H. D.

Helen in Egypt

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Helen in Egypt Summary

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“Helen in Egypt” is a poem by Hilda Doolittle, an American avant-garde poet affiliated with the Imagist movement, who published under the pen name H.D. Though written much earlier – as early as the 1920s – the poem was first published posthumously in 1982, by H.D.’s estate. The poem is one of the first to make a focused interrogation of the relationship between epistemology (that is, the limits of what an individual can know and do), language, and history.

The poem focuses on the classical figure Helen of Troy, a woman who was exalted in Greek mythology as the most beautiful woman in the world. She is also represented as the daughter of Zeus and Leda. Since losing her greatest love, the hero Achilles, she has fallen into utter despair. She decides she is unable to live without him and intends to commit suicide by self-immolation.

The poem consists of eight stanzas, each of which asks rhetorical questions about Helen’s thoughts and motivations. In the first stanza, the speaker wonders about the appearance of her eyes; that is, whether they “slant in the old way” (old referring to the time of Egyptian dominance). This lack of knowledge leads to an uncertainty about her race: it is impossible to know if Helen was Greek, Egyptian, or of the even more exotic Phoenician race. The speaker employs the vocabulary of shipbuilding to question how Helen was constructed, drawing attention to the fact that her surviving image is not of herself, but “wrought” by human hands.

Next, she connects Helen’s figure to a ship itself. She wonders what wood she is made of “oak-wood or cedar?”, and whether her original form was not beautiful, but awkward until it came into the hands of storytellers and historical interpreters. She asks whether the “ship” of Helen – her surviving form – was “shaped” and “curved” to resemble her, or whether she was retouched by artists. After describing several ways in which Helen’s image might have been altered, the speaker suddenly proposes the exact opposite. Might she have been never known, or “touched,” at all? Abruptly the whole mythos around Helen’s legacy dissolves and is uncertain. The speaker asks whether Helen had lovers other than Achilles who worshipped her equivalently.

The poem’s final stanza is its most ambiguous. After adorning the image of Helen with a “girdle of sea-weed,” linking her, through the imagery of the sea, to the poorly understood depths of history, H.D. asks, “how often / did her high breasts meet the spray, / how often dive down?” In this, she demonstrates certainty that the modern world cannot pull the truthful descriptions of Helen from the rubbish heap of history.