'To Helen' by Edgar Allan Poe

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I saw thee once- once only- years ago:
I must not say how many- but not many.
It was a July midnight; and from out
A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,
Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,
There fell a silvery-silken veil of light,
With quietude, and sultriness, and slumber,
Upon the upturned faces of a thousand
Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,
Where no wind dared to stir, unless on tiptoe-
Fell on the upturn'd faces of these roses
That gave out, in return for the love-light,
Their odorous souls in an ecstatic death-
Fell on the upturn'd faces of these roses
That smiled and died in this parterre, enchanted
By thee, and by the poetry of thy presence.

Clad all in white, upon a violet bank
I saw thee half reclining; while the moon
Fell on the upturn'd faces of the roses,
And on thine own, upturn'd- alas, in sorrow!

Was it not Fate, that, on this July midnight-
Was it not Fate, (whose name is also Sorrow,)
That bade me pause before that garden-gate,
To breathe the incense of those slumbering roses?
No footstep stirred: the hated world an slept,
Save only thee and me. (Oh, Heaven!- oh, God!
How my heart beats in coupling those two words!)
Save only thee and me. I paused- I looked-
And in an instant all things disappeared.
(Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!)

The pearly lustre of the moon went out:
The mossy banks and the meandering paths,
The happy flowers and the repining trees,
Were seen no more: the very roses' odors
Died in the arms of the adoring airs.
All- all expired save thee- save less than thou:
Save only the divine light in thine eyes-
Save but the soul in thine uplifted eyes.
I saw but them- they were the world to me!
I saw but them- saw only them for hours,
Saw only them until the moon went down.
What wild heart-histories seemed to he enwritten
Upon those crystalline, celestial spheres!
How dark a woe, yet how sublime a hope!
How silently serene a sea of pride!
How daring an ambition; yet how deep-
How fathomless a capacity for love!

But now, at length, dear Dian sank from sight,
Into a western couch of thunder-cloud;
And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees
Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained;
They would not go- they never yet have gone;
Lighting my lonely pathway home that night,
They have not left me (as my hopes have) since;
They follow me- they lead me through the years.
They are my ministers- yet I their slave.
Their office is to illumine and enkindle-
My duty, to be saved by their bright light,
And purified in their electric fire,
And sanctified in their elysian fire.
They fill my soul with Beauty (which is Hope),
And are far up in Heaven- the stars I kneel to
In the sad, silent watches of my night;
While even in the meridian glare of day
I see them still- two sweetly scintillant
Venuses, unextinguished by the sun!

Editor 1 Interpretation

To Helen by Edgar Allan Poe: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

As one of the most celebrated American poets of the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe left behind a rich legacy of literary works, including his famous poem "To Helen." First published in 1831, this poem is a tribute to a woman named Helen who, according to many scholars, was inspired by either Poe's mother, Eliza Poe, or his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Helen Whitman. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will dissect the themes, literary devices, and imagery used in "To Helen" to gain a deeper understanding of Poe's genius.

Overview and Analysis

At first glance, "To Helen" appears to be a simple poem of praise and admiration for a woman named Helen. The first stanza begins with the speaker addressing Helen directly, calling her "Helen, thy beauty is to me/Like those Nicean barks of yore." This opening line immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as the speaker compares Helen's beauty to the legendary ships of ancient Greece that carried their passengers across the sea to distant lands. By using the word "Nicean," which refers to the ancient city of Nicaea, Poe creates a sense of timelessness and historical significance, as if Helen's beauty has transcended the ages and is as enduring as the mythological tales of old.

Throughout the poem, Poe employs a range of literary devices to convey his message of adoration. One of the most prominent of these devices is alliteration, which is the repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words. For example, in the first stanza, Poe writes, "Like those Nicean barks of yore/That gently, o'er a perfumed sea." The repeated "n" and "s" sounds create a soft, soothing effect, much like the gentle waves of the sea that the ships once sailed upon.

Another literary device that Poe uses in "To Helen" is imagery, which is the use of descriptive language to create vivid pictures in the reader's mind. Throughout the poem, Poe describes Helen's beauty in various ways, such as "the glory that was Greece/And the grandeur that was Rome" and "the moonbeam of the summer night." These images are powerful and evocative, conjuring up mental images of ancient ruins and moonlit gardens. By painting these pictures in the reader's mind, Poe creates a sense of enchantment and wonder that is essential to the poem's overall effect.

Themes and Interpretation

While "To Helen" is primarily a poem of praise and admiration, it also explores several themes that are central to Poe's work as a whole. One of these themes is the idea of idealized love, which is a romantic notion that emphasizes the perfection and purity of love. Throughout the poem, the speaker's admiration for Helen is portrayed as a kind of ideal love that is untainted by the imperfections and flaws of everyday life. This idealization of love is also reflected in the poem's use of historical and mythological imagery, which suggests that Helen's beauty is timeless and eternal.

Another theme that is present in "To Helen" is the idea of escape, which is a common theme in Poe's work. Throughout his writing, Poe often explores the idea of escaping from the mundane world and seeking refuge in more exotic and mysterious realms. In "To Helen," the speaker's admiration for Helen is portrayed as a form of escape from the harsh realities of life. By comparing Helen's beauty to the legendary ships of ancient Greece, Poe suggests that she is a vessel that can transport the speaker to a more magical and enchanted world.


In conclusion, "To Helen" is a complex and multi-layered poem that showcases Edgar Allan Poe's mastery of literary devices and imagery. Through the use of alliteration, imagery, and historical and mythological references, Poe creates a sense of enchantment and wonder that is essential to the poem's overall effect. While the poem is primarily a tribute to Helen's beauty and charm, it also explores several themes that are central to Poe's work as a whole, including idealized love and the idea of escape. Overall, "To Helen" is a testament to Poe's genius as a poet and his ability to capture the complexities of the human experience in a few simple words.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry To Helen: An Ode to Beauty and Inspiration

Edgar Allan Poe is known for his dark and macabre tales, but he was also a master of poetry. One of his most famous works is "To Helen," an ode to a woman who inspired him throughout his life. In this poem, Poe celebrates the beauty and inspiration that Helen represents, and explores the power of art to transcend the mundane and transport us to a higher realm.

The poem is divided into two stanzas, each with a different rhyme scheme. The first stanza is written in rhymed couplets, while the second is written in a more complex rhyme scheme that alternates between rhymed and unrhymed lines. This structure gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry, and allows Poe to explore different aspects of Helen's beauty and influence.

The poem begins with the speaker addressing Helen directly, saying "Helen, thy beauty is to me / Like those Nicean barks of yore." The reference to "Nicean barks" is a nod to ancient Greek mythology, where the ship Argo was said to have been built in the city of Nicaea. This reference sets the tone for the poem, suggesting that Helen is a figure of mythic proportions, whose beauty and influence transcend time and space.

The speaker goes on to describe Helen's beauty in vivid detail, saying that it is "a beauteous evening, calm and free / The holy time is quiet as a Nun / Breathless with adoration." This description is both sensual and spiritual, suggesting that Helen's beauty is not just physical, but also has a transcendent quality that inspires awe and reverence.

The second stanza of the poem shifts focus from Helen's beauty to the power of art to capture and convey that beauty. The speaker says that "On desperate seas long wont to roam / Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face / Thy Naiad airs have brought me home / To the glory that was Greece." Here, the speaker is suggesting that Helen's beauty is so powerful that it can transport him to another time and place, evoking the glory of ancient Greece and its rich cultural heritage.

The speaker goes on to say that "Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche / How statue-like I see thee stand / The agate lamp within thy hand / Ah, Psyche, from the regions which / Are Holy Land!" Here, the speaker is describing a statue of Helen, which he sees as a symbol of her enduring beauty and influence. The reference to Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, suggests that Helen's beauty is not just physical, but also has a spiritual dimension that touches the very essence of our being.

The poem concludes with the speaker expressing his gratitude to Helen for inspiring him, saying "Be still the unimaginable lodge / For solitary thinkings; such as dodge / Conception to the very bourne of heaven / Then leave the naked heart alone." Here, the speaker is suggesting that Helen's beauty has inspired him to reach for the heavens, and that he is grateful for the solitude and inspiration that her beauty has provided.

Overall, "To Helen" is a powerful ode to beauty and inspiration, and a testament to the enduring power of art to capture and convey the essence of the human experience. Through his vivid descriptions and evocative imagery, Poe captures the essence of Helen's beauty and influence, and invites us to share in the wonder and awe that she inspires. Whether we see her as a symbol of physical beauty, spiritual transcendence, or cultural heritage, Helen remains a powerful and enduring figure in the world of poetry and literature.

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