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Reading "To Helen" a Poem by Edgar Allan Poe

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

by Siswo Harsono, a lecturer in English Department, Faculty of Letters, Diponegoro University. Now he is promoting and developing a blog for lectures. He also maintain for his project introducing traditional Indonesian play a.k.a "wayang" on the internet. Lakonet was published in two local Indonesian language: Jawa and Sunda, Indonesian National Language (Bahasa Indonesia) and also published in the international language, English.

When I read poems written by Edgar Allam Poe, I am interested in a poem entitled "To Helen". The poem has archetypal and psychological meanings. The archetypal meaning of the poem relates to Greek mythology; and the psychological one relates to the biography of Poe.


Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore.

That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!


In the poem, Poe poeticizes woman beauty by admiring and comparing to diva beauty. His adoration embodied in his language use. He addresses a woman named Helen by an aristocratic and poetic word "Thy". He does not use "you" because he puts Helen in high position. Like in praying and worshiping, Helen's beauty is Poe's religious-aesthetic object. How romantic he is!

At first, I would like to trace the mythological and biographical relations. And then I would like to analyze the poem by using Freudian psychoanalysis perspective.

Mythological Relation

The title of the poem "To Helen" refers to a woman named "Helen". There so many women named Helen, and it is hard to trace which one that Poe refers. In line 2, the word "Nicean", in line 7 the word "hyacinth", in line 8 the word "Naiad", in line 9 the word "Greece", in line 13 the word "agate", in line 14 the word "Psyche", refer to Ancient Greek. It is obvious that the name Helen refers to Helen of Troy in Greek mythology.

It seems to me that Poe uses the image of Helen to adore a goddess-like woman. Who is the woman? This question leads me to trace the biographical relation.

Biographical Relation

Poe wrote the poem when he fell in love with a woman. She was the mother of his friend, Rob. Her name's Jane Stith Stanard. Poe liked reading his poems for her. And Mrs. Stanard liked listening to his poems. Such a writer-reader relation makes them fall in love to each other. What kind of love is it? Is it a kind of motherly or a sonly love? It is a kind of Oedipal love.

Poe adores Mrs. Stanard like worshipping Helen, the prettiest goddess and the daughter of Zeus. But the life story of Mrs. Stanard is not like Helen. The love relation between Mrs. Stanard and Poe is not like Helen and Paris. Poe's allusion of Mrs. Stanard is Psyche because her beauty makes Hera feel deadly envious and jealous. Because of her beauty, the queen of the goddesses Hera governs Adonis to kill her. Such envy and jealousy cause the death of Mrs. Stanard and the sad end of his love.

This phenomenon guides me to analyze the poem by using psychoanalysis.

Psychological Relation

Referring to the biography of Poe, his mother Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins died in 1811 when he was two years old, then Mr. and Mrs. Alan nurtured him. The relation between Poe and his surrogate parents led to oedipal tendency. Poe loved his surrogate mother, Nancy Alan; and he hated his surrogate father John Alan. The oedipal relation made Poe love motherly women and hate fatherly men. His love is embodied in his dark romantic poems like "To Helen"; and his hate embodied in his tragic stories like "A Tell-Tale Heart".

Poe's oedipal love is not incest of matrimony relation like in Oedipus. His hate does not make him kill his (surrogate) father like in Oedipus. He expresses his oedipal love and hate in his works.

His love can be categorized as dark romanticism because it has sad and sorrowful ending. For him a beauty lies in the deadly moment of beautiful women he loved. It is a dark romantic moment of myterium tremendum.

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  1. 2 komentar: Responses to “ Reading "To Helen" a Poem by Edgar Allan Poe ”

  2. By bradford on April 17, 2009 at 10:11 AM

    I hate to have to shut you down here, but you are wrong about who Poe was writing to. You are close, but inaccurate. He was writing to a woman by the name of Mrs. Jane Craig Standard. She did, however have a son named Robert, and he was indeed one of Poe's classmates when he was around fourteen years old.

  3. By Anonymous on October 13, 2009 at 3:12 PM


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