Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960

By Christopher Stray | Go to book overview

1
Classics in Nineteenth-Century England:
Nature and Origins

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicaean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy-Land!

Edgar Allan Poe, To Helen ( 1831)

In this richly evocative word-picture, Poe drew on his classical reading to capture the idealized memory of a woman he had loved, Mrs Jane Stanard, who had died in 1824. The classical references begin with the first word of the poem and multiply in its second stanza. The final stanza portrays Helen standing at her window, 'statue-like', carrying a lamp. We may think her agate lamp is the beacon which guides the 'weary, way-worn wanderer' to safety, but in the closing lines 'Helen' becomes 'Psyche' (and thus the writer, by implication, is Eros, for whom Psyche searched at night with a lamp). The ending is in accord with Poe's account of poetic inspiration: 'the Poet . . . recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul . . . he feels it in the beauty of woman . . . but above all . . . he kneels to it, he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty of her love.'1 The

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1
"The poetic principle", in D. Galloway (ed.), Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 512. The poem is not listed in J. D. Reid's Oxford Companion to Classical Mythology in the Arts 1300-1990s ( Oxford: OUP, 1995), which

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Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960
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