Breath of Clarity

Edgar Allen Poe, To Helen

The poem “To Helen” by Edgar Allen Poe is a beautiful composition about the speaker’s gratitude for his lover. The speaker conveys the intimacy of the relationship through the description of a beauty that was revealed in moments that the woman deeply emotionally supported Poe. Specifically, the speaker makes the comparison with a simile saying that the beauty is “like those Nicean barks of yore”. The Nicean bark is a word for a type of ship. So, the idea is that Helen transports the speaker to a comfortable home to his “native shore”. The speaker makes a statement about the human condition in this section, suggesting that the simple pure state of mind we are born with is where we need to get back. The speaker describes himself as a “weary, way-worn wanderer,” which suggests that his mind is worn out because Poe’s trying to get back to a healthy state of mind by diligently pondering to reach some insight. When, essentially, the love from Helen makes him feel safe and back where he belongs.

In the second stanza, the speaker explains that Helen’s love is able to break the speaker’s detrimental thought-processes that restricted him to stay in this lost mentality. When Poe says, “long wont to roam,” he’s suggesting this development of a habitual way of thinking that makes him stuck in “desperate” (hopeless) “seas” of confusion. The audience needs to visualize these seas as dangerous, with rough waves, and an urgency to escape.

The speaker glorifies Helen in order to show the “grandeur” strength she holds to be able to take care of his emotionally unstable self. When the speaker describes Helen as “Naiad airs” it signifies that she resembles a beautiful, divine creature who is potentially dangerous because of her “grandeur” strength. This is where Poe suggests that his love for this woman is potentially dangerous in case anything ever goes wrong and they split up. In the next section, however, the speaker describes Helen as “statue-like,” which suggests that she will not move away from his side. The metaphorical light, a positive energy, which Helen holds in her “agate lamp”, guides Poe home. The composition implies that this home Poe seeks is related to the past. The speaker praises Helen’s beauty by describing qualities such as “hyacinth hair” and “classic face,” that are ancient standards of the female ideal. The audience can assume that Helen is the speaker’s longtime lover who was with him both in the past and in the present. Helen’s consistent presence in his life through the hopeless wandering that wore him down into a tough individual who can often act bitter is what Poe is grateful for.

The rhyme scheme of “To Helen” is irregular but musical in sound. The poem consists of three stanzas of five lines each, where the end rhyme of the first stanza is ABABB, that of the second is ABABA, and that of the third is ABBAB. Poe uses soothing, positive words and rhythms to create a fitting tone and atmosphere for the poem. It is important because it reflects the energy that Helen radiates that essentially calms Poe down in the midst of his emotional storm. His concluding image of a “brilliant window niche” and the agate lamp suggest the glowing of the “Holy Land,” for which Helen is the beacon. Essentially, the speaker’s admiration for Helen suggests an admiration for the woman and a desire to get as healthy as her. Perhaps, as a man, Pope wants to be able to take care of her, instead of vice versa. The woman is able to guide him to a “window” (perspective) in which he feels comfortable in his “niche”. The introduction of the “Holy Land” into the composition suggests that there is a divine quality to the top potential healthy human state of mind. Poe suggests that the pure and untouched (not “worn”) condition of the mind is sacred and that we need to recognize that when we find our thoughts getting chaotic.