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Helen -- H D

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.
-- H D
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.


[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.


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!

31 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

George Suttle said...

Another worthy take on Helen and the Trojan War is W. B. Yeats' "Leda
and the Swan." In addition to its fine imagery ("a shudder in the
loins engenders there the broken wall, the burning tower" etc), it's
also interesting to realize it is a very formal sonnet, despite the
unusual line break towards the end.

George Suttle Assistant Librarian
Lucy Carson Library Western Montana College
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
-- William Butler Yeats

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