Edgar Allan Poe epitomized his ‘Helen’ as “the first ideal love of my soul.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “To Helen” is a tribute to the mother of his school friend, Mrs.Jane Stannard. She is a young matron of Richmond, who had profound affection and motherly love for him. By summoning her as ‘Helen’ he has crowned her with the highest virtues of a woman that is quite often put on a pedestal in classical mythology. The beauty of Helen has always been the highest paradigm, whether extolled by Homer in “The Illiad”, “The Trojan Women” by Euripedes, or by Marlowe in his Dr.Faustus. The poem was first published in 1831 collection Poems of Edgar Allan.

Beauty always lies in the eyes of the beholder. Helen, to him, radiated an inner beauty that he likens to the boats of Nice that transported wanderers over the scented sea long ago. He was able to sail smoothly through life owing to her unconditional love. Jane Stannard’s moral support steered him through the rough weathers of life. The word “Nicean” functions as an adjective for Nice, a city in France, situated on the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most significant towns on the French “Riviera” and is a fashionable winter resort of the English. Perfumery is one the major industries of this place. By posing such an adjective-the poet imparts to her the attribute of being ‘nice’. It also portrays her as the harbinger of warmth, her qualities being linked to a winter resort. Her fragrance is all-encompassing. She is also compared to the Naiads, the sea Nymphs that drifted him to the prominence of Greece and Rome:

“To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

These last two lines, beginning with the glory that was, are among the most often quoted lines in world literature to exemplify the magnificence of classical antiquity. Her hair was red like the blood of the Hyacinthus. Hyacinthus is a deep red flower believed to have sprung from the blood of Hyacinthus, a Spartan youth who while engaged in a game of quoits with Apollo, was accidentally killed by a blow from the latter’s quiot. The marks on the petals of this flower are said to bear a resemblance to the Greek letters Ai, meaning “alas.” This symbolism is tinged with poignant grief and lament. In exalted admiration he claims that her face was truly Hellenic.

Towards the end, the lyrical adulation arrives at its zenith as the matron is compared to Psyche, the beloved of Cupid(God of Love).In such a view, she is only second to Cupid, the God of love. Further, she is the Second lady of the Kingdom of Love. Again, ‘psyche’ also signifies ‘soul’ in Greek, symbolizing the purity of her soul. He envisages her, standing at the window alcove, holding a lamp made of the precious stone agate. The picture projects how she radiated light and warmth to others. The image also brings forth thoughts of Florence Nightingale, The Lady with the lamp. At once, she transforms into the epitome of selfless service to humanity. To him, she hailed from the Holy Lands, and was therefore divine.

The poet’s treatment of the theme further enhances his subject- exaltation ; as he proceeds from water/sea to land/great civilizations to Hold Lands/Divinity. He immortalizes her in three respects-by rendering her a classic, by elevating her to the status to a Goddess, and finally through eulogizing her in poetry.

© Rukhaya MK 2012
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