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The Poets

March 10, 2011

Hanks, Poe and Helen


I love how poetry weaves herself into my life without my having to do anything, as if she seeks me.

I was visiting my neighbor’s one day and, because they’re both avid readers, there were books strewn everywhere throughout their house. While I was sitting in their dining area I happen to look down and this little grey book caught my attention- it was the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe (and it was gorgeous looking- tiny and fragile and old, almost like brittle papyrus found tucked away in some forgotten cave).

I picked it up and read the first few lines of the very first poem and I immediately knew I had heard these lines before- but where? Ah ha! It was the poem that Tom Hanks' character recited throughout the movie Ladykillers- the poem is called, To Helen.

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn 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!

The poem is an anomaly. It’s a gorgeous read and it flows perfectly- this despite the fact that its parameters seem jumbled. Just look at the way the rhyme scheme is laid out:

ababb ababa abbab (thoroughly inconsistent)

Then there’s the anomaly of the poem’s meter: 88886 (syllables) for the first stanza, 89877 for the second, and 88884 for the final stanza. Huh? And yet, again, it contributes directly to the beauty and rhythm of the work itself.

What’s awesome is that this poem was composed while Poe was roughly 14 years old (it was dedicated to the mother of Poe’s best friend, Jane Stith Stanard, his “first real love”).*

The original composition (published in 1831) is slightly different from the revised 1845 version most of us are familiar with. Here’s the original composition (the areas highlighted are where Poe made revisions):

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,
The weary way-worn 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 beauty of fair Greece,
And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo ! in that little window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand
!
The folded scroll within thy hand —
A Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land !

It’s strange to say this, I know, but I gives me comfort to know that even a great poet like Poe will go back- years later- and feel the impulse to edit his own works (this occurs with me often).

I suppose the reason for this post- aside from Poe’s lovely poem- is that it seems that no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing, there’s always something referring me to poetry. I thank God for that.

Although Ladykillers is a dark comedy, and although Tom Hanks’ character is a goofy, scholarly type, I thought that the delivery of Poe’s poem was beautifully done. Here’s the poem as it was recited throughout the movie (forgive me for the subtitles) …





*It is said- and it makes sense- that the catalysis for Poe’s revised version was a new love, Sarah Helen Whitman. Some think the original poem was actually dedicated to her, and not Jane Stith Stanard (I’m sure this has to do with the curious coincidence of her middle name and the poem’s title), but that doesn’t add up at all. The first time Whitman and Poe met was in 1842 (long after the poem’s original scripting). What happened- and this is purely my take on it … what happened is that Poe met this lovely lady in 1842, became infatuated with her, and three years later re-edited and re-dedicated the poem to her. Seems like simple psychology to me. Still, the plain truth is Stanard was the inspiration of the poem, not Whitman.

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