October 29 H.D.: Helen

I’m continuing this week’s discussion of “myth” and the poet’s use of it. Myth, unlike symbol, is a shared cultural story. Symbol, when it is a conventional symbol, carries with it shared cultural meaning; it is a thing that stands for an ideal (or many ideals) such as a flag that stands for a country, or clover stands for good luck. But a myth is a story that stands for an ideal or a cultural value. Myth is used to show the outsider or the newly initiated what that culture stands for, what the rules are and what not to do.

The Classical Greeks (unlike their ancient relatives the Hellenistic Greeks) saw the myths of their heritage as unfair rules. Their plays (also long and elaborate poems in themselves) reflected that attitude. Oedipus the King was cursed by the gods to live out a horrible fate: to kill his father and marry his mother. The reason for this fate, the Greeks surmised, was because the Gods were whimsical and needed diversion, an unjust reason, therefore at the end of the cycle Oedipus is redeemed by his daughter’s action here on earth – a human, not a god, creating her own fate. They did not place high value on the Gods whose power made us their playthings and the players in their mental melodramas.

Many poets followed in the Greek tradition of subverting myth to highlight their own values. Here, in Hilda Doolittle’s “Helen” the myth of Helen of Troy is taken to display her own feelings about feminine power. In the Iliad, Helen is little more than a plot device, a reason for the boys to act out their will upon the other boys. She is cast almost as a devil incarnate, choosing her own desires over a man’s intent, despite the fact that she was little more than a trophy for him to own. The ancient world had little patience for a woman who acted on her own and who paid little heed to the man’s needs. This myth asks us to overlook the fact that she was royalty, the daughter of a King, and to see her as wicked and a destroyer of her own nation.

Doolittle asks us to re-frame Helen to see her as “God’s daughter, born of love”. Not empty beauty (beautiful to all her saw her but empty of virtue – Greek virtue which would be expected if she wasn’t Greek) as the Greeks had shown her, but beautiful in spirit, “born of love”. Doolittle’s Helen has “still eyes in the white face,/the lustre as of olives/…and the white hands/…the beauty of cool feet/and slenderest knees.” She tries to get us to understand that “all Greece hates” Troy’s Helen and being the victors of the war between Greece and Troy, they got to tell the story of her and destroy her reputation as they saw fit, their own trophy to with as they pleased. They could only love her “if she were laid, white ash amid funereal cypresses” placed properly buried in the Greek manner among the Greek trees.

HD asks us to take a different look at Helen, to understand her as a woman who was trapped in unfortunate circumstances much as many women have been. Helen’s story becomes the story of so many women to follow. That she, far from being a destroyer of a nation, was destroyed by it instead. In the first few lines, she is turned into a statue by the Greeks “still eyes, white face, white hands”, an object for them to do with what they pleased. That she was as much to blame for the Greeks destroying Troy as willful children are for an abusive father’s drinking and hitting – that is to say, she became another favorite Greek symbol, the scapegoat.

Helen

by H.D.

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of 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 funereal cypresses.

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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