Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “To Helen (Thy beauty is to me),” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 163-171 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 163, continued:]


“To Helen” is often regarded as the finest of Poe's lyrics. It includes the incomparable phrases that sum up classical civilization: “the glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome.” It was a remarkable poem when it first appeared in 1831, [page 164:] but Poe took twelve years to perfect it. The two most famous lines, first published in 1843, are among those Poe changed with consummate art.

Of “To Helen” James Russell Lowell wrote that “there is a little dimness in the filling up,” but added that in it “all is limpid and serene,” and that it “seems simple, like a Greek column, because of its perfection.”(1)

The poem is based on a personal experience of the poet in youth — a memory of Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard at her home in Richmond. But the poem also has a universal meaning. It is spiritual love that leads us to beauty, a resting place from sorrow and the homeland of all that is sacred in our being. Beauty is the lasting legacy of Greece and Rome, and its supreme symbol is the most beautiful of women, Helen, daughter of Zeus, who brings the wanderer home and inspires the poet.

In a letter of October 1, 1848, to Helen Whitman, Poe called the poem “the lines I had written, in my passionate boyhood, to the first, purely ideal love of my soul — to the Helen Stannard [sic] of whom I told you.” There is no good reason to doubt the essential truth of this identification. Poe's habit of giving names he liked to women for whose real names he did not care amply accounts for his substitution of “Helen” for “Jane.” Of the poet's deep affection for the mother of his schoolmate Robert Stanard there need be no doubt. On March 10, 1859, Mrs. Clemm wrote to Mrs. Whitman:

When Eddie was unhappy at home (which was often the case) he went to [Mrs. Stanard] for sympathy, and she always consoled and comforted him — you are mistaken when you say that you believe he saw her but once in her home. He visited there for years. He only saw her once when she was ill ... Robert has often told me of his and Eddie's visits to her grave.(2)

The statement repeated from time to time that the poem was composed when Poe was only fourteen years of age is absurd. It is possible, even probable, that Poe wrote something about his [page 165:] friend when he was fourteen. But the mature and masterly style of “To Helen,” even in the earliest version we now have, belies a very early date, as does the author's failure to print it (or anything at all like it) before 1831.(3)


(A) Poems (1831), p. 39; (B) Southern Literary Messenger, March 1836 (2:238); (C) Graham's Magazine for September 1841 (19:123); (D) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843; (E) Graham's Magazine for February 1845 (27:51), in James Russell Lowell's “Edgar A. Poe”; (F) The Raven and Other Poems (1845), p. 91; (G) The Lover's Gift (Hartford, 1848), p. 108; (H) copy of The Raven given to Mrs. Whitman by Poe, with one manuscript change; (J) Works (1850), I, ix, in Lowell's “Edgar A. Poe.”

The text of the 1845 volume (F) is used. The copy given Mrs. Whitman (H) is inscribed “To Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman — from the most devoted of her friends. Edgar A. Poe.” It was described in the Catalogue of the Thomas J. McKee Sale, New York, November 22, 1900, lot 602. The gift book was edited by Poe's friend, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, and the text (G) may be authorized. The copy inscribed to Helen Whitman is owned by Mr. H. Bradley Martin.

[page 166, continued:]


Title:  To Helen Stannard (H). The half-title before the poem is merely Helen (A)

2  Nicéan / Nicean (A, B, J)

3  perfumed / perfum’d (A, B)

9  glory that was / beauty of fair (A, B)

10  And the grandeur that was / And the grandeur of old (A, B); To the grandeur that was (C)

11  yon brilliant / that little (A, B); that shadowy (C)

13  agate lamp / folded scroll (A, B, C); agate book (G)

14  Ah, Psyche / A Psyche (A)

[page 166, continued:]


1  There are many stories about Helen of Troy. All agree that she was a daughter of Zeus and the most beautiful of women, but there is disagreement about her adventures and character. Poe alludes only to those legends that present her in the most favorable light. Our earliest document about the wholly good Helen consists of a few lines quoted in Plato's Phaedrus, 243a, from the “Palinode” of Stesichorus, who must have had access to far older legends, such as those used by Euripides in his Helena.

In a panegyric called Helen, the orator Isocrates about 370 B. C. argued that Helen went to Troy only to fulfill the will of the gods, and after their deaths, she, as daughter of Zeus, raised her husband Menelaus to her own divine rank. Furthermore, Helen, in a dream, commanded Homer to compose the Iliad, that those who died fighting for her might be envied by living men. Helen thus inspired poetry.

She could appear as a third light with those (now called “St. Elmo's fire”) of her twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, to help mariners. See Euripides, Orestes, lines 1635-1636. [page 167:]

At her dream oracle, near Sparta, people consulting Helen slept on the floor of the shrine, and, if she appeared, she took the form of each person's first love. This fits in with Poe's poem about his first love. I take this story from an essay by Andrew Lang on “Helen of Troy”; Lang surely had ancient or medieval authority but unhappily did not name it. For Helen's ability to mimic the voice of each man's beloved, see Odyssey, IV, 279.

2  Killis Campbell, Poems, p. 200, compared Coleridge's “Youth and Age,” line 12: “Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore.”

“Nicean” is a good English adjective meaning “victorious,” properly formed from Nike, the Greek name of Victory. The regular transliteration, Nice, in both Latin and English, is often seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although lexicographers have failed to cite the English adjective prior to 1831, it had actually been in print for decades. In John and William Langhorne's standard translation of Plutarch (1770), the life of Nicias (Lives, III, 372 and 385), contains two pertinent passages: to the phrase “a general with a name derived from victory,” the translator appends a footnote, “That is Nicias. Nice signifies victory,” and later we read the Athenians “ascribed the peace to Nicias ... It is therefore called the Nicean peace to this day.” (See Palmer C. Holt, in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, November 1959.)

Another meaning of “Nicean” is “pertaining to Nicea [a city].” Of the many ancient cities named Nicea, one was especially connected with Dionysus. He was revered at Nicea in Bithynia (now Iznik) as a founder (ktistes), and its eponymous nymph Nicea was a member of his train. One may consult Photius’ synopsis of the historian Memnon, or the Dionysiac√° of Nonnus. Some coins of the city of Roman times show Bacchus “assis dans un petit barque.” How much of this Poe could have known is questionable.

The idea that the word has no meaning has certainly been entertained, but hardly by anyone aware of schoolmaster Clarke's statements about his Academy's classical education. No man “first or second in his class” studying Homeric Greek in school is unacquainted with the word for victory.

3-5  These lines still present four cruces. Whence came the barks, where was the perfumed sea, who was the wanderer, and what was his native shore? These problems were discussed in a masterly article, “Poe's Nicean Barks,” by Edward D. Snyder, in the Classical Journal (Chicago), February 1953 (48:159-169). Snyder gave full references to the literature before 1953, and took up the answers in the order in which they were proposed. I discuss them in a descending order of acceptability, judged by the consistency with Poe's text.

I.  Only one entirely consistent explanation has been put forward. In Notes and Queries, April 25, 1885 (11:323), W. M. Rossetti proposed Bacchus as the wanderer. He cited Paradise Lost, IV, 275-279:

... That Nyseian isle

Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham,

Whom Gentiles Ammon call, and Libyan Jove,

Hid Amalthea, and her florid son

Young Bacchus ... [page 168:]

In American Literature, January 1945 (16:342), Frank M. Durham pointed out that in Paradise Lost, IV, 301, there is a reference to “hyacinthin locks.”

In some editions (1898, for example) of A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer, the following explanation of “Nicéan barks” was given:

“The way-worn wanderer was Dionysos or Bacchus, after his renowned conquests. His native shore was the Western Horn, called the Amalth?an Horn. And the Nicean barks were vessels sent from the island Nysa, to which in infancy Dionysos was conveyed to screen him from Rhea. The perfumed sea was the sea surrounding Nysa, a paradisal island.”

In the Boston American Monthly Magazine, November 1830, Albert Pike published his “Hymn to Bacchus,” where there are the lines:

Where art thou, conqueror — before whom fell

The jewelled kings of Ind ...

... when thou didst check

Thy tigers and thy lynxes at the shore

Of the broad ocean — and didst still the roar,

Pouring a sparkling and a pleasant wine

Into its waters — when the dashing brine

Tossed up new odors, and a pleasant scent

Upon its breath, and many who were spent

With weary sickness, breathed of life anew,

When wine-inspired breezes on them blew.

The italics are mine. This even accounts for “wayworn,” for Dionysus journeyed by land but had to sail to his island home. Pike's verses were unknown to Rossetti, Brewer, and Campbell, who accepted Bacchus as the wanderer before I found the lines in “To Bacchus,” no. VI of the once very well known Hymns to the Gods, which were reprinted in Blackwood's Magazine in June 1839 (45:827). Bacchus and Helen are not too remotely connected; both were children of Zeus and both became gods.

II.  A second suggestion (mine) is that the wanderer is Menelaus. According to a story told by Stesichorus and used by Euripides in Helena, the gods sent a phantom to Troy with Paris, while the faithful queen of Sparta remained a fugitive in Egypt. Thence, after many years, she was rescued by her husband and returned with him to their native shore. This does not account for the perfumed sea, and Euripides says that the victorious ship was from Sidon, but this explanation connects the wanderer most closely with Helen.

III.  My preceptor, Professor W. P. Trent, in his Raven ... and Other Poems and Tales (1897), p. 24, advanced somewhat tentatively the suggestion that Poe had Ulysses in mind but changed Phaeacian to Nicean “intentionally or unintentionally.” In Modern Language Notes, March 1916 (31:185), Herbert Edward Mierow asserted confidently that “Poe meant not Nicean but Phaeacian.” But why should such a change have been made on purpose? And the mistake — if it were one — could hardly have been overlooked during the many years in which Poe labored over the poem. In his Preface to the Poems of 1831, Poe alluded to the “nine-titled Corcyra.” This refers to a passage in Chateaubriand's Itinéraire, which gives as other names of the home of Alcinoüs [page 169:] and Nausicaa — Argoa, Cassiopea, Ceraunia, Drepanum, Ephisa, Macria, Phaeacia, and Scheria.

In combating the idea that by “Nicean” Poe meant “Phaeacian,” some students have dismissed Trent's view completely. The word can mean merely “victorious,” without reference to a place. In that case Ulysses is not impossible as the wanderer. Richard Wilbur, Poe (1959), p. 135, says he would wish it were the Ithacan king, “protected ... by Athene, ... rowed in ‘a deep and delicious sleep’ to his ... homeland.” For most readers Ulysses is the first Greek wanderer who comes to mind. But the “perfumed sea” is without meaning, and Poe's method is not always to use the commonplace.

IV.  A suggestion by an unidentified commentator signing himself “A Galwegian,” in the London Notes and Queries, January 23, 1863 (3 ser., 3:8), is that the wanderer is Alexander the Great, who, according to Strabo (XV, i, 29) built a fleet at Nicaea on the Hydaspes in India, and might have sailed over a sea perfumed from the spice trees of India and Arabia. Alexander was victorious, but he never got home to his native shore at all. He died at Babylon and was entombed at Alexandria in Egypt. This, the earliest explanation propounded, is that preferred by Quinn, p. 179, who credits it to a remark made to him by John C. Rolfe.

V.  Snyder's own tentative second suggestion (Classical Journal, 48:168) — “Everyman,” any weary wanderer coming home — though regarded by him as unlikely, is by no means to be dismissed altogether.

VI.  The suggestion of F. V. N. Painter, in Poets of the South (1903), p. 217, that Poe was thinking of Nicaea (now Nice) in France and of the Ligurian Sea, deserves notice, but Painter does not identify the wanderer.

VII.  An interpretation that would see Catullus as the wanderer was put forward in Notes and Queries, May 30, 1914 (11 ser., 9:426-427), by an excellent scholar, Vernon Rendall, and has been independently advanced by at least two American professors, J. J. Jones and Arthur H. Weston, who cite Catullus, poems 4, 29, and 46. The reference would be to Nicea in Bithynia, whence the poet returned to his beloved home, Sirmio. But Catullus refers to his bark (phasellus) as of Amastris, not of Nicea; the ship was not victorious, nor the sea perfumed.

VIII.  In Classical Weekly for April 12, 1943 (36:248-249), E. A. Havelock argued (to me unconvincingly) for a combined interpretation with three motifs, Helen with her power to draw men to Troy and home, the wanderings of Ulysses, and the voyage of Catullus.

IX.  A friend once questioned whether the poem linked Christian and Greek traditions. There is a wanderer who fits well: St. Athanasius (whose name means “deathless”), for he returned victorious from Nicea in Bithynia, after the formulation of the Nicene creed; the perfume might be the odor of sanctity. There is no connection with Helen.

6-8  This may be an allusion to Helen's share in what is now called St. Elmo's fire.

6  The line brings to mind the “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas” in the “Ode to a Nightingale” of Keats, which Poe probably read about 1830. [page 170:]

7  It is not too likely that Poe knew it, but Sir Philip Sidney in the first book of Arcadia mentions the “jacinth locks of Queen Helen of Corinth.” In Pope's version of the Odyssey, VI, 231, which Poe almost surely did know, we read of the “hyacinthine locks” of Ulysses; Milton, in Paradise Lost, IV, 301, gave Adam “Hyacinthin Locks,” and Byron, in The Deformed Transformed, I, i, 397-398, has his Stranger, conjuring up a phantom of Achilles, command, “Let these hyacinth boughs / Be his long flowing hair.” In his story “Ligeia” Poe says his heroine had “the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet ‘hyacinthine.’ ”

References could be multiplied, and this kind of hair can be seen on the Hermes of Praxiteles, and on the statues and coins made in honor of Hadrian's friend Antinoüs. Poe has in mind the shape, not the color, of the flower, for he gives it here to Jane Stanard, whose hair was medium brown with highlights of light brown, according to Mr. Koester, owner of her portrait by James Worrell. The illustration in Quinn's Edgar Allan Poe (1941), p. 86, is not in color.

7-12  Wilbur, Poe (1959), p. 134, compares a passage in Poe's “Assignation,” which reminds one of both the epithets “hyacinth” and “Statue-like”:

“Her hair ... clustered ... round and round her classical head, in curls like those of the young hyacinth ... and no motion in the statue-like form itself, stirred even the folds of that raiment of very vapor which hung around it as the heavy marble hangs around the Niobe.”

The statue here in our author's mind is part of a celebrated group at Florence, thought to have been copied from an original by Praxiteles or, more probably, by Scopas.

8  Naiads are nymphs associated with fresh water, as contrasted with “desperate seas.” My student Barbara Johnson sees here a reference to the idea that “Heaven is our home.”

9-10  In the Boston Ariel of May 1, 1830, there is a lyric called “The Ocean,” by John Augustus Shea (1802-1845), of which lines 37-38 are: “The glory of Athens, / The splendor of Rome.” In the posthumous volume of Shea's Poems (New York, 1846), “Memoir,” p. 10, his son George said that the lines were composed at West Point, where, although he had no connection with the Academy, it is sure that Shea knew Poe. “The Ocean” was very popular; it was reprinted by Shea himself in volumes of 1831, 1836, and 1843 and often copied in newspapers of the time. Shea died on August 15, 1845. In an obituary in the Broadway Journal, August 23, Poe remarked that Shea's “Ocean” was “one of the most spirited Lyrics ever published.”

Campbell pointed out in his Mind of Poe, p. 156, a line from Wordsworth's “Stanzas: Composed in the Simplon Pass” (1822), “The beauty of Florence, and the grandeur of Rome.” Whether the inspiration came from another writer or not, the magic is Poe's own.

10  The architecture of Poe's youth was largely that of the Classic Revival, and there is an old saying that “Richmond is built on seven hills, like Rome.” Exact parallels to fact are not unexpected from the author of “The Haunted Palace.” [page 171:]

11-14  In 1920 the celebrated bibliophile, William A. White, wrote me that the agate lamp would not give a remarkably “brilliant” light, and that the earlier “shadowy” was preferable. The lady was perhaps standing before a window with a light outside. Campbell (Poems, p. 203) saw possible echoes of Byron, the most striking being of Childe Harold, IV, lxxix, of Rome, “The Niobe of nations! there she stands, / ... An empty urn within her withered hands.” Poe probably saw Mrs. Stanard holding a letter, but later changed the scroll for a lamp, because Psyche wakened Cupid, or Love, with a drop of oil from hers. The heroine of “The Spectacles” has a “chiselled contour like that of the Greek Psyche.” The Psyche par excellence is the head and torso at Naples.

The agate is named for “fidus Achates,” the faithful friend of Aeneas in Vergil. The significant word first appeared in the final revision of 1843.

14  In Greek, Psyche means soul. In a review of Francis Lieber's Reminiscences of ... Niebuhr, the Historian in the Southern Literary Messenger, January 1836 (2:125), Poe refers, jocularly, to a medieval monk who, “speaking of the characters in the Iliad,” said, “Helen represents the Human Soul — Troy is Hell,” and so forth. Poe seems to have based this on the chapter “Introduction to the Iliad” in Henry Nelson Coleridge's Introductions to ... Greek Classic Poets (London, 1830). It is characteristic of Poe to use humorous material with a serious turn, and vice versa, in his imaginative works. See “Poe and H. N. Coleridge's Greek Classic Poets” by Palmer C. Holt in American Literature, March 1962 (34:8-30).

15  Greece is the Holy Land of art, Richmond the Holy Land of the poet's heart. Poe possibly also knew of the association of Bacchus with Palestine. One of the many places called Nysa where Bacchus was especially revered is in that land, although it is not a seaport.


[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 164:]

1  Pages 373-374 of Lowell's sketch of Poe, reprinted from Graham's Magazine for February 1845 in Harrison's Complete Works (1902), I, 367-383. Actually some critics regard the rhyming of roam and Rome as a fault.

2  The letter, now in the Lilly Collection at Indiana University, is quoted by Quinn and Hart, p. 41. A suggestion, by a writer in Modern Language Notes (May 1949) that Poe's foster mother shared in the inspiration of “To Helen” is not supported by any document or tradition.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 165:]

3  It should be recalled that Poe whimsically regarded his birth date as a movable feast. When he enlisted in the Army, he made himself older; when he went to West Point, he grew younger (on this occasion with more motive than whim); and in the last year of his life, Poe, again “younger,” wrote Griswold that he had been born in 1813. A tradition reaches me from Baltimore that a lady of that city insisted that Poe was misdated in biographies, for she had met him, and her birth date was mentioned. Poe said that was the very day he was born!

The story that he wrote “To Helen” at fourteen first turned up in Hirst's highly romantical Saturday Museum biography, in 1843. Poe was perhaps surprised that his claim was believed. See p. 559 for Poe's statement that he wrote “Al Aaraaf” at ten, and his jest in the Broadway Journal, December 6, 1845, that he had a poem “written at 7 months.” Poe stated in The Raven and Other Poems (1845) in a footnote before his “Poems Written in Youth” — a statement easily disproved by comparison of the texts — that he was reprinting them verbatim. He placed “To Helen” among these youthful efforts, although the rest are from the volumes of 1827 and 1829. In that same footnote Poe also speaks of “plagiarism.” Obviously he was anxious to have his little masterpiece accepted as a very early composition. Perhaps this was to emphasize his claims to precocious genius, but he may have wished to head off comparison with the poems of Pike and Shea (both published in 1830), cited as probable “sources” in the notes on lines 2-4 and 9-10.




-p. 168, in item I. under the notes for line 3 (on page 168): Dionysos was conveyed / Dionysos was convened (misprint) [This typographical correction is noted by Burton R. Pollin in his own copy of TOM's edition of the Poems.]


[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (To Helen (Thy beauty is to me))