Alicia Suskin Ostriker: On "Helen"

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

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Title Alicia Suskin Ostriker: On "Helen" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alicia Suskin Ostriker Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America
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