"Helen" is incredibly sound-y. And by "sound-y," we mean awesome to listen to. It's got tons of repetitions, a big bunch of rhymes ("smiles" and "reviles"), a big pile of assonance ("hates" and "face"), and a whole heap of alliteration ("wan" and "white"). There are all of these repeated sounds bouncing around the poem. And they're bouncing around a bit haphazardly because there's no regular rhyme scheme in "Helen."
See, H.D.'s not after some fancy structure or sing-songy feel. Instead, when we read "Helen" aloud, we feel a bit like we're in an echo chamber. A really small one, that makes us a bit claustrophobic. The same sounds keep repeating and bearing down on us and we can't escape it all until we're dead.
Oh wait, that's Helen. Well, us and Helen. The poem's repetitions suffocate us as the constant hatred effectively suffocates Helen. Once again, form and content go hand in hand. Ain't that nifty?
"Helen" is about the most famous of Helen of all time. No, not Helen Keller, not Helen Mirren, but Helen of Troy.
Legend has it that Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman of all time, and that this very beauty was the catalyst of a ten-year war between Greece and Troy. That's a whole lot of burden to put on one lady's (beautiful) shoulders, if you ask us. If you want to know more about Helen, check out what we've got to say about her over in the "In a Nutshell" section, or in our mythology learning guide.
H.D.'s short poem is all Helen, all the time, so the title is pretty fitting in our humble opinion. And it's also in keeping with H.D.'s habit of keeping her titles short and sweet, like "Oread" and "Sea Rose."
"Helen" is about the Greek opinion of Helen of Troy, ex-Greek, current Trojan, who lives in Troy… or at least she did in the wayback days. So where does this poem take place? Not really anywhere we can point to on a map. That's because this one's about thoughts and feelings. It's not about action. We don't hear about the fantastic battles, the Trojan horse—any of that violent stuff, and we don't hear about the scenery, which is kind of a bummer, since we hear Ancient Greece is beautiful this time of year.
When we read "Helen," we have to remember that this vision of Helen is all in the Grecian people's minds. We read about a few traditionally Greek items—olives, cypresses—but on the whole the poem is interested in describing Helen, not Greece itself.
Interestingly, the poem is written in the present tense. The first line of the poem is "All Greece hates"—and not, for example, "All Greece hated." So the poem feels very ongoing to us, even though Helen is a figure from the very distant past. The effect of this is that the poem feels so incredibly relevant; Helen is as important a figure today for Grecians (and the world) as she was thousands of years ago. That tells us about the sheer power of myth. Helen, who may not have ever existed, seems just as alive today as she did thousands of years ago, in legends.
We don't know too much about the speaker of "Helen." We don't know if the speaker's male or female, but we'll refer to the speaker as "she," just to keep things simple.
What we can say about the speaker for sure, though, is that she's very detached. Her language is spare and direct. We feel sometimes like we're getting a list of facts ("All Greece hates," then, "All Greece reviles"). And the basic horribleness of these facts—that Greece can't stand Helen through no fault of her own—is enough to make us empathize with Helen. We feel for her, not because the speaker asks us to, but because we just can't argue with the awful truth.
Our speaker is calm, cool, and collected, and yet she still inspires strong feelings in her readers. She's pretty powerful, if you ask Shmoop.
H.D.'s "Helen" doesn't have any fancy two-dollar words. It doesn't have some crazy rhyme scheme or meter. It doesn't have off-the-wall references (besides the reference to, you know, Ms. Helen of Troy herself), and the poem itself is pretty short.
But the poem's very spareness—the fact that it's only eighteen lines, that there aren't many words, that the words are so basic and simple-seeming—can actually make interpreting the poem a bit tricky. How can you interpret a poem in which there's not that much actual poem?
Never fear; Shmoop's here. If you're intimidated by H.D.'s spare style, check out our line-by-line "Summary" of the poem. We'll help you read between those lines.
There aren't many words in H.D.'s poems, but the words that are there pack a punch. H.D. is known for doing more with less, and she was one of the founders of the Imagist movement of poetry, which was focused on vivid imagery (check!) and an economy of language (check!).
If you're digging H.D.'s short and intense "Helen," you might want to check out her similarly short and intense "Sea Rose". It's a quick one, and its plain language belies its complex issues—just as "Helen" does.
"Helen" is written in free verse. It has no regular rhyme scheme or meter. That doesn't mean that it's a crazy mess, though. Few good poems are really crazy messes, even if they are in free verse. And H.D. was never one to play it fast and loose with a line. The poem is actually held together by the repetition of sounds (check out the "Sound Check" section) and more than a hint of the centuries-old blazon form.
What's a blazon? We're so glad you asked. A blazon is basically a list of a lovely lady's body parts in a poem. (Poets like Spenser dug blazons; Shakespeare liked to make fun of them.) A blazon will catalog and praise the parts of a woman's body—her shining eyes, her rosy cheeks, her voluptuous curves.
Like Shakespeare before her, H.D. plays with the traditional blazon form, and turns it inside out. Instead of enumerating and praising Helen's body parts, the speaker of "Helen" enumerates them and disses them (on behalf of "all Greece"). By the end of the poem, Greece sees Helen as a white, cold, still, deathly statue. Yeah, she's not exactly a bombshell anymore. And the result of this messed-up blazon is that something beautiful—Helen—turns into something ugly—death. Greece contorts the traditional blazon form, just as it contorts Helen's beauty, which means that H.D. is oh-so-cleverly weaving together her form and content in "Helen."
"Helen" is all about Helen. Well, really it's all about Helen's body. Because it's a blazon (see "Form and Meter" for more on that), the poem catalogs the features of Helen's form. Unfortunately that means we actually know diddlysquat about Helen's heart and mind though. Frankly, this isn't so surprising; Helen, after all, is known as the most beautiful woman ever to grace this earth. She's "the face that launched a thousand ships." No wonder no one cares about her brains.
We usually think of the mythological Helen as a beautiful and vibrant young woman, but in H.D.'s work, she's deathly still. As the poem progresses, she seems increasingly like a stone or marble statue of a woman, rather than a real, live lady. And when the poem anticipates Helen's death in its last stanza, it almost seems expected. Helen is so devoid of life throughout the poem that the image of her body-turned-to-ash is not even all that surprising.
"Helen" is a poem about Helen of Troy, the foxiest lady ever, but it's not exactly a poem that'll get your heart racing. Helen's beauty in the poem is cold and still and almost deathly. But hey, if you find Helen's "slenderest knees" to be appealing, you can go ahead and knock this one up to a PG.