Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman on earth, who was so desirable to men that they fought the twelfth-century B.C. Trojan War over her. For several reasons, poet H.D. found similarities between herself and Helen. In the realm of art, H.D. identified her efforts with her mother’s, whose name was Helen. Helen was to become H.D.’s name for herself and for the Helen situation in all women throughout history. H.D. once remarked, “The mother is the Muse, the creator, and in my case especially, as my mother’s name was Helen.” Helen of Troy’s daughter was named Hermione; this was what H.D. called herself as a child in the autobiographical novel of the same name. More and more, H.D. came to associate herself with Helen because so many of the men in her life—including Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, and Cecil Gray—found her desirable. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote of her: “She fascinated me, not for her beauty, which was unquestioned if bizarre to my sense, but for a provocative indifference to rule and order which I liked.” It is indifference that also characterizes the statue of Helen in H.D.’s “Helen”; her indifference to the convention of marriage angers the Greeks who look upon her. H.D.’s relationship to Helen went even further. She likened Pound, to whom she was once engaged, to Helen’s first husband, Menelaus. She compared Richard Aldington, whom she married after she split with Pound, to Paris, the most handsome man on earth who stole Helen from Menelaus. Lawrence, who “made war” on H.D.’s marriage with Aldington, became identified with the warrior Achilles, Helen’s lover after the Trojan War.
“Helen” is a picture poem, a verse in which the picture or image of a marble statue of Helen is conveyed in words. This statue of Helen, H.D. tells us, has been reviled by Greeks throughout history. The primary reason is that Helen is blamed for starting the ten-year Trojan War. The poem is a cautionary tale describing how a woman’s beauty can be doubly tragic: deadly not only for the men risking all to possess it, but for the woman victimized by the beauty so coveted.
Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the pen name H.D., was the inspiration for Imagist poetry, and, with Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound, she helped formulate the principles of the poetic form known as free verse. One could therefore argue that H.D. should rank as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Present-day critics, however, pay more attention to her varied prose offerings than to her poetry. One critic even suggested that H.D wrote no more than a dozen good poems, which were characterized by classical mythology and mysticism as well as interesting formal experiments with free verse.
Born in 1886 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Hilda Doolittle was brought up by an artistic and musical mother who attended the local Moravian Church. The mystical rituals that young Hilda participated in at the Moravian seminary would have a profound and continuing effect on her. H.D.’s father, a Puritan, was the director of Sayre Observatory and a professor of astronomy and mathematics at Lehigh University before taking on similar positions at the University of Pennsylvania. After being educated at private schools, Hilda attended Bryn Mawr for one and a half years, dropping out because of ill health in 1906. At Bryn Mawr, she met poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, the first of many famous figures she would become involved with throughout her life. In 1907, she became engaged to Ezra Pound, a man she had known since 1901, when she was fifteen. In 1911 she joined Pound in England and there met William Butler Yeats, May Sinclair, D. H. Lawrence (with whom she would become closely involved), and her future husband, Richard Aldington,
whom she married in 1913. During that same year, H.D. published her first poems—the first Imagist poems according to Aldington—in Poetry magazine through the intermediary of Ezra Pound, who dubbed her “H.D., Imagiste.” The three poems in Poetry—“Hermes of the Ways,” “Priapus,” and “Epigram”—incorporated elements from classical Greek lyrics, Japanese haiku, and French symbolism. At the time, the poems were deemed revolutionary. Her early verse came to epitomize Imagism: use of concrete and sensual images, common and concise speech, and new rhythms intended to produce “poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.”
While Aldington was off fighting in World War I, H.D. took over as literary editor of the Egoist, a forum for Imagist writers; she eventually gave up her position to T.S. Eliot. She was also a major contributor to Des Imagistes: An Anthology (1914), an anthology of Imagist poetry. In 1918, H.D. and Aldington separated, and in 1919, she gave birth to her first and only child, Perdita. The two most likely candidates as fathers were D. H. Lawrence and Cecil Gray. Right after the birth, H.D. began living with a woman, Winifred Ellerman, pseudonymously known as “Bryher.” Supported by the wealthy Bryher, H.D. would later be able to travel through Europe, Egypt, and the United States, finally settling in Switzerland. H.D. joined with Bryher and Kenneth Macpherson to create photomontages, a film journal, and a film, Borderline (1930), in which H.D. starred with Paul Robeson. Throughout the 1920s, H.D. continued to write, using techniques of flashback and stream-of-consciousness monologues. In the 1930s and 1940s she began her psychoanalytic sessions, first with Sigmund Freud, whom she studied with for two years. Under Freud’s supervision, she worked on such issues as writer’s block and sexual identity. Psychoanalysis also prompted her to view herself as somehow linked to women throughout history, and she thought she could discover this connection through poetry. During the early 1940s, H.D. investigated matriarchal figures in esoteric religion and, during World War II, wrote about them in her poems while living in Britain. After the war, H.D. returned to live in Switzerland, where she wrote her fourth work of fiction, Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal), published in 1960. During that same year, she became the first woman to receive the Award of Merit medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died of a heart attack in September of 1961 in Zurich.
All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands. 5
All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments 10
and past ills.
Greece sees unmoved,
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees, 15
could love indeed the maid
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.
The poem has an unexpected beginning. Here Greek statuary engenders hate instead of awe or adoration; the still eyes and white face represents
- A recording titled Readings from Helen in Egypt(1982) is available from Watershed Tapes.
that which deserves hate, not the visage of otherworldly tranquility. Helen draws this hate because she is blamed for starting the Trojan War (c. 1200 B.C.), a war begun when she eloped to Troy with the handsome youth Paris. But the Greece H.D. is talking about is one in which Helen has long been dead, a place where Helen lives on only in myth and in a monument H.D. seems to have sculpted out of words for her.
Helen’s face has the luster of olives, a product of Greece and famously identified with it. The fact that it is not olive-colored skin, but skin as smooth as olives—skin showing like olives “where she stands”—indicates further that the subject of this poem is not a living Helen, but a classical statue of her. While Greek statues were once painted, almost all have come down to us with the color worn off by time. H.D. seems to understand this white as a purification of Helen’s image through time, a purity that the Greeks, however, are all the more angered by.
This is a smiling statue of Helen, an insult to the Greeks reviling her. Yet the face is sickly, or wan. Which is it? Can it be that Helen is simultaneously both happy and gloomy?
Greece apparently hates the statue of Helen the more it ages, the purer it looks, because Greeks remember how so many died to have her or rescue her.
The unmoving statue of Helen mimics what to Greeks (according to H.D.) was Helen’s nature: cold and unmoved. Here Helen is a pure object, an object of desire that lacks desire. Helen was the daughter of Zeus and, thus, “God’s daughter.”
From color (wan and white), H.D. moves to Helen’s temperature, her coolness. Again, the statue of Helen is an object absent of the warmth of desire or emotion—a fitting representation of a woman thought to possess the wan, white coolness of the statue. Helen’s feet and “slenderest knees” point to Helen’s beauty, not only to the usual foci of female beauty, but to the unusual; Helen is so perfect that even her feet and knees provoke longing.
The last three lines indicate that Greece cannot love Helen as a statue, for her beauty only galls. Even after death and in effigy, the beautiful statue of beautiful Helen provokes desire and anger among viewers. Are the viewers who want to see Helen’s monument turned into a pile of ashes both men and women? Or do only men curse the beauty of the femme fatale who, they think, leads them to their doom? Perhaps women, as well as men, hate Helen for setting the standards of beauty too high— for being the object of so much desire. If so, the pure white beauty of Helen must be reduced to pure white ashes scattered among cypresses, symbols of life after death and, therefore, planted in graveyards. The paradox is that Helen cannot be loved in remembrance unless dead and gone from sight. But lost from sight, it would also be impossible to love her. Helen stands in an impossible position— the point where hate equals love, a position trembling with instability.
H.D.’s “Helen” is a chain of objectifications, a near mise-en-abyme (a picture of a picture of a picture, etc., all the same) in words. The first picture is of Helen objectified in her time. She is a woman always described in terms of her appearance, her beauty; a woman desired and coveted by so many men; a woman with numerous suitors, three husbands, and two lovers. Ever since she was young, Helen had been an object of desire, first carried off by Theseus. This is Helen objectified, a complex person of flesh and blood reduced to appearance, at least during the Trojan War. The second Helen is Homer’s, an object of beauty by way
Topics for Further Study
- Begin a class discussion about whether “Helen” is deserving of more critical attention, either praiseworthy, explicatory, or as the germ of a problem in feminist criticism: how woman as an object destined for the pedestal is thereby made to suffer the consequences of that praise.
- Discuss “the objectification of women.” How precisely are women made into objects? By whom are they so made—only by men? To what extent are these objects good, bad, or ambivalent? Are men made into objects? How? By whom?
- Discuss or research other women in history who were desired and idolized, and who then suffered for it.
of words that, through time, has given birth— directly or indirectly—to numerous other images of Helen in picture and word. The next image containing the Helen of myth is the statue, or the painted or carved image of Helen in H.D.’s poem, an artwork that, if it exists, is not at all well-known. In its dubious existence, the artwork is an object flickering between insubstantiality and substance, an object seen through the imagination, then as an object in space and time. Next, there is the Helen of the poem titled “Helen” that depicts a real or imaginary artwork. Lastly, there is the image of Helen in the reader’s mind. The point of noticing all of this is that the early objectification of Helen might have contributed to the further objectification of Helen—and even, perhaps, of women in general. While H.D.’s poem might simply be one more in this chain of Helens, it also attempts to break the chain whereby women are held to their status as objects judged by their appearance.
Guilt and Innocence
Why does H.D. write a poem in which Greeks stand around hating a statue of Helen? Is this poem more about Helen or about the Greeks reviling her? If we conclude it is the latter, what is H.D. attempting to convey through showing this hatred of Helen? It is probably safe to say that because the Greeks are shown in the process of hating, it is they who are being “reviled” by H.D. The chain of hatred would thus begin with Greeks hating Helen and end with H.D. “hating” the Greeks for hating Helen. H.D. probably finds these Greeks distasteful, because Helen seems much further from blame than do the Greeks, who would blame Helen for their own desire for the beauty Helen embodied. Was it Helen’s fault she was born beautiful, a state of affairs over which she had no control? Not to mention that her abduction by Paris was foretold and almost fated by Aphrodite. Why do these Greeks hate Helen? For one thing, she might arouse in them overwhelming desire through her reputation as the most beautiful woman in the world. This kind of desire makes people lose control and makes them vulnerable to actions they themselves might disdain. Others find Helen guilty and hate her for all of the deaths during the ten years of trying to rescue her from the walled city of Troy. But this amounts to something similar in that she is hated, not for the desire the viewers themselves feel, but for the desire the Greeks and Trojans felt for Helen. Lastly, she might be seen as first cause or most prominent symbol of the political problems throughout history between Greece and Turkey. In all, Helen becomes the unfortunate marker at the crossing where genders and nationalities meet in mutual distrust and war.
“Helen” is an early modernist poem in free verse. Ezra Pound, having deliberated with H.D. and Richard Aldington, wrote in 1912 that poetry, to be modern, must follow three principles: “1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective. 2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” These two principles apply to modern verse and, more specifically, to Imagism, an image being defined by Pound as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound’s third and last principle, however, describes only free verse: “3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.” A more recent definition of free verse is Laurence Perrine’s (1956): “Free verse, by our definition, is not verse at all; that is, it is not metrical. It may be rimed or unrimed. The word free means that it’s free of metrical restrictions. The only difference between free verse and rhythmical prose is that free verse introduces one additional rhythmical unit, the line…. Beyond its line arrangement there are no necessary differences between it and rhythmical prose.” What neither Pound or Perrine say here, however, is that free verse, while free of a metrical pattern, is also free to construct a pattern beyond rhyme, conforming to the contents or message(s) of the poem being crafted.
“Helen” is partially rhymed free verse. For example, the rhyme scheme in the first stanza is, loosely, aabbb. However, the b lines only partially rhyme by way of the plural “s” sound. Full and partial rhyme is used throughout the poem, as is occasional assonance. There are three stanzas, each reading as a single sentence. The second stanza is one line longer than the first, and the third stanza is one line longer than the second. The lines are mostly short and concise, conforming to Pound’s first and second principles listed previously. The poem also adheres to Pound’s third principle in that the poem’s meter is not regular. Yet overall, “Helen” contains a ragged regularity. The first stanza wholly consists of lines of two accents in a variety of combinations of accented with unaccented syllables. The second stanza is irregular but does begin and end with lines of two accents. The last stanza consists of lines mostly of three accents, with the last line of the poem having as many as four or five accents, depending on how it is read. In this respect, as the stanzas accrete lines, the lines accrete accents. While the reader moves down the poem, an image of Helen is built up … mostly downward—from the face and hands of the first two stanzas to the knees and feet of the third.
Post-World War I Europe was the time and place in which H.D. wrote “Helen,” and H.D.’s years just prior to 1920 were painful. Her marriage with Richard Aldington ended in 1917 when he began to live with another woman. In 1918, one of her brothers was killed in the war, and soon thereafter, her father died. In the summer of 1918, H.D. became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Perdita, in 1919, her only child (whose paternity was either uncertain or kept secret). At the time of the birth, H.D. almost died from double pneumonia and felt that all the men in her life—Aldington, Pound, Lawrence, and Cecil Gray—had deserted her. But
Compare & Contrast
- 1924: Costantin Brancusi carves the first versions of his sculpture series The Fish (1924-30) and The Cock (1924-49)
1998: The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum opens in Bilbao, Spain. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the titanium structure may look like a gigantic sculpture, but it also functions as an art museum.
- 1924: The gas chamber, which releases lethal gas in a closed box, was first used for an execution at Nevada State Prison in Carson City. It was developed by Major D.A. Turner of the U.S. Army Medical Corps as a more “humane” method of execution than hanging and the electric chair (used since 1890). During World War II, the Germans would use the gas chamber for exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals.
1998: Texas leads the U.S. in terms of the number of executions. The practice is now carried out by lethal injection.
a woman named Bryher, rich and adoring of H.D., stepped in to rescue her. In 1920, the two sailed to Greece, a setting that became the source of so much of H.D.’s writing, including “Helen.” Bryher would furnish money and nurturance for H.D. and her child; this support would carry H.D. through the 1920s—those years of travel, writing, and relative peace in Switzerland, away from the turmoil in much of the rest of Europe.
The two major preludes to the first half of the 1920s in Europe were World War I (1914-18) and the events of the Russian Revolution (March 15, 1917), followed by the takeover of the provisional Russian government by the Bolsheviks (November 6-7, 1917). World War I began with a local conflict: the assassinations of the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne and his wife in Sarajevo. The killings touched off the first declaration of war: Austria-Hungary—allied with Germany—against Serbia, which was backed by Russia. Within three months of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, France, allied with Britain, joined the proceedings. Japan subsequently allied itself with France and England and set about taking over German holdings in the Far East. The Ottoman Empire then joined the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The next year, Italy entered the war with Britain, France, and Japan. Later, Greece also entered on the side of Britain, and Romania on the side of Germany. In 1917, the United States entered the war, aligning itself with England and her allies. Fighting between powers with far-flung empires soon caused hostilities to spread from Europe to Africa to Asia. Most of the battles of the war up until 1917 were either deadlocked, or long, hard, and heavy with casualties. The events in Russia, however, would have a profound effect on the war and the rest of twentieth-century history.
In March of 1917, Tzar Nicholas Romanov of Russia abdicated when the Russian Revolution deposed him. The revolution began as just another strike, one of 1,330 that occurred in the first two months of 1917. While the army had usually put down the strikes, this time it joined the one in Petrograd, turning the strike into a revolution. Leon Trotsky was perhaps most responsible for the revolution: he was president of the Petrograd Soviet (workers’ council) and, according to an early statement by Stalin, convinced the army to join the side of the Soviet. It was also Trotsky who was most responsible for engineering the overthrow of the provisional government eight months later by the Bolsheviks under the guiding genius of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Lenin, unlike his counterparts in the opposition parties—the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries—believed that land from the rich should be seized and broken up among the peas-ants—immediately, not later. The other parties feared that to redistribute land so fast would result in chaos, paralyzing Russia’s ability to continue in World War I. Lenin, however, wanted out of the war effort. So, when two million Russian soldiers deserted, decimating the Russian army, Lenin believed the country—decaying at its core—was ripe for Bolshevism. But so did other factions in the government: in September of 1917, Kornilov, the Russian commander and chief, attempted to seize power. To stop him, the provisional government armed the Bolshevik Red Guards. In fear, Kornilov’s army refused to march, and in the aftermath, the Bolsheviks claimed credit for saving Russia from Kornilov’s military takeover. The Bolsheviks’ good name led to even more Bolshevik recruits for the Soviets in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow. Lenin, having won his Soviet majorities, called for insurrection. To Marxists everywhere, the Bolshevik takeover would become the classic example of a successful workers’ revolution. Once in power, Lenin called for an end to Russian involvement in the war. In December of 1917, nine months after the abdication of the Tzar, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was negotiated with Germany which demanded from Russia the cession of the Baltic provinces, White Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus. For several months, Lenin attempted to convince his unwilling Bolsheviks to accept this humiliating treaty with Germany. Lenin prevailed, and on March 3, 1918, the treaty was signed. In only one year, Russia had ended its monarchy, instituted a revolutionary form of government, and surrendered a large tract of its western territory.
Russia’s surrender to Germany changed the course of the war. Germany was now able to shift soldiers on the Eastern Front (from the Baltic to the Black Seas), where it fought Russia, to the Western Front (from the North Sea to Switzerland), where it was fighting Britain, France, and the United States. But Germany and her allies would lose the war. The armistice, signed November 11, 1918, occurred eight months after Russia surrendered to Germany. Luckily for Russia, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was annulled. The Versailles Treaty ending World War I would take six months to negotiate, and the map of Europe needed year to be redrawn. The Baltic states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all formerly parts of the Russian Empire—gained independence. The Austrian Empire was divided into Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.
On August 14, 1919, Germany became a democracy. During the first four years of its existence, the Weimar Republic lived from crisis to crisis. Financial collapse and a weak government led to left-wing Bolshevik bids to institute communism. The government put the insurrections down, and a right-wing nationalist backlash occurred against Bolshevism. It was then that Adolph Hitler, an anti-Bolshevist and nationalist/nativist, made his first, though unsuccessful, bid for power. Meanwhile, in Italy, workers’ strikes amounted to—by August, 1920—half a million workers taking over factories and raising the Bolshevik flag. But when the time came to seize power, the workers, without a genius like Lenin’s behind them, could only hand back the factories in exchange for higher wages and better working conditions. Now, Bolshevism was, as Benito Mussolini, the leader of the fascist party, said, “mortally wounded.” Factory owners, estate owners, and their sympathizers, wanted vengeance on Bolshevism and thus supported Italian Fascism. Money poured into the Fascist Party when it promised to protect factory and estate owners, and the Italian government gave tacit approval to Mussolini. With this backing, Mussolini raided left-wing organizations, gaining fame for a brutality that was largely accepted as a necessary corrective for the spreading threat of Bolshevism. In 1921, when Mussolini threatened to take over the government, he was asked to become prime minister of a coalition. England’s Winston Churchill, an anti-Bolshevist, called Mussolini “the saviour of his country.” Fifteen years later, in World War II, Churchill would be fighting on the side of the Bolshevik Soviet Union against the right-wing nationalism and anti-Bolshevism he had supported. The extremity of the right proved itself even more fearful than that of the left.
Finally, and most directly relevant to H.D.’s poem, Greece, in its postwar struggle with Turkey (1919-22), lost its bid to take territory from its Aegean neighbor, being summarily defeated by the forces of Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Greece’s loss to Turkey could have led to H.D.’s depiction of Greeks—in the early 1920s—hating Helen, a figure who reminded them of that war of long ago when Greeks lost so many people in the ten-year fight against Troy, now a ruined city in present-day Turkey.
By the paucity of criticism on H.D.’s “Helen” (1924), one might guess that either the poem has not been received very well, or that it is too simple or obvious to pay it more than passing attention. Since the poem frequently appears in anthologies, the latter guess is likely the best. Those critics who do address the poem briefly praise it or quickly sum up the poem’s form or content. In his book Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Vincent Quinn calls “Helen” “one of H.D.’s most admired lyrics.” Quinn first sums up the theme of “Helen,” writing that it “is concerned with man’s fear of beauty because of the trouble it brings.” In an article titled “H.D.: Poems That Matter and Dilutations,” Bernard F. Engel notes that “The poem moves in a simple overall rhythm from beginning to end, each of the three stanzas being a single sentence. The end-rhyme is skillful enough to suggest that H.D. might well have used it more often.” Writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Stanford Friedman’s provides this assessment of “Helen”: “As an answer to the representations of Helen in Homer, Poe, and Yeats, H.D.’s “Helen” is an ominous poem about the paralyzing misogyny at the heart of male worship of woman’s beauty.” And in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, Alicia Ostriker comments, “Among her early lyric poems, ‘Helen’ implies that men and nations hate the woman-as-erotic-object they claim to love, until they can embalm her as art.”
David Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several community colleges in Illinois, as well as a fiction writer and playwright. In the following essay, Kelly explores the connection that critics often make between H.D.’s life and her work, and he questions whether it is justified.
It is easy for a lover of poetry to love H.D. She was erratic and committed, obscure to the general public, practically embodying all of the great things about poetry in the first half of the twentieth century (which, it has turned out, is certainly better than embodying poetry in the century’s rundown half). H.D. was present at the beginning of the century’s defining artistic wave, Modernism. She witnessed the birth of the Imagist movement, one of the strongest forces in shoving stuffy old traditions aside to let poetry stand tall and free. Imagism redefined the relationship between words and reality; teachers of poetry stress the image so much nowadays that is hard to remember that someone had to “represent” the idea once. To people who have just peeked into Imagism briefly—usually lovers of poetry and fans of revolution, but not scholars—H.D. looms large over the movement, a distinction
What Do I Read Next?
- John Boardman’s Greek Art, published in 1964, is full of illustrations and includes an index and bibliography. It makes an excellent introduction to the varied arts of ancient Greece.
- The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves (1955), not only recounts the basic myths with their variations but provides annotations and bibliographic sources for the earliest tellings of the myths. It is an extremely valuable reference book.
- Hermione (1981) is H.D.’s autobiographical novel, an interior self-portrait. The book covers a year in H.D.’s twenties, a particularly bad year in her personal life.
- Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) was a watershed book for feminism. It includes a history of feminism, an overview of its history, and feminist criticism of male writers, including D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet.
mostly caused by her having signed her first works “H.D., Imagiste.” In the 1930s she underwent psychoanalysis, which, regardless of its value as a tool for mental health, was a trend among all of the avant-garde intellectuals for the next three decades. Even better for her legend, H.D.’s psychoanalysis was not with some ordinary couch pilot with a Park Avenue address, but with the kingpin of them all, Sigmund Freud. As a result, H.D.’s work became even more complex and symbolic as she passed through middle age, more twisted personally at a time of life when most writers tend to settle into some sort of literary ambassadorships. H.D.’s later works, such as her retelling of the Helen of Troy story some thirty years after the poem about Helen who “All Greece hates,” reworks the ancient myths to fit the story of her own psychological profile. Readers, on first coming across H.D., tend to ask, “Why haven’t I heard of her before?”
But then they read the poems. It’s good poetry, to be sure, but it has a hard time keeping up with her biography. There can be no doubt about the
“Look at a picture of H.D. and you see the Helen that is represented in the poem; read about H.D.’s life, and the haunted alienation that Helen feels is depicted.”
value of her work and of her life, but there also is no doubt about which one interests readers more. Why doesn’t her poetry, on its own, thrill readers as much as her life does?
“Helen” was written too late to be swept up in the flow of Imagism or Vorticism, and too early to be dragged down to the depths of her journey of self-understanding; the poem stands a comfortable distance both from the social forces of the time and from its own author. It is careful with its words and smart regarding what makes the world go around. With all of that going for it, I, as a reader, would expect the poem to curl itself around me and take control of what I think and do—at least for the couple of minutes just after I’ve read it, if not longer. Instead, the poem just lays there, its pieces honed and fitted perfectly together. It doesn’t come to life at all.
One reason that it stays cold is that coldness is its subject. Helen herself is sterile and untouchable in this poem, and the poem captures her exquisite essence. Therefore, it hardly seems fair to blame the poem when it is effective in its aim. Stillness, whiteness, coolness, and wanness results in something unloved by both Greeks and readers. One could reasonably argue that being unmoved equates with being held under the poem’s spell. But the poem is not entirely without passion: only Helen’s drained cheeks are. The poem is filled with the hatred belonging to the Greek people, which intensifies as they think about how Helen stands untouched, oblivious to all of the death and waste that has gone on in her name. Their hatred should mean more—it is expressed as the first verb in the poem, and it is the source of the blood lust that brings the last line to a fulfilling conclusion. It stands to reason that readers should be moved to some feeling— if not hatred then pity or disgust that the mob gangs up on someone so frail as Helen.
Readers instead are suspended in some weird unfocused purgatory, identifying with neither Helen nor the Greeks. She is pictured as unapproachable and impenetrable—as a statue to be appreciated but not understood. The Greeks are not even pictured, just represented as pure emotion: hatred. They represent ugly emotions, the kind of perversity that finds its joy in someone’s death— jealousy, grudge-bearing. It would not take much to make readers empathize, even with things they would rather not catch themselves feeling, but this poem does not try to turn its readers into angry Greeks. It talks about the Greeks, but it doesn’t show them. And talking without showing is wrong in literature, not just because it violates the cardinal rule taught in creative writing classes everywhere, but also because it makes the poem ineffectual and unconvincing. Perhaps H.D. had a reason for wanting Helen to appear as an object in this poem, to transmogrify the woman from flesh into marble, as so many sculptors have throughout the ages, but there is no good reason for not making the Greeks the poem’s subject. I suspect that she held back from identifying with them because they are, after all, a pack of louts, and she didn’t want to associate herself with them.
But, there I go trying to think through her motives and use them as part of understanding what is on the page. Some poems stand by themselves, but a poem such as “Helen” recedes from the reader, runs away from being understood, so that readers taking more than a minute to look at it end up having their attention drawn to the hypnotic personality of H.D. There are different schools of literary criticism: some argue that a poem should speak for itself, regardless of who wrote it or where it came from; others find no reason to exclude the author in analysis of a poem. And, even when knowledge of the author is not required, it is usually interesting to examine the poet’s creative process. In a case like this, exploring the author and her insecurities helps to fill in the gaps missing from the poem. We know that beauteous Helen was the cause of the Trojan war, and, as such, it would make sense that the Greeks would resent the damage she caused. However, literary sources, such as Homer and Euripides, don’t emphasize the common people’s feelings about her. Capturing the mood of a whole society wasn’t important to them; such a quest is a fairly new and linked to poll-taking and political science. It is not unusual, then, that H.D. should give modern sensibilities to the citizens of Greece. The unusual thing—the “gap” in sensibility that the poem does not fill in itself— is why Helen is pictured the way she is here. Look at a picture of H.D. and you see the Helen that is represented in the poem; read about H.D.’s life, and the haunted alienation that Helen feels is depicted. Fiction and screenplay writers call this the back-story. It is a story not presented, but one that the author knows in order to flesh out a character.
“Helen” does not offer readers the point of view necessary for them to approach it, understand it, and take it in and make it real to themselves. Not enough is said about either of the parties portrayed to fully comprehend the significance of this poem. It is incomplete as it stands. Like many of H.D.’s works, “Helen” is like a mechanism that is ready to go but just sits still, waiting for something to make it work. Background about H.D.’s life provides the electrical current it needs to move into action.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D. in English and an M.A. in cinema studies. Hochman’s essay examines “Helen” from the perspectives of H.D.’s biography, Helen’s mythology, and the history of conflict between Greece and Asia Minor.
H.D.’s poem “Helen” can be viewed through at least three filters: the Greek myths of Helen; H.D.’s life; and, finally, the history of conflicts between Greece and Turkey—or, more specifically, between Greece and inhabitants of the peninsula between the Black and Mediterranean seas in what is now Turkey and is also known as Asia Minor.
Before recounting the two most important stories regarding Helen, it is necessary to place her birth. Although there are several variations, the usual story is that Helen was the daughter of Zeus and Leda. Leda was the wife of Tyndareus, the King of Sparta, but she was pursued and raped by Zeus, who took the form of a swan. Leda laid eggs, from which were hatched Helen, Castor and Pollux (Dioscuri), and Clytaemnestra. (Whether the latter three children were all Zeus’s is a matter of variation.) The swan and egg appear, at least partially, to be an impetus for H.D.’s repeated references in “Helen” to “white” and “wan.”
The next story involving Helen takes place in Sparta, where the twelve-year-old (or younger) is worshipping an effigy of the Upright Artemis, a fertility goddess of the moon and hunt. As Helen makes her sacrificial offering, Theseus and Perithous ride up, abduct her, and gallop away. These two abductors decide by lots who will marry Helen. Theseus wins but, fearing Helen will be found and taken back by her brothers, the Dioscuri, hides her in the village of Aphidnae in the care of his mother. Several years pass before Helen is old enough to marry Theseus. Before that happens, Theseus must honor his promise to help Perithous—the loser in the drawing of the lots for Helen—find another daughter of Zeus to marry. While Theseus and Perithous are off on their adventure to Tartarus (the land of the dead) to find Persephone, the Dioscuri assemble an army and demand that Athens return their sister. After a war between Athens and the army of the Dioscuri, Helen’s whereabouts are finally revealed. In retaliation, the Dioscuri’s army razes Aphidnae. The conflict marks the first war between Peloponnesians and Athenians and the first of two wars fought over Helen.
When Helen is at the marrying age, she resides in Sparta with Tyndareus, her foster father. Because of Helen’s renowned beauty, many suitors—an all-star cast of princes from all over Greece—are vying to marry her. So that none of the suitors attempts revenge on the winning suitor, Odysseus decrees that they all must take an oath to defend the winner in the case of a jealous attack. Upon the pieces of a sacrificed and dismembered horse sacred to Poseidon, the suitors swear allegiance to Helen’s future husband—whoever he turns out to be. Menelaus ends up marrying Helen, and after Tyndareus’s death, he also assumes the Spartan throne. There’s only one problem: once before Tyndareus died, he committed the blunder of paying tribute to all of the gods except Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite cursed his daughters— Clytaemnestra, Timandra, and Helen—and pledged to turn them into infamous adulterers. Helen would commit adultery by being abducted or eloping with the handsome Paris, also under the sway of Aphrodite. This abduction/elopement provoked Menelaus to call upon the losing suitors to honor their word to defend him from any attack. Thus, a large Greek Army sailed across the Aegean Sea to the walled town of Troy on the coast of Phrygia. The war to take back Helen of Troy lasted ten years, and by the end, Paris was dead and Helen was once again Menelaus’s wife. This, then, is the recounting of the turmoil surrounding Helen, a woman with beauty no more her choice than the choice to accept or reject Aphrodite’s curse that impelled Helen to become an adulterer and Paris an abductor. If anyone is to be blamed in this story, it is Tyndareus, a Spartan Greek, for forgetting to honor Aphrodite and starting a chain reaction that led to the Trojan War.
H.D. viewed the events surrounding the Trojan War as partially analogous to her private life. First, Helen was the name of H.D.’s mother. As a child, H.D. referred to herself as Hermione, Helen of Troy’s child, and as an adult, H.D. would see herself as Helen, her mother, and also Helen of Troy. H.D. viewed her marriage to Richard Aldington as the Trojan War by way of the following associations: Aldington (Paris) wrested H.D. (Helen) away from Ezra Pound (Menelaus). The marriage (war) was tempestuous, with H.D. being torn between those men and an additional man, writer D. H. Lawrence (Achilles, the hero on the Greek side of the war). When the “war” ends, H.D. is rescued by Bryher, a woman comparable to the postwar Menelaus, who takes H.D. on a cruise to Egypt and Greece—just as Menelaus had once taken Helen back to Egypt then Greece.
The Trojan War (c. 1194-1184 B.C.) was only the first of many conflicts between Greece and the land called Asia Minor, which was inhabited, successively, by Phrygians, Persians, and Ottoman Turks. Although the Greeks won the Trojan War, they incurred significant casualties. But thereafter they would not always be so “lucky.” In the sixth century B.C., the Persians (present-day Iranians) moved westward, first taking over the Ionian coast of Asia Minor and then penetrating into much of Greece. But the city-state of Athens held firm, repulsing the Persians in the first two decades of the fourth century and causing the slow retreat of Persians from what is present-day Greece. As most historians affirm, Greece gave birth to western civilization, especially Western-style democracy through the efforts of the ruler Solon. The next major historical period of the region saw the gradual takeover of the Ottoman Turks, a west Asian nomadic people said to be descended from Othman (or Osman). From an Anatolian border emirate, the Ottomans expanded through most of what is now Turkey and the Balkans and completely engulfed Greece. In the early sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire expanded its borders even more. The apex of its conquests was Constantinople, the former eastern capital of the Roman Empire, in 1453. The Ottomans had turned the eastern Christian empire—including Greece—into an Asian Empire.
One source of hostility between Greeks and Turks during Ottoman rule was the aftermath of a naval battle between Turks and Christians in which the Turks were defeated. To take advantage of Turkish naval losses, the commander of the European fleet encouraged the Greeks to revolt. But the Turkish infantry was still strong and slaughtered thousands of Greek revolutionaries on land. Catherine the Great of Russia instigated another abortive attempt at Greek revolt, but when it was put down, the Turkish grip intensified. But on March 25, 1821, (Greek independence day) an Arcadian archbishop raised the blue and white flag, inaugurating the fight for Greek independence, a conflict that did not end until 1829. The next major conflict between Greece and Turkey did not occur until World War I, during which the two countries fought on opposite sides. The famous yearlong battle at Gallipoli (1915), very near the ruins of Troy, ended with defeat and a terrible loss of life for the Allies, with whom the Greeks were aligned.
Even after Greece won independence and finished on the winning side of World War I (Turkey, of course, on the losing side), one out of five Greeks lived in Asia Minor under Turkish rule. To rectify the situation, an irredentist Greece sent forces across the Aegean to occupy Izmir (Smyrna), just south of Troy, in 1919. While Greece contemplated proceeding to Istanbul, Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal launched a fierce attack on August 26, 1922, in the region of Afyonkarahisar. The attack became a Greek rout, a retreat all the way back to Izmir. On September 8, the Greek soldiers evacuated the city and the Turks took it back the following day. To show the “infidel” city a lesson, the Muslim Turks began a massacre of Christians, with the Armenian, Greek, and Frankish quarters suffering the most heavy losses. Thirty thousand people were killed, and a quarter of a million fled to the sea to escape a Smyrna set ablaze. Within a few days, Greeks had completely fled Asia Minor, having suffered what they would thenceforth refer to as “the catastrophe.” In Izmir there is a reverse analogue of what happened at Troy almost three thousand years prior. At Troy, Greeks finally invaded and decimated Troy and slaughtered Trojans. At Izmir, the Turks invaded and decimated Izmir, slaughtering Christians.
H.D., then, could have viewed Helen through these two lenses: that of her own life and that of the Greek mind. While H.D. recalled her suffering at the hands of male companions, H.D.’s Greeks gazing upon and reviling Helen might just have had in mind those long years of conflict with Asia Minor when they preposterously concluded that Helen was an accursed traitor, that an image of this most beautiful of women was unacceptable unless burned in effigy and reduced to “white ash amid funereal cypresses.”
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Jeannine Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. In the following essay, Johnson argues that, though H.D. is sympathetic to Helen, the poet never fully absolves her complex heroine of her imperfections.
The legendary Helen is a recurrent figure in H.D.’s writing. She is, for instance, the central subject of H.D.’s final major work, Helen in Egypt (1961). This epic poem, published just after H.D.’s death, examines the character of Helen and attempts to reconcile the fact that she represents both the greatest properties of love and the worst elements of war. To some extent, H.D.’s feministic and pacifistic poem redeems Helen, but it does not do so naively or with complete success. The poet ultimately does not resolve either the ambiguity of Helen’s ethical standing or the complexity of her identity, and H.D. proceeds in her poem with a mix of celebration and criticism.
An earlier poem by H.D., simply titled “Helen” and published in 1924, is a more compact but equally conflicted portrait of the woman who has always been associated with both love and war, with both beauty and destruction. Helen was world renowned for her unparalleled physical attractiveness, but she was also maligned as the cause of the ruinous Trojan War. Her father was Zeus, the king of the gods, and she herself was queen of Sparta in ancient Greece. Once, when her husband Menelaus was away from home, the Trojan prince Paris came to Sparta and kidnapped her, removing her to the city of Troy. In order to rescue her, Menelaus enlisted the help of other kings of Greek city-states, and for ten years they laid siege to Troy. The Greeks were ultimately victorious, but their losses were very heavy and Troy was demolished.
In “Helen,” H.D. explores the depths of resentment that the Greeks feel toward the infamous title character after the war. She has safely returned home from Troy, but thousands of Greek soldiers have not, and it is clear that they blame her for this national injury. The poem focuses on their extreme position, a stance the poet suggests is all too easily
“Though [H.D.] does not judge Helen as the Greeks do and tries to insulate her from the judgments of others, she does not thoroughly sever Helen from the enduring guilt that clings to her name.”
adopted and one that she subtly condemns. Nevertheless, H.D. is unwilling to dismiss their contempt altogether. Though the poet does not judge Helen as the Greeks do and tries to insulate her from the judgments of others, she does not thoroughly sever Helen from the enduring guilt that clings to her name.
H.D.’s heroine is perhaps best known and most often referred to as “Helen of Troy,” but she is also sometimes called “Helen of Sparta” or “Helen of Egypt.” Such names contain an implied judgment of Helen and suggest a natural connection between her and the men who inhabit those sites. The title “Helen of Troy” signals that she belonged to that city and to Paris. It may further insinuate that she was content there and, therefore, partly responsible for her own kidnapping and for the Trojan War. The name “Helen of Sparta” emphasizes Helen’s rightful place as wife of Menelaus and as daughter of Leda, the previous queen of that city. It affirms that her identity and her allegiances are fully Greek. To refer to her as “Helen of Egypt” recalls lesser-known stories about her and foregrounds the mysteriousness and the arbitrariness of the human condition. An alternative version of the incidents surrounding the Trojan War maintains that Paris carried a ghost double of Helen back to Troy while the real Helen was hidden by the gods in Egypt during the war. Some authorities say that after the war, the true Helen was reunited with Menelaus when, on his voyage back to Sparta, he inadvertently landed on Egypt’s shores; other sources hold that she married a reborn Achilles there. H.D. chooses not to attach any place designation to her heroine’s name, thereby underscoring her identity as an individual and minimizing her relationship with various powerful men and kingdoms. This suggests a belief that Helen was largely innocent of the trials that befell her and that she possessed a character with value independent of the many dramatic stories associated with her.
Nevertheless, H.D.’s poem centers on the fact that, to these Greeks, she is unalterably Helen of Troy. The citizens of her own country perceive her both as a foreigner and as a reminder of unnecessary suffering. They “revile” her even when she seems to acknowledge her own responsibility, and they hate her face all the more when it looks sad as Helen is “remembering past enchantments / and past ills.” Christopher Marlowe, in his play Doctor Faustus, wrote that Helen’s was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Contrary to the sense of universal admiration underlying Marlowe’s famous assertion, H.D. reports that “All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face….”
Although the poet would lean toward protecting Helen, she does not explicitly defend her, as if to do so would be to concede Helen’s guilt and to admit that she requires defending. Neither does H.D. defend the Greeks, and her tone is that of a nearly neutral observer. Her dispassionate voice is at odds with the fierce feelings of animosity she describes, creating an extraordinary tension that conveys the extent of the strain between Helen and her countrymen. H.D. takes us inside the minds of the Greeks, and we watch as they contemplate their rage. She leads us through their meditations, which only feed their anger, and, over the course of the poem, they conduct Helen imaginatively to death, hatred’s inevitable extreme. The poet declares that the Greeks despise Helen so much that they could love her only if she were dead: they “could love indeed the maid, / only if she were laid, / white ash amid funereal cypresses.”
The light-colored features attributed to Helen are gruesomely preserved in her ashen death. From the beginning of the poem, H.D. stresses the fairness of Helen’s beauty, repeating the word “white” in the first stanza in describing her face and hands. The poet again uses “white” in the second stanza and also twice employs the word “wan” in reference to Helen’s face. H.D.’s word choice here is significant because “wan” indicates not only the color of her skin, but it also symbolizes an underlying sickness or affliction. If we read that word from Helen’s perspective (that is, as if she were using it to characterize herself), then the drain of color in her face might suggest an internal conflict and perhaps remorse for the past. If we interpret her paleness as the hostile Greeks would (or as they would apply the word to her), then “wan” may reflect their view that she is an unhealthy and alien figure and may reveal their hope that she will soon die.
Throughout the poem, the hatred belongs to the Greeks, but the language is the poet’s. H.D. displays the Greeks’ extremism without directly commenting on it; instead, she tries to soften their loathing with pleasing images. She mentions Helen’s face with “the lustre as of olives” and her “beauty of cool feet / and slenderest knees” to remind us of her extraordinary loveliness. But the enduring presence of Helen’s beauty is precisely what infuriates the Greeks: “Greece sees unmoved, / God’s daughter, born of love.” They are unim-pressed by her attractiveness, and they are not inspired to stir because of it—in sharp contrast to the story of a thousand ships launched for her sake. The quality of stillness, further communicated by the final image of Helen’s unmoving corpse, contrasts with the volatility of the Greeks’ passionate scorn that builds over the course of the poem.
The poem’s structure parallels the ideas being presented in it and mirrors the buildup of malice. As the poem develops, the stanzas lengthen—from five lines in the first stanza, to six in the second, to seven in the third. This structural expansion reveals H.D.’s need to enlarge her poem’s framework in order to accommodate the Greeks’ increasing hate for Helen. The poet repeats “All Greece” at the beginning of the first two stanzas, followed by “hates” and “reviles,” to denote that their hostility is continuously renewed. She drops the “All” at the start of the third stanza and simply states “Greece sees….” Whereas the implied meaning of “All Greece” is “All the people of Greece,” the single word “Greece” marks that culture’s entire identity—its land, customs, history, and traditions—in addition to every Greek citizen. By eliminating one word, the poet demonstrates that profound spite pervades the whole of a civilization and does not simply distinguish a group of its inhabitants.
H.D.’s rhymes also help to reinforce the sense of ceaseless menace and tension in the poem. Several of the rhyming pairs contain one word related to the Greeks and their perspective and one affiliated with Helen and her qualities. The words “hates” and “face” create a slant rhyme in the first stanza. In the second, “reviles” and “smiles” are rhymed, and in the third “unmoved” is connected with “love,” while “maid” is joined with “laid.” The similar sounds link these opposing pairs, as if to signify that neither the Greeks’ antipathy nor Helen’s stature could exist without the other. Certainly H.D.’s poem shows that to consider one in the absence of the other would be to oversimplify a complicated and enduring myth, even at the risk of leaving Helen vulnerable to further attacks on her character. It is perhaps because she does leave Helen unprotected, that H.D. can return again and again to this rich subject for poetic study, pursuing more radical revisions of the myth and rendering more clearly sympathetic visions of her controversial heroine.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Clogg, Richard, A Short History of Modern Greece, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Doolittle, Hilda (H.D.), Helen in Egypt, New Directions, 1961.
Eliot, Alexander, Greece, New York: Time, 1963.
Engel, Bernard F., “H.D.: Poems That Matter and Dilutations,” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, autumn 1969, pp. 507-22.
Friedman, Susan Stanford, “H.D.,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, First Series, Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
Healey, Claire, “H.D.,” American Women Writers, Volume I, edited by Lima Mainiero, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.
Ostricker, Alicia, Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, Boston: Beacon, 1986.
Quinn, Vincent, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), New York: Twayne, 1967.
Robinson, Janice, H.D.: The Life and Work of an American Poet, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Coffman, Stanley K., Jr., Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry, New York: Octagon, 1972.
Coffman’s study tackles Imagism as it changes through time and also focuses on major and minor figures of the movement.
Erskine, John, The Private Life of Helen of Troy, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1925.
Erskine’s easygoing retelling of the story of Helen begins at the end of the Trojan War when Menelaus rescues her from Troy.
Gage, John T., In the Arresting Eye: The Rhetoric of Imagism, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Gage attempts to salvage Imagist poems from the failings of Imagist theory, a body of ideas Gage finds unconvincing.
H.D., Helen in Egypt, New York: Grove Press, 1961.
H.D.’s epic poem of numerous shorter poems rewrites the later portion of the Helen myth, taking up the Helen story when she falls in love with Achilles in Egypt after the Trojan War has ended.
Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1931.
Hughes’s study is interesting for its appearance at a time right after Imagism ceased to be a controversial body of work. It is more literary history than literary criticism.
White, Edward Lucas, Helen, New York: George H. Doran, 1925.
White’s tale of Helen commences when Theseus and Peirithous abduct Helen (before her subsequent abduction by Paris) and then covers her history through her marriages to Menelaus, Paris, and Deiphobos, or up to the time of her rescue from Troy by Menelaus.