Study Guide

To Helen

To Helen Summary

The poem opens with the speaker comparing Helen's beauty to some ships that transported a lonely wanderer back home. In the second stanza, the speaker again compares himself to a lonely man for whom Helen's beauty has functioned like a saving grace (this time, her hair and face remind him of ancient Greece and Rome). In the third stanza, the speaker describes Helen standing in a "window-niche" (11), looking like a statue and like a beautiful woman from Greek mythology (Psyche).

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Helen, thy beauty is to me
    Like those Nicean barks of yore

    • The poem begins with the speaker talking to a woman named Helen, whose beauty has been to him "like those Nicean barks of yore." 
    • Before we say anything else, note that the comparison uses the word "like," which means that it's a simile.
    • Also, we'll go ahead and tip you to the fact that this simile is going to go on for almost five lines.
    • A long simile like this is called an epic or Homeric simile (after the Greek poet Homer). They call it an epic simile because, well, it's epic—long, grand, grandiose, marvelous, maravilloso.
    • Now that we've gone on our own little epic detour, let's get back to all those strange words.
    • First off, Poe is not referring to a real woman named Helen, but to a woman named Jane Stanard, the mother of one of his childhood friends. Poe would later claim that she was his first love. Keep in mind that he fell in love with her when he was about fourteen years old! Some scholars think that Jane Stanard was the first person to encourage Poe to write poetry. (For more on this, check out our "In a Nutshell" section.)
    • So wait a minute—if her name was Jane, why does he call her Helen?
    • In ancient Greek mythology, Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world. 
    • She was so beautiful, in fact, that a guy from across the sea named Paris kidnapped her and took her back to Troy (a mythical city located in what is now Turkey).
    • (Trivia note: the modern city of Paris, France is not named after this thieving Paris from Asia.)
    • Anyway, Paris' bold move sparked a ten-year conflict known as the Trojan War, one of the most important events in Greek mythology. It is the subject of one of the most famous epic poems ever written, Homer's Iliad. (And no, this Homer is not to be confused with Homer Simpson.)
    • You can read all about Helen and the Trojan War here.
    • But what about those "Nicean barks"? "Barks" is an old word that means "boats" or "ships" (this is probably because the Latin word for "ship" is barca).
    • "Nicean" is not some weird form of the word "nice," but an adjective meaning "from Nicaea." Nicaea was ancient city on the west coast of Turkey. Its modern name is Iznik. 
    • So, Poe compares Helen's beauty to some ships from Nicaea? Weird, weird, weird.
    • How can beauty be like a ship? Does it sail? Let's keep reading and see if he explains it for us.

    Lines 3-5

    That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
    The weary way-worn wanderer bore
    to his own native shore.

    • Those barks "gently" carried ("bore") a "weary, way-worn wanderer" back home ("native shore"). 
    • Ah, so when the speaker compares Helen's beauty to a ship, he doesn't mean she's as pretty as its hull, or its sails. He means that her beauty is like a ship that transports a tired, worn-out guy home.
    • So, the speaker feels like a guy who has been travelling for a long time and just wants to get home? Yes, siree. And Helen's beauty metaphorically takes him there. It makes him feel safe, back where he belongs.
    • Note that the words "that" and "bore" go with the "Nicean barks" of line 2. The short version of the sentence is "the Nicean barks […] that […] bore."
    • It's pretty clear that Poe has a particular story in mind, but scholars can't seem to agree about the exact reference of Poe's simile. You see, there are two possible explanations for Poe's allusion.
    • Option #1: When he was young, Poe was an accomplished Latinist (meaning he was really good at Latin). One Latin poet that Poe almost certainly read was a guy named Catullus (kuh-tull-us), who lived from 84BC-54BC. 
    • At some point in his life, Catullus spent some time around the area of Nicaea. When he sailed home, he probably sailed in a ship made of wood ("barks") from the area. And, he probably sailed close to the coast and near islands where flowers and fruit trees were in bloom. The seas would seem "perfumed" as a result of the odors coming from those places. And in some of his poems Catullus talks poems about being tired, worn out, and just wanting to get home. 
    • So, this stanza might be an allusion to Catullus.
    • Option #2: The other possible reference for Poe's cryptic comment is the famous Greek hero named Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses). 
    • He fought in the Trojan War, which is roughly in the same area as Nicaea.
    • After the war, it took him ten years to get home (that's quite a trek), so he would be the best-known "weary, way-worn wanderer" in the Western Canon.
    • (Term alert! All those w's in line 4? That's alliteration, folks.)
    • The problem with this possibility, though, is that Odysseus didn't actually take a Nicean ship home, but a Phaecian one! Some super-clever scholars believe, however, that "Nicean" is an alternate or corrupt form of "Phaecian." Phew! That's a lot of information for only a few lines. Never underestimate the Poe Monster, gang! We'll leave it to you to decide which allusion you think makes the most sense. 
    • Whoops! Just one last thing before we go.
    • Did you notice any rhyme in reading this stanza? Really? Us too! The rhyme scheme is ABABB (where A and B represent the two end rhyme sounds you get here).
  • Stanza 2

    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).
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 11-12

    Lo, in yon brilliant window-niche
    How statue-like I see thee stand,

    • The speaker is floored by Helen's beauty as he sees her standing in the "window niche" (like a nook).
    • Saying "Lo" is like saying OMG when you all of a sudden see something astonishing. 
    • Helen is standing "statue-like," which means both that she resembles a work of art and that she is not moving at all.
    • Pssst: this comparison here with the word "like" tells us that we've got a simile on our hands, just in case anybody asks. 
    • Why is Helen like a statue? Is the speaker in one of those reveries you see in the movies where everything seems to stand still?
    • Could be, but she's also statue-like because she's as beautiful as a work of art—proportionate, perfectly crafted, and just totally hot.

    Lines 13-15

    The agate lamp within thy hand!
    Ah! Psyche, from the regions which
    Are Holy Land!

    • Helen also has an "agate lamp" in her hand. How nice for her. Uh, what's an agate lamp?
    • Well, an agate is a type of rock, usually one that contains a lot of colors. It's hard to explain without looking at it, so here's a picture of not just an agate, but an agate lamp. Got it? Good.
    • The speaker also calls Helen "Psyche," and says she is from "regions" that are "Holy Land." Huh? 
    • As you've maybe guessed, Psyche is an important figure in Greek mythology. 
    • We'll give you the short version here, but if you want to read the long version, check out our section on Cupid and Psyche at Shmoop Mythology. 
    • Okay, so Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite, goddess of love) got mad at the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, Psyche. As it turns out, Psyche was so unbelievably hot that everybody just sort of forgot about Venus which made her (Venus) really upset.
    • We should also add that Venus was also, like, a total babe. How could a goddess not be? Well, poor them. Must be tough being beautiful and immortal.
    • Sheesh!
    • In order to punish Psyche, Venus sent her son Cupid to shoot an arrow at Psyche and make her fall in love with something really ugly (like a bull).
    • Yes, Cupid is that little kid with the wings who shoots arrows at people to make them fall in love.
    • He went down to carry out his mother's sinister plan, but when he saw Psyche he was so taken with her beauty that he accidentally poked himself with the arrow and fell in love with her.
    • Eventually, Cupid and Psyche got a place together (Venus was not happy about this at all, so they tried to keep it a secret). 
    • Cupid told Psyche that she couldn't ever look at him, and so all of their interactions took place in the dark. This was for Psyche's safety.
    • Still, Psyche got curious, and one night took an agate lamp (in some versions) and shined a light on little Cupid. 
    • She also accidentally burned him with some oil from the lamp and it took him forever to heal (even though he's all immortal and such).
    • Psyche's curiosity created a whole bunch of problems, and she had to endure more punishments from Venus until finally Zeus (the boss man) intervened and made Psyche immortal so she and Cupid could be together forever.
    • So, by calling Helen "Psyche," the speaker essentially compares himself to a little Cupid. 
    • This is a perfect story for comparison because it involves a beautiful woman and a younger boy.
    • Remember, Poe met "Helen" when he was a young boy, and she was his friend's mother. 
    • In the second stanza, the speaker had compared Helen to "Naiads," divine creatures, but now he compares her to a mortal, Psyche. 
    • He also, implicitly, compares himself to a god (without saying so though). Talk about a pat on his own back!
    • This allusion makes Helen seem a little more… real. Psyche was a mortal, after all, who only became a goddess later. But, then again, Helen still seems a little unreal because Psyche was a mortal who eventually became, you know, a goddess.
    • Now, before we sign off, here are some other details to consider: 
    • The phrase "from the regions which / Are Holy Land" is a bit confusing. What Holy Land? Where is this place? Virginia?
    • Knowing what we know about the myth of Cupid and Psyche, the "Holy Land" probably refers to some place in the heavens where all the gods and goddesses live. The speaker implies that Helen has descended from her home in the clouds to visit the world of mortals.
    • In other words, this Helen-Psyche-Jane Stanard character is so unbelievably beautiful that she must have come down from the heavens.
    • That's a sweet sentiment, isn't it?
    • Oh, just in case you were wondering, this stanza also has a unique rhyme scheme: ABBAB. 
    • Head over to "Form and Meter" to read more about the curious case of the changing rhyme scheme.