English Literature


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The Reimagining of Helen of Troy in Hilda Doolittle's "Helen"

The well-known legend of Helen of Troy, revered for her unparalleled beauty in all of Greece, has been retold countless times. However, in her poem "Helen," Hilda Doolittle offers a modern twist to the tale as she explores themes of misogyny and mythology. Through a deep analysis of the poem, readers are confronted with the prejudices that still exist in today's society.

Hilda Doolittle's Background and "Helen"

Before delving into a summary of "Helen," it is crucial to understand the context of the poem. The Helen referenced in the title is the infamous Helen of Troy, married to King Menelaus of Sparta but ultimately seduced by Prince Paris of Troy, sparking the decade-long Trojan War. This war is well-known through Homer's epic tale, "Iliad."

The Text of "Helen" by Hilda Doolittle

Composed of three stanzas, each one increasing in length, "Helen" begins with Doolittle's depiction of Greece's hatred towards Helen and her beauty. Her skin is described as radiant as olives, and she is portrayed as having a pale complexion and delicate hands. The second stanza reinforces the disdain towards Helen, particularly when she is happy. The people of Greece long for her to recall past sufferings and remain unhappy. It is evident that they hold her responsible for the Trojan War and view her as the source of their troubles. In the final stanza, the true desires of the people of Greece are revealed. Despite being the daughter of love and possessing unmatched beauty, they can only love her in death, seen as "white ash amid funereal cypresses." Through this harsh line, Doolittle emphasizes the depth of the animosity towards Helen.

The Meaning of "Helen" by Hilda Doolittle

Though brief, Doolittle's "Helen" carries a powerful message. While the poem focuses on the hatred Greece harbors towards Helen, it says little about her personality or thoughts. Instead, the people of Greece only see her physical appearance and blame her for causing the Trojan War. By highlighting the unfounded blame placed solely on Helen, Doolittle presents a commentary on how society often unfairly assigns blame, particularly on women. In various retellings of the Trojan War, Paris is depicted as either kidnapping, abducting, or eloping with Helen. However, in Doolittle's poem, she is held accountable for her beauty, rather than Paris for his actions. This mirrors the societal norms of placing the responsibility on women, rather than men, in situations involving desire and beauty.

An Analysis of "Helen" by Hilda Doolittle

Doolittle expertly employs literary devices and themes, such as beauty and hatred, to convey the story of Helen in her poem.

Rhyme and Alliteration

The poem has a lyrical quality due to Doolittle's use of rhyme, providing a fairy-tale-esque feel, reminiscent of the mythology woven throughout the poem. The rhyme scheme shifts between stanzas, with the first one being AABCC, the second AABCDB, and the third ABCDDE. Additionally, Doolittle utilizes alliteration, as seen in the line "when it grows white and wan," emphasizing the change in Helen's emotions (9).

The Power of Allusion and Irony

Doolittle seamlessly weaves in allusion and irony to shed light on the classical myths surrounding Helen of Troy. The alliteration in the first line draws the reader's attention to the shift in Helen's demeanor as she goes from smiling in line seven to pale and unhappy in line nine, showcasing the impact of the Greek people's treatment towards her. The entire poem is an allusion to the story of Helen of Troy, with line thirteen specifically referencing her divine parentage as the daughter of the god Zeus. This allusion serves as a reminder of the irony in Helen's life – born of love, but only receiving love in death. Doolittle's use of these literary devices highlights the stark contrast between Helen's origins and her tragic fate.

In Conclusion

Hilda Doolittle's thought-provoking poem "Helen" draws attention to the themes of misogyny and mythology. Through her use of literary devices and compelling message, Doolittle challenges readers to reflect on their own biases and societal norms. "Helen" serves as a reminder that the power of words and societal expectations can have dire consequences, even for the most beautiful woman in Greece.

Doolittle's "Helen": A Reflection of Society's Oppression of Women

In her poem "Helen," Hilda Doolittle captures the irony of how a woman's beauty is both admired and reviled in a patriarchal society. Her use of words like "lustre" and "beauty" evokes admiration, yet these same attributes are what cause Helen to be hated and exploited by the society she resides in.

Through her powerful words, Doolittle delves into the themes of beauty, misogyny, and mythology. She sheds light on the deeply ingrained patriarchal norms that still exist today.

Misogyny: The Harmful Societal Norms

In her poem, Doolittle challenges the mistreatment of women in society. Helen is blamed and hated by the people of Greece for causing the Trojan War, despite being abducted by Paris. This double standard highlights the deep-rooted misogyny that continues to persist in society. Even in death, the people of Greece only wish for Helen's happiness, emphasizing how women are only valued when they conform to societal expectations.

Furthermore, Doolittle's description of Helen solely focuses on her physical appearance, completely disregarding her thoughts, opinions, and actions. This one-dimensional portrayal of Helen highlights the objectification of women and the disregard for their inner selves.

Mythology: The Enduring Influence

The use of classical mythology in "Helen" is evident through its subject - Helen of Troy. Although set in the present, Doolittle's use of the word "All" to describe the hatred and revilement towards Helen by Greece implies the enduring influence of these ancient myths on modern society. This theme exposes the continuity between ancient and modern times and the persistence of patriarchal norms that devalue women.

In conclusion, "Helen" by Hilda Doolittle serves as a powerful reminder of the harmful societal norms that suppress and harm women. Doolittle's use of allusion, irony, and themes of beauty, misogyny, and mythology highlights the need for change to break free from these oppressive chains.

A New Perspective in Doolittle's "Helen"

Hilda Doolittle's "Helen" challenges the traditional view of the classic myth and explores the root cause of blame in society. In this poem, Doolittle delves into themes of mythology and misogyny, highlighting the enduring prejudiced attitudes towards women. She uses the story of Helen of Troy to expose the underlying cultural norms that still persist in modern times.

The Themes of "Helen"

One of the main themes in "Helen" is the hatred towards Helen of Troy by the Greek people. Doolittle questions the unfairness of blaming Helen for the Trojan War instead of Paris, the man who abducted her. The poem also sheds light on the damaging societal perception of women as irresistible objects of desire, thus shifting the blame from the perpetrator to the victim.

The Speaker in "Helen": An Anonymous Voice

The speaker in "Helen" remains nameless, with no description or background given by Doolittle. This choice allows the speaker to present the Greek people's opinion of Helen in a factual and detached manner, highlighting the intensity of their hatred towards her.

The Structure of "Helen": Free-flowing and Impactful

"Helen" is written in free verse, with each of the three stanzas increasing in length by one line (5, 6, and 7). Each stanza also has its own unique rhyme scheme, adding to the poem's free-flowing structure and emphasizing its impact on the reader.

The Purpose of "Helen": A Call for Change

Doolittle's main objective in "Helen" is to challenge the prejudices underlying the classical myth. By shifting the focus from Paris to Helen, the poem exposes the unfairness and misogyny present in society. Doolittle's powerful and thought-provoking work serves as a reminder of the damaging consequences of societal norms and expectations.

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