Study Guide

To Helen Themes

  • Love

    Helen, Psyche, beauty—"To Helen" is chock full of references to love, mostly of the, ahem, mythical kind. All these references to mythological love, while they sound cool, are a bit depressing. They aren't real! In other words, the poem describes a love that is ideal, that is more of a fantasy than a reality (remember that Poe had his friend's mom in mind, after all). This doesn't mean it can't be awesome and beautiful and fun to think about, though. Right?

    Questions About Love

    1. Poe met Jane Stanard when he was 14. Does this poem describe the feelings of a teenager or an adult? Is a teenager even capable of the emotions described here? Why or why not?
    2. Why does the speaker change Helen's name to Psyche in the poem's last stanza?
    3. Does the speaker's emphasis on Helen's looks (hair, face, beauty) make him seem shallow at all? Why or why not?
    4. Is it possible that the speaker isn't really in love and is just infatuated? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Love can be a dangerous business! The names Helen and Psyche remind us of powerful love affairs but also of war, violence, and suffering.

    Sometimes, love is just too perfect to be real. All the mythological references in this poem imply that love is a myth—an ideal or fantasy.

  • Exile

    Nobody is forced to leave town in "To Helen," but the speaker nevertheless describes an experience that sure sounds like exile. He compares himself to a "weary way-worn wanderer" and points out that he's done a lot of roaming. Helen's beauty is the key to his return. Hmm. It sounds like exile, smells like exile, but in this poem it's more of the metaphorical variety. In other words, the speaker realizes that, before he met Helen, he felt alone, banished, excluded—in short, like an exile.

    Questions About Exile

    1. Do the speaker's references to roaming the seas and that sort of thing sound ridiculous or exaggerated at all? If so, why?
    2. Just what, exactly, has the speaker been exiled from?
    3. What does the speaker mean when he says he has been brought back "home" to Greece and Rome? 
    4. Have you ever felt the way speaker does in this poem? If so, how does his description match with yours? How might it be different?

    Chew on This

    The speaker feels like an exile before he meets Helen. This implies that life itself is a form of exile, until we meet somebody we love, find our other half, make a love match, get a hit on our eHarmony page, etc.

    Exile is about feelings more than anything else. The speaker isn't a literal exile, but his feelings of loneliness and desperation certainly resemble those of someone who is looking to get back to the comfort and safety of home.

  • Art and Culture

    Art is all over the place in "To Helen." The first stanza contains a complicated allusion to the Roman poet Catullus, another one to a famous woman from Greek mythology and literature (Helen), and, possibly, yet another one to the famous Greek hero Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses). In the last stanza the speaker compares Helen to a statue, and he even mentions an agate lamp, which sure sounds like a work of art to us. The poem is about love, but it's also about art, and about how we use art as a way of thinking about, and describing, our world.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. The speaker compares Helen to a statue. Do you see this as a compliment? (After all, statues are essentially lifeless.) Why or why not? To what kind of art work would you compare somebody you loved?
    2. Some scholars believe that Jane Stanard (the inspiration for "To Helen") encouraged Poe to write poetry. How does the Helen of the poem inspire our speaker's poetic language?
    3. Does the speaker think of Helen's face and hair as works of art? How can you tell?
    4. Who is the bigger artist in this poem: Helen (for her beauty) or the speaker (who is the one that describes that beauty)? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    It is dangerous to compare people to works of art for it can make them seem less human. At times, Helen seems unreal—plastic, y'all.

    "To Helen" shows how people often use art in order to understand the world around them. Thanks, art!