To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Was Edgar Allan Poe's poem, ''To Helen,'' really written to a woman named Helen? In this lesson, we'll take a look at the poem and the interesting history behind it, including a sneak peek at the woman for whom it was written.

A Different Kind of Poe

What do you think of when you hear the name 'Edgar Allan Poe'? Something dark and dreary? Maybe an ominous black bird like ''The Raven,'' or a man driven to madness in ''The Tell-Tale Heart''? You might even think of Poe's most famous short story, ''The Fall of the House of Usher,'' which features a creepy mansion and even creepier happenings inside.

Edgar Allan Poe was a noted poet in addition to being a storyteller.
edgar allan poe, to helen

Poe is most notable for his gory and bizarre, stories, the type that keep you up at night unable to sleep. But, did you know he had a talent for poetic writing as well? And, we're not talking about strange and bloody poems necessarily, but really eloquent poems about beauty, such as one comparing a female acquaintance to the beauty of the legendary Helen of Troy.

Let's look, first, at the poem.

''To Helen''

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy-Land!

This short, three-stanza poem, certainly seems to show that Poe is smitten by someone, doesn't it? In it, he is telling readers that this woman's beauty is like barks (or boats) that transport weary travelers back to their native lands across ''perfumed seas.''

You know that feeling you have when you get home after a long period of traveling? That's the wistfulness that Poe feels when he is thinking about this woman. She is like a comforting and delightful presence leading him home.

He compares this woman to the fragrant flower hyacinth and remarks about her glory and her grandeur, or magnificence. He sees her standing in a window and cannot help but admire her beauty.

The entire poem, which can be read in only a matter of minutes, appears to be an ode to someone in particular ... but who?

Analyzing Helen

At first glance, it might appear that Poe was writing about Greek mythology's Helen of Troy herself, whose beauty was well-known across the world. She is described in various sources as the most beautiful woman in the world, someone who was greatly desired by everyone who saw her. (In fact, her beauty was so pervasive that it ended up starting a war, but we'll leave that for another lesson.)

However, if you go just a bit deeper, you'll see that not only was Poe commenting about a beauty on par with Helen of Troy, but that his poem is in reference to his own personal Helen and not Helen of Troy at all.

''To Helen,'' which speaks of Poe's infatuation with another woman, was actually written about Jane Stanard, the mother of one of his childhood friends, Robert.

Stanard is believed to have been a comfort to Poe, who spent a lot of time at the Standards' house as a child. She would listen to, and pay attention to Poe, which is all a child really wants, isn't it? In a letter to Helen Whitman in 1848, Poe revealed his muse, or the subject of ''To Helen,'' calling Stanard the ''first, purely ideal love of my soul.''

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