Thomas Burnett Swann: On "Helen"

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.


Title Thomas Burnett Swann: On "Helen" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas Burnett Swann Criticism Target H(ilda) D(oolittle)
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Classical World of H.D.
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