Study Guide

Helen in Omeros

By Derek Walcott


The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships?

What do you think the most beautiful man or woman in the world looks like? It's hard to even imagine, isn't it? It's not that we're pessimists here at Shmoop—it's just that this is part of how imagination works. We can say that someone is the most beautiful person we've ever seen, but to construct ideal beauty in the mind is a pretty tall order. Like, where do we even begin?

Walcott uses this kind of inexpressibility to create Helen's beauty in the poem. First, she's just unreal, not to be comprehended by poet or waiter:

[I] saw, through the caging wires of the noon sky,
A beach with its padding panther; now the mirage
dissolved to a woman with a madras head-tie,
but the head proud, although it was looking for work.

Note that Walcott refrains from describing Helen in any particular way, except for a hair accessory and the tilt of her head—instead, the compelling evidence of her beauty is in the gaze of the two men who can't take their eyes off of her. If you can't yet gauge the level of her attractiveness, take a look at her effect on the poet and other bystanders:

I felt like standing in homage to a beauty
that left, like a ship, widening eyes in its wake.
"Who the hell is that?" a tourist near my table
asked a waitress. The waitress said, "She? She too proud!"

With the gaze of a poet, a gaper, and a waitress upon her, we can see that Helen inspires at least three strong emotions in people: awe, lust, and jealousy. Just like her sister in beauty, Helen of Troy, this Helen can't control the responses to her comeliness. For the most part, it works against her.

Just as Walcott reveals little of her actual physical traits, we really don't learn much about her inner life. Is she really a nice person? Has she merely been stereotyped as an aloof, lovely, promiscuous woman? Well, we don't really know.

And that's just what Walcott wants. Like Helen of Troy, this Helen suffers the fallout of a pretty face—and all because of how imagination works in the absence of experience:

As the caved lids of the unimaginable
ebony mask unwrapped from its cotton-wool cloud,
the waitress sneered, "Helen." And all the rest followed.

Her face is not only "unimaginable" in its beauty; it's an artful construction on the part of the poet, a mask. The waitress's venom in Helen's direction says it all: Helen's beauty and name create a reputation that precedes her. The drama that follows, as with Helen of Troy, happens all because of these things, more than anything in particular that Helen does.

Helen Cubed

So what happens, then, in Helen's defense, has little to do with who she really is. The poet indulges in a game of Six Degrees of Homer with the island and its inhabitants, beginning with his need to link the land with the lady: "He smiled at the hallucination/that went with the name's shadow; the island was once/named Helen" (V.iii.31).

He's drawn further into the mythologizing game by making Helen the beneficiary of a divine lottery: "Sometimes the gods will hallow/all of a race's beauty in a single face" (LXIII.ii.318). She's recycled into a new version of Helen of Troy's sad story, in which she becomes the beautiful doll at the centerpiece of a fight between two men who bear the names of Greek (Achille) and Trojan (Hector) heroes from Homer's Iliad. (Not familiar with the Iliad? Click that link for the scoop.)

Meanwhile, the feuds over the human Helens are paralleled in the fight between colonial powers over the island itself and the near destruction of cultures in its wake.

Major Plunkett is highly aware of the Homeric associations swirling around both girl and island. His guilt over British rule on St. Lucia and his desire for Helen results in a different kind of impulse, though—it makes him want to get his book on. That's right: He controls his emotional response to Helen by researching:

Helen needed a history,
that was the pity that Plunkett felt towards her.
Not his, but her story. Not theirs, but Helen's war.

By doing this, Plunkett falls prey to the same Homeric name game as the poet. And what's the problem with all of this? Helen is not an island, nor is she a Greek mythological hottie. Instead, she's a woman living below the poverty line with two men she can't control snapping at her heels. She's beautiful, yes, but certainly not the mistress of her own fate. And as she is deployed as a literary device by both the poet and Plunkett, it's crystal clear that she doesn't get to write her own story.

Growing Up

In the end, the boys finally get it. First, it's Achille who gets a glimpse of Helen's true situation. He's in a the middle of a jealous rage when his perceptions momentarily shift:

[…] He saw how she wished

for a peace beyond her beauty, past the tireless
quarrel over a face that was not her own fault
any more than the full moon's grace sailing dark trees […]

He truly understands what Menelaus and Paris and every punk deity in the Greek pantheon could never see: Helen isn't the problem. It's the men and women around her who want to define her personality and judge her morality based on her face that are the problem.

Plunkett and the narrator aren't so quick, though, and it takes them a lot longer to come to the same conclusion as Achille. In fact, we nearly hit the bottom of the poem before we get the admission of guilt:

[…] Plunkett, in his innocence,
had tried to change History to a metaphor,
in the name of a housemaid; I, in self-defence,
altered her opposite. Yet it was all for her.

It's a backhanded admission (all for the love of a girl), but it's still an acknowledgment that sometimes both history and poetry can motivate some very poor decisions. By the time we see Helen again, she looks a lot more like a regular woman. She's serious, heavily pregnant, and relinquishing her yellow dress so that Achille can dress in drag.

Walcott, however, can't resist seeing beyond the lovely lady and into metaphor once again. To him, Helen will always be reminiscent of an epic past. When he shows her "bellying stomach" to us, he goes for Homer again: "There, in miniature,/the world was globed like a fruit, since its texture is/both acid and sweet like a golden pomme-Cythère,/the apple of Venus" (LV.ii.275). Despite the poet's awareness of the dangers of waxing too poetic, the golden apple—and the dangerous beauty it represents—is about to be passed to a new generation.