Text: J. M. Pemberton, “Poe’s ‘To Helen ’: Functional Wordplay and A Possible Source,” from Poe Newsletter­, June 1970, vol. III, no. 1, 3:6-7


[page 6, column 2:]

Poe’s “To Helen”:
Functional Wordplay and A Possible Source

University of Tennessee

Previous commentators on Poe’s “To Helen” (1831) have made some rather superficial observations on Poe’s use of the name “Helen.” Several readers have noticed Poe’s obvious fondness for the sound of the name and its derivatives (Ellen, Eleanora, Lenore). Too, the majority of commentators (along with Poe himself) have made biographical generalizations about Jane Stith Stanard and Sara Helen Whitman as Helen’s prototype. And, at least one scholar has made a rather broad statement concerning Poe’s identification of this name with the abstraction of “beauty in the Greek sense” (1). No one, as yet, however, has demonstrated the specific relationship between the Greek origin of the name “Helen” and Poe’s use of it as a pluralistic device in “To Helen.” Through an examination of part of Poe’s reading background, it is possible to establish a clear understanding of this one important textual aspect of the poem.

T. O. Mabbott has shown that “Poe had not only a little Greek, but a respectable command of it”; and Arthur Hobson Quinn has discovered that Poe had read at least part of Homer’s Iliad in the original Greek (2). In attempting to read the Iliad with the aid of any comprehensive Greek-English lexicon of the period, Poe would have had occasion to look up the meaning of Σλευη. This is not only the proper noun “Helen,” but also a common noun (with exactly the same spelling) meaning “a torch or firebrand” (3). If the connection between these two orthographically identical words did not fully strike Poe as he checked his lexicon, the connection must have become apparent as he read further into Homer’s physical descriptions of Helen (for example, “Helen with the bright robes and shining among women. . . . .” [Italics mine] III, 1.228) or into those descriptions of her found in so well-known and popular a commentary as Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary (1788):

. . . . [Helen] is represented by Homer as so incomparably beautiful during the seige of Troy, that though seen at a distance, she influenced the counsellors of Priam by the brightness of her charms; therefore we must suppose, with others, that her beauty remained long undiminished, and was extinguished only at her death (4).

It may be supposed that Homer’s visual images of Helen’s literally giving off light and the linguistic coincidence of the connection between the common and proper forms of Σλευη were not lost on so strict a devotee of recondite learning as Poe.

What Poe did with this learning as he consciously and unconsciously gathered ideas for his first version of “To Helen” is apparent in the context of the poem itself. Here, Helen clearly becomes for the persona a magnetic personification of “inspirational beauty” in one sense, and, in another (yet simultaneously imparted) sense, an apostrophized [page 7:] object which the speaker literally sees in a “brilliant window-niche” (1.11, italics mine) and is visually attracted to from his position on the sea shore, at the bow of a ship, or wherever. For, unless Helen were “shining” in some respect, how could the speaker notice her at any sort of distance, standing so “statue-like” (1.12) in a “niche”? The answer, of course, is that, as far as the poem is concerned, Helen does literally glow, or radiate, with light as well as with her more abstract, esthetic beauty and thus beckons the speaker, using both these powers (5).

This double image must have seemed well-chosen to Poe at the time, and it certainly works well within the poem once the double function of “Helen” is understood. The problem for Poe, however, apparently lay in the question of whether it actually was understood by his contemporaries. That Poe obviously had doubts about his readers ’ perception of this semantic ambiguity can be shown by a brief history and explanation of a hitherto unexamined textual revision in the poem.

In the poem’s first three versions, Poe’s Helen, while in a “brilliant window-niche,” holds a “folded scroll” (1.13); but, in its fourth and final version (printed in the Saturday Museum, 4 March 1843), Poe exchanges a (presumably) lighted “agate lamp” for the “scroll” (6). That Poe made many other changes in the poem’s text in its various printings, but waited until his final version to make this change (from “scroll” to “lamp”), shows his apparent dissatisfaction with the clarity or with the effect — or lack of it — of Helen’s self -illumination produced through the verbal device already described. In the earlier versions, it is clearly the person of Helen herself that made the “window-niche” “brilliant”; no artificial “brilliance,” such as that provided by an “agate lamp,” had been necessary as far as the poet was concerned.

In order to make Helen more visually evident in the minds of both persona and reader and to dispose of a seemingly unsuccessful ambiguity, Poe felt compelled to make a change which adds nothing to the poem in terms of meaning or poetic sound, but does clarify Helen, now with a lamp, as being a source of, primarily, esthetic illumination and, secondarily, a source of visual brightness in the evening dusk or darkness which surrounds the speaker. (If the time setting of the poem is not evening, but the full light of day, how could the speaker see, at a distance, a dimly glowing oil lamp?) Thus Poe gives the reader a Helen who is a brightly concrete image as well as a symbolic source of poetic inspiration.

Like any other literary craftsman, Poe would not have been adverse to this kind of functional combination of senses; and one of his own favorite poets, Edward Coote Pinkney, could easily have provided him, only six years before the first publication of “To Helen,” with a poetic treatment of “light” from a feminine source as a visually and esthetically attractive device. I refer to Pinkney’s “Song” (”Those starry eyes”), which was included in the poet’s collection of his poems published in 1825:

Those starry eyes, those starry eyes,

Those eyes that used to be

Unto my heart as beacon-lights

To pilgrims on the sea! — [column 2:]

I see them yet, I see them yet,

Though long since quenched and gone —

I could not live illumined by

The common sun alone.

Could they seem thus, could they seem thus,

If but a memory? —

Ah, yes! Upon this wintry earth

They burn no more for me. (7)

Compare particularly the first stanza of Pinkney’s “Song” to Poe’s first stanza of “To Helen”:

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicéan barks of yore,

That gently, o ’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.

Given the idea of Poe’s Helen having both abstract and concrete powers of “attraction,” and given Poe’s avowed fondness for Pinkney’s “lyricism” (8), surely one can see in the deceased lover, in the stars, beacon-lights, and sun, and as well in the “pilgrims” of the Pinkney poem, at least a partial source for the beauty of Poe’s “luminary” Helen and for Poe’s “wanderer.” But whether Pinkney’s “Song” was merely an influence or a direct source is not so important as is its value as a contemporary example of the kind of Classical/Romantic material with which Poe was familiar, and which, along with his penchant for complex devices, he brought to bear in the composition of “To Helen.”



(1)  Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York, 1941), p. 177.

(2)  See Mabbott, “Evidence That Poe Knew Greek,” Notes & Queries, CLXXV (1943), 40; and Quinn, p. 83. Poe’s schoolmaster in Richmond during 1821-22, Joseph H. Clarke, wrote that Poe’s class read Horace and Cicero in Latin and Homer in Greek. For evidence of Poe’s continued study of Greek while at the University of Virginia, see Quinn, pp. 98-99.

(3)  Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon Based on the German Work of Francis Passow [whose lexicon appeared in 1819] (New York 1846), p. 435. While we may never know for certain which Greek lexicon Poe used, there were several like the Passow wörtenbuch and the Liddell-Scott Lexicon available to him.

(4)  Italics mine; from John Lemprière, A Classical Dictionary of Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors (London, 1788), s.v. “Helen.” This volume was edited in America by Poe’s friend and benefactor Prof. Anthon of Columbia University, who may have recommended it to him. At any rate, the work was available to Poe, in several American printings, after 1824.

(5)  See James W. Gargano, “Poe’s ‘To Helen ’,” Modern Language Notes, LXXV (1960), 653, for a discussion of the nature of Helen’s beauty.

(6)  For a more complete textual and publication history of the entire poem, see The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Killis Campbell (Boston, 1917), p. 56 and pp. 199-203.

(7)  T. O. Mabbott and F. L. Pleadwell, The Life and Works of Edward Coote Pinkney (New York, 1926), p. 128.

(8)  For discussions of several other Pinkney poems that influenced Poe’s own poetry, see Mabbott and Pleadwell, pp. 86-89 et passim.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1970]