Analysis of Helen's Metamorphoses throughout the Ages
Over time, attitudes towards Helen have changed. Her story seems to be a fluid one in that ideas have not been steady and they run into one another. Before Stesichorus, everyone was certain that Helen had spent 10 years with Paris in Troy. Some believed she did so willingly, some contended that she had no choice but to accompany Paris to Troy. Stesichorus, and later Euripides, decided that Helen had been whisked off to Egypt in order to keep Paris from his prize leaving a phantom cloud behind in her place to confuse him. This idea was accepted by some and abandoned by others. Some refer to it even in modern times as Edgar Allan Poe does in "To Helen," written in 1948, but this does not seem to be a popular one, as many people are still not aware of this twist. At some points, she is seen as intelligent as in "Helen of Troy" bye Sarah Teasdale and sometimes evil as in H.D.s poem. The following are relatively modern pieces of artwork which show these changes in Helen's character over the years.
Edgar Allan Poe- The first poems we will look at deal with Helen through the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe. Both of these poems are entitled "To Helen." The first was written in 1831. Click here to read this poem. It is unclear who the speaker of this poem is, but he admires Helen for her beauty. He is familiar with both the Greek and Roman worlds and he looks back on the "Nicean barks of yore," signifying that he is not a contemporary of Helen. This poem does not delve deeply into Helen's thoughts. Nor does it attempt to narrate the story or explain the emotions or actions of those involved. It seems to read as a fan letter of sorts. It is a rather shallow and superficial interpretation of Helen. The speaker praises Helen for her outward beauty and sites attributes that are well known. The speaker treats Helen like more of an object than a person and even refers to her as "statue-like" in line 12. In the first stanza she is described more like rich, imported goods than a living, breathing person. Perhaps Helen is referred to as Psyche in line 14 because Psyche was also spurned for her superior beauty according to Roman myth.
To see Edgar Allan Poe's second poem by the name of "To Helen," click here. This second poem was written in 1848. The speaker of this poem has a more intimate relationship with Helen than did the speaker of the 1831. I believe the speaker to be Paris. He claims to have seen Helen only once many years ago. She is dressed entirely in white, perhaps reflecting her innocence at this point in time. Paris lingers near the place that Helen is lying and is struck by her loveliness. Suddenly Helen is transformed into a phantom and glides away. This element of Poe's poem is a surely a product of works by Euripides and Stesichorus in which Hera punishes Paris for his decision by putting the real Helen in Egypt, and presenting him with a mere cloud or phantom in Helen's place without him ever knowing. The speaker of this poem is haunted by Helen's eyes, which he says never leave him. He expresses much regret for having stopped to gaze at the beautiful Helen to begin with. His tone is full of grief for what has unfolded in years since his encounter with Helen, remorse for having met her in the first place, and awe and wonder at having had the opportunity to lay eyes on her so many years ago.
The second of these poems reflects more feeling and emotion than the first and similarly offers more of a story. The second is more personal and consequential. There are fewer classical allusions and more descriptive passages explaining the scene and the developing situation. Neither of these poems thrusts blame on Helen for what happens as a result of her beauty. She is more of an unattainable beauty than someone who deserves to be hated in these poems and is not necessarily seen as the cause the deaths of thousands of lives.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)- In a poem called "Helen," written in 1924 by H.D, the speaker expresses absolutely no sympathy for Helen. The speaker, almost certainly a contemporary of Helen and says that s/he will not be happy until Helen is dead and buried. I assume that the speaker is a Greek, because the lives of the many Trojans who died in the Trojan War are not addressed. According to this poem, Greece hates Helen for possessing such beauty that would cause Paris to enter her life and take her to Troy thus starting a long bloody war that would ultimately cost many lives of Greek men.
Helen's beautiful white skin is contrasted with the "lustre as of olives where she stands." I take this to allude to her beauty contrasted with the baseness of the other less elegant things around her. Even after death, Helen will have beautiful attributes, namely her white ashes. The second stanza reveals Greece's utter lack of concern for Helen's well being. It shows Greece to be rather hypocritical, despising Helen for her beauty, and intensifying this hatred only when she loses it. They hate her "wan face when she smiles, hating it deeper still, when it grows wan and white." The only way Helen can escape this treatment is though death.
Though Helen is, according to most accounts, the product of the rape of Leda by Zeus, she is not seen as a victim in H.D's work. Zeus seems to take no part in the guilt of what occurred due to his lusting after Leda. The speaker of the poem refers to Helen as "God's daughter, born of love." All the blame is thrust on Helen and Leda's rape is perversely considered love.
Helen is given no compassion in this poem by H.D, but this only encourages us to pity and sympathize with her. Everyone loves an underdog. Each time Helen takes a verbal blow in this poem, we root for her a little more. Although Helen is not seen as a victim in the poem, we begin to see her that way after we read it.
Sara Teasdale- we begin to root for Helen in Teasdale's "Helen of Troy" as well. But rather than pity, we feel something more a long the lines of admiration for her. Teasdale presents women in a positive light, with the power to take charge of their lives and make changes. Helen is displayed with a wealth of emotion and is portrayed as a strong, intelligent woman aware of people's conceptions of her. Teasdale's Helen knows what she must do to turn her life around and the confidence with which she describes it leads us to believe that she can do it.
"Helen of Troy" is written by Helen's point of view and explores the workings of her mind. Helen blames many, both divine and mortal, for her situation - including herself. She knows the gods have been torturing her from her maidenhood, keeping her from rest and peace. They despise her due to her half-immortal birth. They have not let her die and achieve peace as Helen claims that the gods let other women die. She also blames her mother, Leda. She sees Leda as the cause of her beauty and her beauty the cause of her troubles. Therefore, Leda carries some of the blame. Helen does not give reasons as to why she should be blamed for all that has happened, but it is obvious that she feels guilt. She says that no woman has "wrought such havoc on the earth as" she.
At this point in the poem, she pleads for her death, but she quickly changes her mind. She sees that even a tortuous life is much more productive than a simple death. Death would mean giving up any chance at remedying the situation, though it would be easier. She hopes to one day win the hearts of the Greeks who hate her now, but loved her once. This Helen is beautiful yet intelligent. She refuses to be broken.
She is no longer angry at the heavens and the world. She has progressed to the point at which she no longer expects humans to see her for anything more than a nicely shaped body. She recognizes that she is the "sum of their desire, the whole of beauty," and knows all to well the lengths they will go to possess her. She is also aware that she plays a starring role in their dreams.
In this version of Helen's story, Helen awaits Menelaus' sword. He has vowed to kill her when he finds her as punishment for having run off with Paris. However, she knows that he will not slay her. She has him wrapped around her little finger. When he finally reaches her, she plans to disrobe and her beauty alone will act as a shield, warding off his sword. In this way, she hopes to win him over and have him carry her back to Sparta to "conquer Greece again."
To see "The New Helen," a poem by Oscar Wilde, Click here.
There is a song in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well devoted to the beautiful Helen. The words of this song portray Helen as beautiful, yet deceitful in her ways. The clown character of this play finds it hard to believe that Steward could be enticed by the beauty of Helen. The clown believes Helen is deceitful and persuasive like the serpent of Genesis. This song can be found in Act 1.3 of All's Well that Ends Well.
In the picture you see above, the fair -armed Helen is the sanctuary Paris chooses in order to flee from his brother Hector who is full of rage at Paris for fleeing from battle. Going back to Homer's ideal excellence, where manliness is a desired quality, Paris fails unlike his wife Helen. For it is Helen that is shielding Paris from his brothers rising anger.
Above is shown a picture of Helen being led away from Menelaus by Paris. She is being abducted by the persuasive Paris. Perhaps this is a more sympathetic view of Helen because she is being forcibly drawn away from her home and dragged onto the ship of Paris, rather than leaving of her own free will as she does in some accounts.
In Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare writes a song for the beautiful Helen. In the text of the play Helen is portrayed as beautiful yet deceitful in her ways. The clown character in Shakespeare's play finds it hard to believe that Steward, also a character in Shakespeare's play, could be enticed by the beauty of Helen. The clown believes that Helen is deceitful and persuasive like the serpent of Genesis. You can find this song in Shakespeare's play, All's Well that Ends Well, in chapter I.3 that attributes to the beauty of Helen, for Shakespeare adored her so.
The musical instrumentation for the song appearing in All's Well That Ends Well can be found in the Cole Library in the LP Collection section, call number 2030.
In both a recent production of Euripides' Women of Troy directed by Annie Castledine and Annabel Arden and a modern rendition of Robert Auletta's English version of Aeschulus' Agamemnon directed by Francois Rochaix, Helen is compared to Marilyn Monroe. In Agamemnon, Helen is described as "signing autographs with her eyes."
Part B: Analysis
Edgar Allen Poe's To Helen shows us a rather superficial, shallow interpretation of Helen. In the first stanza, she is described like rich, imported goods. She is not given any personality traits. The line that describes Helen as "statue-like" also contributes to this point. It seems that in this poem she is not even a living breathing person. She is merely a beautiful, sought after object. This poem is not meant to tell the story of Helen of Troy or to explain any feelings behind it. It is more of a love poem designed to praise Helen.
Helen of Troy, by Sara Trasdale, provides us with a very different view of Helen. This poem is written from Helen's point of view and it explores the workings of her mind. Trasdale's Helen is beautiful, but intelligent. She is remorseful for the grief that has resulted from her beauty, but she knows that it was not her fault. Though at one point she asks the gods to "give death to her," she quickly recants and decides to "live on to conquer Greece again, To make people love, Who hate [her] now." She is strong and refuses to be broken. This is Helen is given more depth of character and the audience of the poem is made to feel sympathy and love for her.
The speaker of Heliodora is full of hate and venom for the beautiful Helen. The speaker blames Helen for the Trojan War and the deaths that resulted from it. She is given absolutely no sympathy for being taken from her home in Argos and detained in Troy for twenty years. Rather she is treated with disdain and hate and the speaker makes it clear that nobody will be happy until she is dead.
In Picture number three we see a side of Helen that reveals her innocence. Unlike most of the stories about Helen she is being dragged away by her captor, Paris. This allows us to believe that Helen is a virtuous wife to her husband, Menelaus. In some accounts she is portrayed as an adulteress enjoying her twenty years with Paris and the Trojans, as she appears in pictures number two and four. In picture number one we get the feeling that Helen is just a face and not a person much like Edgar Allan Poe's representation of her in his poem "To Helen".. .
Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy were both sought after for their beauty. Neither of them enjoyed the effect that their beauty had on the men, nevertheless they were held responsible for it. Helen and Marilyn both considered death as a way of dealing with the guilt they each felt inside. A guilt that resulted from the beauty that is only skin deep.
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