"To Helen" is a love poem. It's got all the classic sounds of one, from the enumeration of attributes ("thy beauty," "thy […] hair," "thy […] face," "thy […] airs") to grandiose assertions about the effect of Helen's beauty on the speaker (the whole bit about being a "weary, way-worn, wanderer" comes to mind). There are also other ways in which this poem sounds like love, too.
Consider the various forms of repetition in the poem. First, there's alliteration (the repetition of the first letter): "weary way-worn wanderer" (4), "hyacinth hair" (7), and "glory…Greece" (9). Then there's assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds): "hyacinth" and "Naiad" (7, 8), "long wont" (6), "agate lamp" (13), "hair" and "air" (7,8). Then of course you have all the end rhymes, which we talk all about in our "Form and Meter" section. The effect of all these sound echoes in the poem is an impression that, on a sonic level, everything seems to fit together. Really, that kind of unity shouldn't be too surprising in a love poem. Just read it out loud and tell us it doesn't seem like the sounds of the poem are in love with themselves, in the same way the speaker is in love with Helen.
The poem's final stanza is also crucial to the poem's soundscape. Notice that he keeps interjecting, and each time he sounds like he's stunned, moved, or totally floored: "Lo" (11), "How statue-like" (12), and that swooning "Ah." That's what people either think or say to themselves when they see something incredible, something that they love. These are all sounds of awe, reminding our ears just how super-incredible our speaker thinks Helen is.
"To Helen" is more than a title, gang. It's a dedication! Everything in the poem (title included) is framed as a shout-out to a woman named Helen. But most critics and scholars are agreed that Poe was actually writing about (and to) a woman named Jane Stanard, not some random woman or classical reference. So why, then, does Poe call her Helen? Well, Poe was a big fan of ancient Greek mythology, which tells the story of a very beautiful Greek woman named Helen who was kidnapped by an Asian guy named Paris. All the Greeks banded together, sailed to Asia (western Turkey), and fought against Paris's people (the Trojans) for ten years.
The whole deal with Helen for Poe, however, isn't the kidnapping or the war or any of that stuff, but the fact that the name Helen is pretty much synonymous with beauty. In fact, it's been like that for a really, really long time. The mythological Helen is one of the most famous symbols of beauty in all of western literature.
Poe renames Jane Stanard "Helen" then, because, well, it's a lot more poetic than the name "Jane" (sorry Ms. Austen); it has a lot more symbolic weight, so to speak. Just the very mention of the name invokes a classic tale of a woman whose face "launched a thousand ships," stirring two nations to war for crimminey's sakes.
While it's hard to understand that sort of story from a modern perspective, put it this way: it would be like naming your poem "To Brad Pitt" or "To Megan Fox"—rather than "To Jennifer"—in order to emphasize the extraordinary hotness of your significant other. Sure, naming a poem after Brad or Meg sounds sort of weird, but the Greek Helen that Poe almost certainly has in mind would have probably represented the same things for him that Pitt and Fox do for us—namely, crazy amounts of beauty.
Lots of places get mentioned, alluded to, conjured up, and hinted at in this short poem. Sometimes, it's more of a question of what isn't in here rather than what is. Some of the places mentioned are real, others not so much. The interplay between them, however, is what really matters.
Let's start with the latter, the made up locales, since they're more fun. The poem is stocked with mythological references, and every time the speaker drops one of those bombs we think of a particular place. Thus, when he says the name Helen, we think of Troy and the huge battles that took place there during the Trojan War (for more on this myth, see our "Detailed Summary"). Now, even though this place is semi-mythical, it still reminds us of the very real Mediterranean climate and vegetation, alluded to when the speaker talks about that "perfumed sea" (3).
The same pattern holds in the poem's second stanza. The speaker talks about Helen's "hyacinth hair" (7) and "Naiad airs" (8). Both remind us of mythological beings and places (an athletic event with gods in it, and strange forests haunted by river deities, respectively), but they also remind us of ancient Greece, the very real historical location. And, as if he could read our minds, the speaker mentions Greece (and Rome, for good measure) a few lines later. We momentarily have an image in our heads of the Roman coliseum and the Greek Parthenon (what else would be synonymous with "glory" and "grandeur"?).
The various settings of "To Helen," and the interplay between them, complement perfectly the speaker's treatment of Helen. On the one hand, she's a real woman—a real person who can stand in the window of a real house. On the other hand, she's practically a goddess, a woman straight out of some mythological fantasy, so beautiful she can't possibly be real! As we jump back in forth between our real and mythological settings, then, we're actually going back and forth along with the speaker in his alternating treatments of Helen. Pretty neat, huh? Now, who said settings weren't important?! Location, location, location…
What do we know about the speaker of this little gem of a poem? Well, actually quite a bit. First and foremost, he's, like totally in love with the woman he calls Helen. The remarks about her beauty in the first stanza, about her face and hair in the second, and the simile likening her to a beautiful statue all tell us that the speaker is very into his Helen. In a good way.
Not only is he in love, he's pretty darn educated, even sophisticated. Every stanza in this poem, for example, contains at least two classical allusions (Helen, Naiads, Psyche, to name just three). In a poem that's only fifteen lines long, that's quite a bit. And you know what else? They're not always the easiest allusions, either. That whole bit about the Nicean barks in the first stanza is pretty obscure. Scholars can't even agree on the speaker's particular reference—and it's their job to figure this stuff out! Check out our "Detailed Summary" for more on this thorny issue.
In addition, the speaker's classical references often allude to danger, love gone wrong, suffering—in short, bad stuff. Now, we wanna believe he's just being colorful, but, sadly, we can't help thinking the speaker has had some hard times in his life. Why, for example, would he implicitly compare himself to a "weary, way-worn wanderer" (4)? Hint: because he's had a rough time of it. Poor fellow!
So, we can see that the expression of affection in this poem is more than just a way to get on Helen's good side. He frames it as a shot at redemption and salvation. This gal ain't just another pretty face to him; she's represents safety, comfort, and an escape from all that previous woe. That's quite a woman!
"To Helen" isn't the easiest poem in the world, but it's not liable to make your brain explode with difficulty. The sentences aren't super-long and tricky or anything like that, but they do contain a lot of references and allusions that require a wee bit of explanation. This makes the poem perhaps seem difficult that it is, and we admit it is kind of annoying when every other line needs to be looked up for the reference. Once you get all the info that we give you in our "Detailed Summary," though, you'll find that the poem is really a pretty straightforward expression of good old fashioned love.
There was something about the name Helen that Poe really liked. He not only wrote the "To Helen" that we've been talking about, but also another poem in 1848 with the exact same title that you can read here. We should note that the short version we discuss in this module is much more famous than the other one, which is a lot longer. Unlike the first "To Helen," this one was actually addressed to a woman whose real name was Helen (well, Sarah Helen Whitman but close enough). The fact that Poe wrote two poems with the exact same title tells us something about his fascination with the name and, probably, all that it symbolizes (beauty most of all).
In addition to these two poems, Poe tossed the name around occasionally in his letters, usually when speaking of Jane Stanard, the woman who inspired the first "To Helen." Thus, in a letter to Sarah Helen Whitman (the name just keeps coming up!), he referred to Jane Stanard as "Helen Stanard." Moreover, in the same letter, he actually talks about the poem "To Helen"! Wow. Just think about this: he writes a letter to a woman named Helen, mentions another woman he calls Helen, and then talks about his poem "To Helen." Helen, Helen, Helen indeed!
A lot of "To Helen" is written in a meter called iambic tetrameter. This means that many of the lines contain four (tetra-) iambs. An iamb is a type of beat that contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (Say "allow" out loud to hear an example: da DUM.) You're probably familiar with iambic pentameter, the most common English meter. Well, iambic tetrameter is very similar, except there are four iambs instead of five. Line 8 is a perfect example:
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home.
If you look at some of the poem's other lines, however, you'll see that they don't always fit into the neat little tetrameter box. Take a look at line 1:
Helen thy beauty is to me.
You will notice that the line ends with two iambs, but what about the first part of the line? The first word contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable—i.e., the reverse of an iamb. This is called a trochee, and it sounds like DA dum. The second beat (or "foot," as it is sometimes called) contains two stressed syllables (DA DA). This is called a spondee. So, while we can say that iambic tetrameter is mostly what's happening in the rhythm here, it's certainly not the case throughout.
The same thing goes for the rhyme. "To Helen" contains three stanzas of five lines each, and they all rhyme. However, each stanza follows a slightly different rhyme scheme, or pattern. The scheme for the whole poem is as follows: ABABB CDCdC EFFEF. Each one of these letters stands for a line; all those marked "A" rhyme with each other, those marked "B" with each other, and so on. You'll notice also that there is a lower case "d" in there as well. This is because the word "Greece" only partly rhymes with the word "face"; this is often called a half rhyme, or slant rhyme, and, less commonly, imperfect rhyme or near rhyme. Just like the meter, then, the rhyme in this poem is something that changes as the poem progresses.
Okay, so why in the world does Poe change it up so much? Well, for starters, doing the same thing over and over again gets really, super-duper-boring. But that can't be the only reason, can it? Did you notice that each stanza describes Helen from a slightly different perspective? The first is all about how her beauty makes the speaker feel, the second describes her physical features, and third talks about how she's some kind of heavenly statue. Different perspectives should have different rhymes, don't you think? That makes sense to us!
The other thing to note is that the second stanza is the only one that has a slant rhyme ("face" and "Greece"). Now, Poe was a clever guy, and we'd be willing to bet that he could have found a way to make this work, but decided to leave it imperfect. Why? Well, it shows some doubt on behalf of the speaker. He's not sure Helen is totally, 100% like all the mythological beings to which he compares her. In a subtle way, he's letting us know that this praise is not something that the speaker, himself, buys into. Do you think that makes this poem more believable?
Oceans, boats, sailing—travel is everywhere in this poem. The speaker tells us that, before he met Helen, he felt like a guy roaming the ocean unable to get home (lost, confused, tortured). Her beauty, however, put an end to this long, hopeless part of his life and allowed him to finally get home. That, at least, is what he suggests. In addition, Helen's beauty transports the speaker to travel in another way as well. It reminds him of the "grandeur" of ancient Rome and ancient Greece. In a way, it allows him to travel back in time (metaphorically, of course).
"To Helen" reads like the world's shortest mythology textbook. Every stanza contains a reference to at least one important aspect of Greek mythology (Poe loved this stuff). This is not because the speaker wants to show off or anything like that (well, it kind of is). It's because Helen is so beautiful, and his life before he met her was so rough, that the only way to explain this situation is by mentioning fictional stories that feature super-hot, divine creatures (Naiads, Psyche, Helen) and a guy that has endured mythical suffering (our "weary, way-worn wanderer").
Well, we've got a nice love poem here that alludes to a whole lot of mythological love stories, but where's the sex? Sadly, there isn't any. None, zero, zilch, nein, nada. Still, we get what movie censors might call a "romantic situation," with the speaker pouring his heart out all over the page to the addressed. So, nothing's explicitly out there for all to see—except his bid for love.