Monday, April 18, 2011

Helen by H.D.

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre of the olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funeral cypresses.

I love H.D.'s "Helen" because it makes me laugh. Perhaps that is not the most appropriate reaction to such a bitter poem, but I think there's something fundamentally funny about Helen--"the face that launched a thousand ships," admired and adored by all for her beauty--being universally hated, for exactly the same reasons.

I've always thought of the story of Helen being problematic. In a nutshell, the Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen, the wife of King Menelaos of Sparta, and takes her back to Troy, sparking the Trojan War, which leveled Troy and killed thousands. Helen's complicity in this act depends on which account you read--did she go with Paris voluntarily, or was she kidnapped? Clearly, different answers to this question tend to cast Paris, Menelaos, and the whole affair in a different light. But then again we ask this question with modern minds, which grant more autonomy, and therefore more responsibility, to women.

The irony of "Helen" is that, through the modern lens, Helen becomes not a feminist icon but a villain. (And see how subtly H.D. suggests that it is no living Helen that Greece reviles, but a statue: "still eyes" in a "white face," "white hands," "wan and white," "cool feet," like marble, etc., allowing us to see her through the clarity of the present.) If Helen is granted personhood, and not a thing belonging to Menelaos (which, I know, is simplistic and reductive), then it becomes fair to ask whether or not she's responsible for war. Her beauty becomes violent, her smile insidious. There is something deeply felt about this hatred of beauty, which has something malevolent about it, especially to those who possess it. (Or is that just me?)

The poem ends a bitterly as it began, stating that the people of Greece could love Helen for her beauty if only it ended up where all beauty does, in the ground ("only if she were laid, / white ash amid funeral cypresses"). There her whiteness has not the quality of marble, but of death. But Helen, memorialized, cannot die, and her beauty cannot fade, and so they go on hating.

Tomorrow: More Helen of Troy!

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