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.
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.
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).