Analysis of Hilda Doolittle’s “Helen”
The beautiful Helen of Troy has been the subject for many poems and artists over the centuries. Her fabled beauty created a war that collapsed one ancient civilization and renewed the conflicts among the gods of Olympus. Many writers have attempted to characterize her both physically and mentally, and from all of these the reader amasses a construct of what Helen may have been like. Hilda Doolittle’s poem “Helen” contributes to this body of work in ways that other poets have not.
Helen of Troy, was the daughter of the god Zeus and Leda. She was married to Menelaus, the King of Sparta, but fell in love with Paris, who was promised Helen by the goddess Aphrodite. She willingly left with Paris, but the Trojans pronounced it a kidnapping and declared war, the famous Trojan War.
Many other poets have written about Helen. The majority of these poems comment upon her beauty, her status, and her love. Some personas in these poems seem to love Helen; others admire her while still others seek her out for safety or inspiration. He status to them seems worthy of her godly heritage. This poem, however, deviates from this norm in that Helen is not so revered.
As the title initially suggest, this poem represents an observation on Helen. Helen has become such a common allusion in literature that it is not even necessary to give additional words in the title to explain “which Helen?” or “from which time period?” Helen is Helen – there is no confusion whatsoever associated with her name.
The poem of three stanzas is unrhyming, with enjambment in many of the lines. The stanzas do not have a consistent number of lines. This serves to create the feel of prose without a defined rhythm as the reader reads the poem. Thus the poem carries a more serious and solemn tone that would be lessened by a rhythmic and rhyming structure. Such a structure would make the poem sound more like a song, and even though this poem could be viewed as a type of song, it is not lighthearted.
Also, the subject, or persona, who is observing Helen, is soon discovered to be all of Greece, instead of just one individual or a small group. This metonymy, Greece, in line one represents all the people of Greece, a united nation. It implies that all of these people, when observing Helen, have the same feelings about her.
Oddly, these feelings are not the rapt awe with which so many individuals have treated this mythically beautiful figure. The child of the highest God, Helen’s beauty is set as the highest standard for all women. However, this is not the focus of the observers. Instead of being floored by her looks, they are consumed by hatred. Line one makes this statement in no uncertain terms in the first line of each of the first two stanzas:
“All Greece hates/” (line 1)
“All Greece reviles/” (line 6).
These words are not euphemized in any way. The diction is clear and powerful, and a digression from the usual. The reader is struck by the emotion in these words and perhaps feels an amount of sympathy for Helen as she stands to endure this treatment. This sympathy is definitely not shared by those that judge her.
One may assume that Greece hates Helen because she caused the Trojan War. An unfaithful wife and mother, she is smitten with Paris and runs away with him. To save face, Menelaus goes after her, losing many men in the process. The selfish acts of this woman are referenced in lines 9 and 10 which describe Greece as
“remembering past enchantments
and past ills.”
The reader understands that this hatred derives from her role in causing the disruption of life and the deaths of many individuals, including her lover Paris.
Another assumption that the reader can make is that all of Greece may be jealous of Helen. Each stanza, while remarking about hatred, also makes reference to her physical attributes. The speaker remarks in stanza one upon
“the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives/where she stands,
and the white hands” (lines 2-4)
and in stanza three upon
“the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,” (lines 14-15).
Pale, white skin, the coloring and brightness of her eyes, and the shapeliness of her legs and feet are outward symbols of what Helen’s peers found beautiful in a woman.
Even though modern audiences may disagree, this was the epitome of beauty during this time period. Thus, while the people may be claiming to hate her because of her lack of morality and her role in destroying lives, they must certainly be reflecting a bit of jealousy as well.
Another facet of this poem must be Helen’s reaction to this hatred. The ready may envision Helen as standing before her observers, feeling the revulsion emanating from them. In the first stanza, the speaker notes Helen’s “still eyes” (line 2). She appears to be creating a type of wall between the onlookers and herself, staring simply ahead and not looking about from face to face.
In stanza two it is noted that Helen smiles. Why does she do this? Is she smiling as a plea for mercy or is she smiling out of nervous fear? Stanza two as a whole seems fraught with ambiguity for the reader:
“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.” (lines 6-11).
Perhaps she is smiling as a form of mockery or even rebellion. The reader must interpret this for herself, but the reaction from Greece is apparent – it is part of their hatred of her. The reader must decipher of which reaction it speaks. The Greek people obviously remember these “ills” and “enchantments” with hatred, but the stanza seems to suggest that they are the reason that Helen smiles.
Therefore, Helen’s mysterious smile could be the result of her memory of Paris. Whichever interpretation is chosen, the Greek response is only negative. It is “unmoved” outwardly by the smile. Helen, too, appears unmoved by their hate.
The third and final stanza reflects on love which is set up as a contradiction to the hatred that Greece feels. The speaker acknowledges that Helen is
“God’s daughter, born of love”(line 13)
It seems almost sacrilegious to hate the daughter of their highest God. However, the final lines of the poem show Greece’s angry disregard for this idea. They
“could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funeral cypresses.” (lines 16-18)
These words seem to tease the reader with the idea that they could love, and in doing so forgive, Helen. The spin comes after that; they could only love her dead. In this last stanza, white no longer refers to beauty, but to death. To them, Helen will be beautiful in death only. Ironically, because of the very things that makes Greece hate her so, Helen has now become immortalized in the lines of poetry and mythology so many centuries later. Unknowingly, their hatred has further established Helen’s presence through this particular poem.
Helen’s presentation is certainly not one of regret or acquiescence. She stands still, like the many statues that were eventually erected in her likeness. It seems as if she is already becoming immortal through their words and hatred. As a woman, her position in society is subservient, so this type of reverence is rare in a patriarchy.
The use of the tree imagery is significant in this final stanza. They mirror her whiteness and her steadfastness while suggesting death and mourning. This juxtaposition seems to suggest that by opposing men in a man’s world, Helen has only one option – death. It also suggests that the child of a god may be even more scorned by mankind because of her perceived position of plenty. Ironically again, Helen’s birth, according to mythology, was the product of a rape, and Zeus did not ever take an interest in Helen or in her mother, who was so beautiful that Zeus could not help but ravage her.
Later, Helen’s seduction by Paris is understandable, as she was bound to a loveless marriage like so many other young girls in this type of society. The fact that she is able to break free of this enslavement is a huge source of anger, resentment and even jealousy by the Greek men and women. For this, she is the subject of their hatred. She almost takes on the quality of a type of martyr, sexual on the one hand but a Madonna on the other.
This poem reflects the conflict between love and hate. The Greeks loved Helen so much they fought for her return. However, after doing so, they come to hate her. She is revered for her beauty, but the Greeks claim that they can only love her dead. Finally, the daughter of a god sins in that she seeks love. Yet, love is not allowed for women, so she becomes a martyr in her own time. Only later does she become elevated to the heroine status that she now enjoys through mythological and literary allusion.