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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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!