholars believe that Jane Stanard (the inspiration for "To Helen") encouraged Poe to write poetry. How does the Helen of the poem inspire our speaker's poetic language?
  3. Does the speaker think of Helen's face and hair as works of art? How can you tell?
  4. Who is the bigger artist in this poem: Helen (for her beauty) or the speaker (who is the one that describes that beauty)? Why do you think so?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

It is dangerous to compare people to works of art for it can make them seem less human. At times, Helen seems unreal—plastic, y'all.

"To Helen" shows how people often use art in order to understand the world around them. Thanks, art!

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