This week's theme: the Trojan War.
(Poem #449) Helen
All Greece hates the still eyes in the white face, the lustre as of olives where she stands, and the white hands. All Greece reviles the wan face when she smiles, hating it deeper still when it grows wan and white, remembering past enchantments and past ills. Greece sees unmoved, God's daughter, born of love, the beauty of cool feet and slenderest knees, could love indeed the maid, only if she were laid, white ash amid funereal cypresses.
Sometimes I think the true tragedy of the Iliad is not that of Hector, an honourable man ensnared (by his own loyalty) on the wrong side, but that of Helen - caught up in a conflict not of her own making, both sides treating her as a pawn or a prize to be won, all because of her (unasked-for) beauty... Any number of poems have been written about the aforementioned beauty (see the links section below, and, indeed, the remaining poems for this week); HD, though, presents another perspective on the matter. And like a good Imagist poem should, this poem suggests far more than it says - it provokes pity as much as it does awe, and it does both in a beautifully understated manner. Nice. thomas. [Note on Construction] This is not a completely irregular poem; there are rhymes, half- rhymes and assonances, internal resonances, the glimmerings of a stress pattern... through these, HD maintains a 'poetic' (no other word fits) lightness and ease of expression, while steering clear of the strict prosody which constrained most of her contemporaries. And this lightness is (despite the seriousness of the poem) perfectly suited to describing the greatest beauty of antiquity... form and content meet once again. Notice also the harshness of the first line of each stanza - 'All Greece hates', 'All Greece reviles', 'Greece sees unmoved' - these set the tone for the entire poem, and ensure that the descriptions of Helen's beauty in the ensuing lines evoke pity rather than desire or admiration. Again, skilfully done. [Links] The definitive poetic description of Helen of Troy is surely Marlowe's "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships" speech from Dr Faustus; you can read it at poem #75 Keats' sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is another famous evocation of time, distance and beauty (and a host of other things beside; no amount of prose can do justice to the sheer perfection of this poem); you can read it at poem #12 Yet another utterly wonderful poem on the same subject is Tennyson's "Ulysses", which is archived at poem #121. Tennyson's stock has gone down considerably since the 19th century, but there's no question that for the sheer music of his verse he has few rivals. And "Ulysses" is one of my favourite poems, think what I may of Tennyson. [Note on the Trojan War] At first blush this would seem a remarkably abstruse theme - one unlikely to supply even a single title, let alone three or four. But such is Homer's place at the wellspring of Western culture that there's no shortage of poems celebrating (or otherwise) this seminal event. Enjoy!