Susan Stanford Friedman: On "Helen"

"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.


Title Susan Stanford Friedman: On "Helen" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Stanford Friedman Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Pysche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D.
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