"Helen, Thy Beauty Is To Me Like Those Nicean Barks Of Yore"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: This poem was inspired by Poe's idealized love for Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard, a Richmond neighbor of Poe and the mother of a schoolmate, who had died in 1824, when the poet was fifteen years old. Though only in his early twenties, Poe felt, after his quarrels with his foster father, Allan, his removal from the University of Virginia, and his experiences in the army, that he was already a "weary, wayworn wanderer" on the sea of life. His memory of his boyhood devotion to an older woman and of her kindness to him is symbolized by the beauty of the "Helen" of the poem, who brings the wanderer back to "his own native shore." This return is the theme of the first stanza, with its famous epithet of "Nicean" inserted for its romantic, evocative effect. In the second stanza, the beauty of the heroine shifts to the classic world: "Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,/ Thy Naiad airs. . . ." In the third, it changes again to a type associated with Psyche, the Soul, from Greek mythology. This short poem is considered by many critics to be Poe's greatest. The first stanza is:

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