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To Helen

To Helen

by Edgar Allan Poe

Stanza 2 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Line 6

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

  • The speaker begins the second stanza by talking about somebody who was "long want to roam" on "desperate seas."
  • "Wont" is not to be confused with "won't," as in "I won't do it anymore." It is actually an old word that means "accustomed to" or "used to."
  • And "Desperate" here means something like "hopeless." The seas were unforgiving and dangerous, and thus offered no hope to the wanderer.
  • We know that the speaker has just been talking about either Catullus or Odysseus, so here he might still be talking about them.
  • He could also be talking about himself (remember, he has already compared himself to those two guys in the first stanza). If that's the case, then he implies that he was lost before he met Helen, roaming on the "desperate seas" (or hopelessness) of life.

Lines 7-10

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.

  • The speaker now addresses Helen (Jane Stanard) again.
  • Her "hyacinth hair," "classic face," and "Naiad airs" are just like those "barks" of line 2 (we'll explain all these strange words in just a moment). You know, the ones that have brought him back "home" to the "glory that was Greece" and the "grandeur that was Rome"? Right, those barks. 
  • Okay. So, we have Greece and Rome, but where, exactly, is the speaker's "native shore" (5)? Hmmm. 
  • Helen's beauty reminds the speaker of the glory of ancient Greece (the place and time where Helen supposedly lived). She also reminds him of the "grandeur" (the greatness) of ancient Rome.
  • Why Greece and Rome? Why not ancient Persia? Why not Boston, Massachusetts?
  • Good question, us! You see, way back when, in the nineteenth century, many people felt that ancient Greece and Rome were pretty much the most awesome places ever. The opinion was they had the best literature, the best ideas, the best architecture, the best… you get the idea. And this Helen reminds the speaker of the best that ever was (Greece and Rome). In other words, she's a total "classic," kind of like a '67 Ford Mustang or something.
  • Not only that, she sort of takes him back in time, in a weird kind of way. She makes him feel at home again, but she also makes him feel as though he has gone back to an earlier time in history (when everything was supposedly better). 
  • Okay, we know you've been dying for an explanation of all those funky words. So here we go: 
  • A hyacinth is a type of flower that grows in bunches from a single stalk (they come in a variety of colors, including lavender and reddish-orange). 
  • It is possible that Poe is suggesting that Helen's hair somehow resembles the bunchy shape of the hyacinth. Or, he could also be implying that her hair is the same color as some hyacinths (probably the reddish-orange one, we're guessing).
  • We should also point out that the hyacinth is also an important flower in Greek and Roman mythology: 
  • Apollo (the Greek god of music, poetry, and the sun) was in love with a young boy named Hyacinth. (Note: Apollo the Greek god is not to be confused with Apolo Ono, the speed skater dude from Dancing with the Stars and the Olympics.)
  • Sadly, Hyacinth met an unfortunate end. He and Apollo were playing with a discus (kind of like a stone Frisbee), and he accidentally got hit in the head with it and died. Apollo was so upset that he took Hyacinth's blood and made a flower.
  • Aw. Wasn't that sweet of him?
  • The Greeks thought they could make out the ancient Greek words "ai ai" (alas!) on the flower's petals. In fact, you can see just exactly what the Greeks saw right here. This dude has written the letters next to it! 
  • Poe's use of the word "hyacinth" in a poem with tons of references to mythology makes us think of death, sadness, and blood. 
  • Oh, and before we forget, that repetition of the "h" in hyacinth hair is, once again, alliteration
  • Now for those Naiads:
  • In Greek mythology, they were nymphs (female nature deities, but not gods) associated with fresh bodies of water (streams, brooks, fountains, wells, springs, that sort of thing). Naiads were usually beautiful, very closely connected to particular spots, and even sometimes very dangerous.
  • In other vocabulary info, "airs" most likely means "attitude" or "expression." "Naiad airs," then, means that Helen resembles a divine, beautiful, and potentially dangerous creature. Awesome!
  • Hey, really quick, did you notice that this stanza rhymes a little bit differently than the first stanza? Yes ma'am it does. The scheme here is: ABABA (although lines 2 and 4 are more of a slant rhyme than a perfect match).
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