Donna Copeland: On "Helen"

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.


Title Donna Copeland: On "Helen" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Donna Copeland Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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