Give an analysis aand summary of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "To Helen."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

 Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "To Helen," was inspired by the mother of one of his classmates.  When Poe was fourteen, he visited his friend at home and met the mother.   Mrs. Stanard urged Poe to write poetry.  When this poem was written, Poe reflected that Stanard was his first infatuation.

The poem's form consists of three quintrains with an irregular rhyme scheme. The first stanza follows the pattern: ABABB; the second, ABABA; and the third, ABBAB.  The musicality of the poem is pleasant and Poe’s vocabulary choice is soothing to the ear.  The alliteration emphasizes the calming impact of this woman’s beauty. His memorable lines recall the time of Odysseus and his travels:

Helen, thy beauty is to me,

   Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

  The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

  To his own native shore.

The theme of the poem is the elevation of a human woman to the status of a Greek goddess who represents the human soul. 

The first quintain

Poe uses a simile to compare Helen’s beauty to the ancient ships that sailed over a calm sea.  A reference is made to Odysseus and his travels home from the Trojan War which took him ten years. Beauty is the lasting legacy of Greece and Rome, and its supreme symbol is the most beautiful of women, Helen, daughter of Zeus, who brings the nomad home and inspires the poet.

The second quintain

When the man was at sea, he thought of Helen’s perfumed hair, her classic features, and her fairylike movements. All of these memories brought the sailor home again.

To the glory that Was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

These lines are two of the most famous in poetry describing the ancient civilizations and their love of beauty.

The third quintain

In a window nook, a statue of Helen stands holding a agate lamp. The poet compares Helen to Psyche, who  was the goddess of the soul. Helen’s lamp connects her to Greek mythology.  Psyche was forbidden to look at Eros.  One night, she  carried a torch to find out who Eros was, and she  looked at him.  Intially, Eros was angry with Psyche; however,   Psyche was given the gift of immortality, and Eros married her. The holy land is the realm of ideal beauty removed both by time and space form the ordinary world.  

The poem signifies the adoration of the poet for a beautiful woman.  His love for her is transcendent, more brotherly than sexual

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial