Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Destroyer of Ships, Men, Cities

Helen of Troy has sprung from Hell
To claim her ancient throne,
So we have bidden friends farewell
To follow her alone.

The Lady of the laurelled brow,
The Queen of pride and power,
Looks rather like a phantom now,
And rather like a flower.

Deep in her eyes the lamp of night
Burns with secret flame,
Where shadows pass that have no sight,
And ghosts that have no name.

For mute is battle's brazen horn
That rang for Priest and King,
And she who drank of that brave morn
Is pale with evening.

An hour there is when bright words flow,
A little hour for sleep,
An hour between, when lights are low,
And then she seems to weep.

But no less lovely than of old
She shines, and almost hears
The horns that blew in days of gold,
The shouting charioteers.

And she still breaks the hearts of men,
Their hearts and all their pride,
Doomed to be cruel once again,
And live dissatisfied.


This poem is by James Elroy Fletcher and is, obviously, about Helen of Troy and women like her. I always found it funny that Helen of Troy is one of the most recognizable characters from the Ilias, although the Ilias isn't even about her.


Fletcher talks about her coming back from Hell, to claim what was once hers. This shows that he condemns her for her behaviour, sneaking of with Paris to Troy, causing thousands to die. He says we follow her alone, which is remarkable, because Menelaos didn't come on his own but brought a huge army of Greeks.

He says she looks like a phantom, yet he also calls her a flower. I think what he is trying to say is that the story and the image of Helen of Troy still hasn't lost its glory and beauty, although its actual glory and beauty has long faded.

He says that within her eyes there is a secret flame, still burning after all this time. I think that he refers to her "lust" for power and glory, a trait that is often associated with Helen. He mentions shadows that have no sight and ghosts that have no name. This is his way of introducing her victims, the men who died in the Battle of Troy. All these men that have been  lurred to this far away land, summoned by the call of a treacherous siren.

In the next verse I think Fletcher is trying to say that everyone likewise can fall for a woman so desperately they will do everything, even kill. I like his way of describing Helen in the second part of the verse very much. He says that the one who drank from the bravo morn(ing) is now pale with evening. I think that by morn he means the first part, the beginning of her life and by evening the ending. She, for whom lovers stood in the blood of a sacrifices horse and swore to always come to her chosen one's aid, is now come to the end. Night is falling on her beauty.

I think that the next verse refers to the twilight. This short period of time between light and dark. Where you can hide, but still be seen. Bright words can be spoken, she can be praised. And when the lights are low, when the eyes are averted; she seems to cry. She seems to regret. It shows he wants to belief in her regretting this, in women not trying to bring bad luck to men.

And yet, although evening is falling, although she seems like a phantom, she is no less lovely than before. She seems to radiate with beauty, beauty caused by knowledge, given to her through birth by Zeus, her father. And she thinks she can hear the trumpets and the shouting of her admirers, of the men who came to fight for her. She relives her days of gold, the good days, that are now over, but not forgotten.

And Fletcher is convinced Helen still breaks hearts, still causes men to lose their pride. Yet he doesn't think she does it willingly. She has to live 'dissatisfied', forced to be cruel. She has no other choice but to return from Hell, cause men to fall and go back, only to return once again.

I really like this poem, because I think  it captures the essence of Helen. There are many different stories about how Helen became involved with Paris. Some say she never even was in Troy, but that it was only a phantom, created by Aphrodite, while the real Helen was in Egypt, waiting for Menelaos. Unfortunatly, as with most pieces of literature that might or might not be inspired by true events, we will never really know what happened and if how. Helen is a character that speaks to many people. She is the most beautiful woman in Greek literature, only rivalled by Aphrodite. She is "the face that launched a thousand ships". She is unique in literature, in my opinion, being the only woman who actually was the cause of a war and not just some handy excuse for starting a war. She has a worl-wide appeal and is one of the major figures of Ancient Greek literature and culture.

My favourite version of Helen's myth is the following.
Helen was bron from an egg, that was laid by Leda, after she had sex with Zeus, who came to her in the disguise of a swan. Helen shared her egg with her twin-sister, Clytemnestra, who became Agammenon's wife and is notorious for murdering him. In her youth, she was abducted by Theseus, but was rescued by her brothers, Pollux and Castor.
When Hellen came into marrying-age many suitors showed up. Afraid of insulting any of the wealthy and important suitors by not choosing him, Helen's father asked Odyseus for council. He suggested that her father should have all the suitors swear they would help and defend the man that was chosen to be her husband. This was done and Menelaos was chosen.
When Paris came, some years later, Helen had no choice but to go with him. Aphrodite had promised her to him. On finding his wife missing, Menelaos assembled a huge army, led by his brother, Aggamemnon.
In Troy, Helen realizes what sort of a man Paris is, weak and selfish. She mourns having to come to Troy and is one of the main grievers at Hector's funeral. He was one of the few people in Troy that was kind to her.
Wherefore I wail alike for thee and for my hapless self with grief at heart;
for no longer have I anyone beside in broad Troy that is gentle to me or kind;
but all men shudder at me
After Paris and Hector have died, she is given to their younger brother, Deiphobus. But when Menelaos comes in she leaves him to fend for himself. Menelaos wanted to slay her, but was stopped by her immense beauty. On their return to Sparta Helen was quickly taken from this world and welcomed onto the Olymp, as a thanks for her "service".

What are your thoughts on the poem and on Helen?

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