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On "Helen"


Susan Stanford Friedman

"Helen" takes as its subject the woman who has been the literary and mythic symbol of sexual beauty and illicit love in western culture. Much has been written about her, but H.D.’s poem does something new: it implicitly attacks the traditional imagery of Helen and implies that such perspectives have silenced Helen’s own voice.

[. . . .]

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s poem about Helen, this poem draws a portrait with careful references to Helen’s eyes, face, hands, feet, and knees. But in contrast to Poe’s poem, H.D.’s Helen does not stand alone, unveiled before the adoring eyes of the male poet. Instead, she is accompanied by a hate-filled gaze that never leaves the beauty of her body. H.D.'s poem operates on an opposition established between Helen and "all Greece," and the speaker stands outside this opposition to record the interaction between the two. Time, space, and situation are left uncertain with a sparse setting that presents an image rather than a realistic event. The action verbs outline the image: Helen "stands ... smiles" faintly, and grows more "wan and white" while "all Greece" regards first her face and then "sees ... the beauty of feet / and slenderest knees."

The process the speaker watches is the growing hatred of Helen and the overwhelming effect it has upon her. The emotion directed in judgment against Helen is intense–we are aware of this not only because the verbs "hates" and "reviles" stand out so starkly, but also because the impersonality of "all Greece" generalizes the condemnation. In Poe's poem, he alone worships Helen. In W.B. Yeats's "No Second Troy," the poet's feelings for Helen are more ambivalent, but Yeats still records a private experience between himself and his mythic mask for Maude Gonne. In her poem, however, H.D. generalizes those who regard Helen until they take on the dimensions of a collective culture. "Greece" is a country, not a person, not even a people. H.D.’s choice of "Greece" in place of the more logical "Greeks" suggests that the entire weight of a cultural tradition "reviles" Helen. The structural repetition of "all" at the beginning of the first two stanzas reinforces the image of a whole culture set in powerful opposition to one woman. And the lack of a realistic setting in this portrait of "all Greece" regarding Helen underlines the real subject, of the poem: woman's place in male-dominated tradition.

Helen’s response to the hate-filled gaze of "all Greece" is not a static one. In fact, the stanzas of the poem subtly suggest the transformation of a living woman into a marble statue, a progression from life to death controlled by the force of hate. In the first stanza, Helen seems immobilized--her eyes are "still" and she simply "stands." The emphasis on the whiteness of her face and hands adds to this image of impassivity. But, read in the light of the last two stanzas, Helen in the first stanza still has the glow of life. The poet sees the rich "lustre as of olives / where she stands." This lustre begins to disappear in the second stanza. White hands and white face are conventional attributes of female beauty. But in the second stanza, white skin "grows wan and white" in the face of increasing hatred--that is, pale, bloodless, and seemingly lifeless. As if to appease "all Greece," her "wan face . . . smiles." According to some scholars, women have traditionally relied on a perpetual smile to render themselves more acceptable in an androcentric culture. Helen too smiles in a desperate attempt to counteract the condemnation that is growing "deeper still" for her part in the Trojan war.

In the third stanza, "white" signals the final result of Greece's unmoving hatred, becoming the color of death: "white ash amid funereal cypresses." The word "unmoved" to describe a lack of compassion is something of a pun (un-moving) that echoes in reverse the increasing immobility of Helen. Her smiles win no mercy, and the only way she can become loved is through her death. . . . The growing whiteness of her skin signals her death as a living woman and her birth as a statue, a symbol of beauty in the eyes of "all Greece."

In Poe's poem, Helen's appearance as a statue is an affirmation. But in H.D.'s poem, the speaker understands the connection between the traditional worship of woman as symbol and the death of the living woman. H.D.'s poem about Helen is a re-vision of the Medusa myth and an implicit attack on the processes of masculine mythmaking with female symbols. According to Greek myth, a man's direct sight of the fearful Medusa with her hair of snakes would turn him to stone. In his famous interpretation of this myth, Freud argued that Medusa's head represented the castrated state of female genitals, and the myth embodied castration anxiety. But in H.D.'s reversal of psychoanalysis and myth, the hatred of a collective male tradition turns woman to stone, literally a statue. An added complexity, however, is that hatred becomes love once Helen's paralysis is complete. Like Joan of Arc, Helen, immobilized and silenced, is an object of worship. Alive, she was an object of hatred, a threat to the dominant culture ruled by men. As statue or symbol, she is safely controlled by the tradition that defines her through its art. What seems to be an adoration of woman, H.D. says, is rooted in reality in a hatred for the living woman who has the capacity to speak for herself.

In "Helen," the poet cannot free Helen from the patriarchal cage of traditional hate and adoration. She stands outside the process, helpless to prevent Helen's growing silence and paralysis. She can and does attack tradition, but she cannot give the mute statue a voice. Because of her mother's name, Helen was always a personal and mythic mother-symbol for H.D. But at this point in her life, her mother-symbol was too overwhelmed to help her daughter the poet. To serve as "the Muse, the Creator" as the Goddess does in H.D.’s later poems, the daughter had to give birth to her own mother.

From Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. 232-35. Copyright 1981 by Susan Stanford Friedman. Reprinted by Permission of the Author.


Alicia Suskin Ostriker

In a 1928 poem entitled "Helen," written while she still had the reputation of the pure imagist poet, H.D. implies that the beautiful woman is always hated by the culture which pretends to adore her beauty and that the only good beauty, so far as patriarchal culture is concerned, is a dead one. H.D.’s Helen is passive, motionless, a bitter parody of her static appearance in poets from Homer through Poe and Yeats. . . . Three decades later, in H.D.’s postwar masterpiece Helen in Egypt, Helen "hated of all Greece" as the cause of the Trojan war, is again the subject. But the poet now announces that Helen of Troy, our culture’s archetypal woman-as-erotic object, was actually a male-generated illusion, a "phantom," and that "the Greeks and the Trojans alike fought for an illusion."

H.D.’s sources are a fifty-line fragment by Stesichorus of Sicily (ca. 640-555 B.C.) And Euripides’ drama Helen, which claim that Helen of Troy was a phantom and that "the real Helen" was transported by the Gods from Greece to Egypt where she spent the duration of the Trojan War waiting chastely for her husband Menelaus. These texts are themselves revisionist in that they propose a virtuous Helen instead of Homer’s wanton adulteress. But in H.D.’s version Menelaus is a trivial figure, and the poet makes clear that sexual chastity–or any conventional morality–is no more to be expected of an epic heroine than of an epic hero.

From Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon, 1986. 223-24. Copyright 1986 by Alicia Suskin Ostriker


Donna Copeland

Although mythology recounts Helen's heritage as the love child of the god Zeus, her abduction by Theseus when she was a child, Aphrodite's promise to give her to Paris as a bribe for the golden apple, and the heroic adventures of the men who fought then ten-year war, Helen’s own feelings and Greece’s reaction to her are not part of the myth. Hilda Doolittle has filled that gap in the brief but haunting poem, , "Helen." The tone of the poem seems bitter, concerned only with Helen's rejection by Greece, but a closer reading reveals an identification of Helen with Greece.

Composed of only three stanzas, the poem is a study in contrasts. The first line of the first stanza, "All Greece hates," sets the tone for the rest of the poem about the country's reaction to Helen at the end of the war with Troy. The first line of the second stanza, "All Greece reviles," and of the final stanza, "Greece sees, unmoved," paint a picture of a people whose hatred and revulsion are cold and unforgiving. As long as Helen lives, she is a painful reminder of what has been lost, and the people refuse to feel sympathy or engage their emotions until she is gone from their sight. But their hatred is not a hot passion for the fire of revenge. She can be forgiven when the purification is complete—when her white face and white hands have cooled to white ash with the passage of time.

It would seem, then, that "the still eyes in the white face . . . and the white hands" are describing a woman whom they perceive as pallid and colorless, perhaps with shame. Yet her beauty creeps into a description that strives to be emotionless. In the first stanza, "the lustre as of olives / where she stands," provides an image that contrasts with the war and the hatred expressed in the firSst line. Lustre suggests not only a shining or reflected light, but also glory or great fame. And, of course, the olive is a symbol of peace as well as a fruit emblematic of Greece.

In the second stanza, one line longer than the first, the description of Helen is expanded. Greece may see weakness in her wan face and perceive her as the enchantress, but the reader begins to wonder if Helen, like Greece itself, is wan because she suffers from great weariness and sadness in the memory of "past ills."

In the final and longest stanza, reference is made to Helen being the daughter of Zeus, and love is mentioned for the first time. It is ironic that the love of which she was born was the seduction of her mother, Leda, by Zeus in the form of a swan. And the irony is intensified by Helen's seduction and abduction by Paris, a guest in her home. The final irony is that her country can only love her if she is laid in death's cold embrace. Having described her eyes, her smile, her hands, her slender knees, and her cool feet, the final image in the white motif is a Helen whose physical beauty has burned out until nothing is left but ash.

And ash, of course, is more than a white powder left from burning or the gray color of pallor suggestive of physical death. It is a genus of tree belonging to the olive family. The final words of the poem repeat the connection once more. The cypress too is a member of the olive family, its branches a symbol of mourning, as well as a gauzelike silk, worn for mourning when it has been dyed black.

The implications are unmistakable; "Helen" has come full circle. The contrasts between love and hate, life and death, peace and war, and white and black are reconciled despite the bitter tone suggested by a first reading of the poem. Helen has played many roles, in Greek mythology. She is the daughter of Zeus, the wife of Menelaos, the queen of Lakedaimon, the cause of the Trojan War, the most beautiful woman in Greece, and Helen of Troy. In Helen Doolittle's poem she maybe seen as one thing more—a symbol of Greece itself.

from The Explicator 46:4 (Summer 1988), pp. 33-35.


Thomas Burnett Swann

In an interesting departure, H. D. presents the title-character in the poem "Helen" as a suffering madonna victimized by the Greeks. The word "white" is used four times in the poem's eighteen lines, "wan" twice, and "cool" once. Helen's birth is purified: in the traditional myth, she was conceived when Zeus took the form of a swan and seduced Leda; the Helen in H. D.'s poem is "God's daughter, born of love." Furthermore, there is no reference to her infidelity and her part in causing the Trojan War. She appears as a kind of Joan of Arc (she is called the "maid") menaced by fierce warriors. . . .

There is no exact prototype for H. D.'s characterization of Helen in the writings of antiquity or of later periods. According to Homer, Euripides, Plutarch, and others, she was ravished by Theseus at the age of ten and rescued by her brothers, the Dioscuri; married to Menelaus and crowned queen of Sparta; seduced to Troy by Paris and recovered by the Greeks after a ten-year siege; and finally forgiven by Menelaus and returned to her former state. While she cannot be called a fiery and passionate figure, appearing as she does more often as a willing woman than a willful one, there is nevertheless little of cool innocence about her. Nor is she treated as an innocent by the English poets. Chaucer's Helen (in Troilus and Criseyde), although frank, forthright, and likeable, is considerably more experienced in the ways of the world than Criseyde; Marlowe's Helen (in Dr. Faustus) is a great temptress conjured from the past; and Wilde's "New Helen" is scarcely distinguishable from Aphrodite (though a pallid Aphrodite, to be sure) . It seems clear that H. D.'s Helen owes less to Greek and English models than to the poet's own craftsmanship.

From The Classical World of H.D. Copyright 1962 by University of Nebraska Press.


William Pratt

Perhaps her most characteristic imagist poem recreates Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology, whose abduction from her husband, Menelaus, by the Trojan prince Paris started the Trojan War. H. D.’s "Helen" seems a remote ideal like the Greek heroine, yet the view of her is as much from the inside as from the outside; she is seen as a woman who suffers for her beauty and is forced to endure the hostile glances of those who blame her for causing the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. "All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face," H. D. begins her description of Helen, and she goes on to intensify the hostility of those who fought for her, adding that "All Greece reviles / the wan face when she smiles," and ending with the image of "God's daughter, born of love" (Zeus had raped Leda, a mortal woman, to conceive Helen) being loved only in death by the Greeks, who "could love indeed the maid / only if she were laid / white ash amid funereal cypresses." The cold perfection of H. D.'s portrait of Helen is at once attractive and forbidding: she is "born of love" and yet she is hated, and the Greeks who fight to recapture her from the Trojans wish that she were dead. Indeed, there is a deathlike pallor on her already, perceptible in her white skin, wan smile, and cool feet, and the final stroke of H. D.’s sketch portrays her body consumed on a funeral pyre into "white ash amid funereal cypresses."

from Signing The Chaos: Madness and Wisdom in Modern Poetry. Copyright 1996 by the Curators of the Unviersity of Missouri


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