Beauty of a woman has been one of the most important sources of inspiration for poetry. But all the poems based on the inner or outer beauty of a woman need not to be identical in its message, theme or structure. This essay aims at illumining two great poems of all time, namely To Helen by Edgar Allen Poe (‘The Literature Network’) and She walks in beauty by Lord Byron (A Portable Anthology, p 486). Though both the poems have a common theme related to beauty of woman and her power but yet there is more than one difference which makes the two works distinctive. And it is the very contrast in both structure as well as subject matter of the poems which is analysed in the following paragraphs.
Talking of To Helen first, it was written by Edgar Allen Poe. It is a well-crafted poem with three stanzas containing five lines each. It very strongly depicts some aspects of Greek mythology; many reviewers take it to be elucidating a particular woman. But on a personal note as a reader, it seems like an ode to the Greek goddess of light, Helen. It is definitely enlightening the significance of a woman or mother figure in taking one’s interest back to one’s homeland. But, the allusion to Helen of Troy is apparent. The beauty of Helen or simply any other influential lady has been admired in the context of how it connects the narrator to his land.
The second poem, She walks in beauty is one of the best works by Lord Byron. It has earnestly honoured the complete beauty of a woman. The beautiful combination of physical beauty and the mental soothing associated with it has been depicted with the most elegant use of phrases. Filled with excellent use of literary devises, it is a very well-crafted poem, dedicated to the woman of beauty.
Compare and contrast
The main contrasting feature between the two famous poems is the theme. Although both admire and celebrate the beauty and power of a woman but there is a huge difference in context. While To Helen speaks more of the significance of beauty in taking the narrator back to his Holy land provoking home sickness and memories, She walks in beauty essentially respects the physical and mental beauty of a woman. As per popular reviews by experts, both the poems might refer to a particular woman influencing the lives of the respective poets but for an inexpert, To Helen significantly bear resemblance to Greek mythology with phrases containing Helen, Psyche and agate lamp. She walks in beauty refers to any woman with total beauty- both of body and mind. Narrated in first person, To Helen makes use of the almost the same vernacular as in She walks in beauty, which has been narrated in third person.
If the overall summary of To Helen is told in brief, it is portraying how Helen and her great beauty are inspiring the narrator like a ship does a worn wanderer to get back home. Her beautiful hair and face remind the narrator of his homeland’s glory, of Greece. There is reference to Greek mythology with Psyche holding an agate lamp in the final stanza and it all goes along the theme of how the woman inspires the narrator.
She walks in beauty, on the other hand honours the beauty of a woman. The first stanza explains her physical beauty which is like the best of dark and bright converging to one point. The second and third stanza explains how serene her thoughts are and how innocent she is. The poem uses beautiful simile, metaphor and phrasing to show the inner as well as outer beauty of the woman.
It is not only the theme which can be taken as a contrasting feature between the two works; it is the structure of the poem too. To Helen has not followed any particular meter and total syllable count per line strictly. In fact, it is clear that there is no fixed count of syllables per line. The rhyming scheme is ababb, ababa and abbab in the consecutive stanzas. But in She walks in beauty, the syllable count per line is almost same. It has primarily followed the iambic tetrameter with exceptions at places. The rhyming scheme is ababab, cdcdcd and efefef in the consecutive stanzas. Both the poems are quite musical in spite of following dissimilar rhythms.
When it comes to the poetic or literary appeal of the poems, She walks in beauty by Lord Byron seems more beautiful. There is an excellent implementation of true rhyming; To Helen makes use of slant rhyming at places with niche/which and face/Greece; it uses simile too. There is impressive alliteration used all over both the works. Especially, lines like weary, wayworn wanderer and hyacinth hair in To Helen and several phrases in She walks in beauty like cloudless climes and starry skies, had half impaired, day denies, serenely sweet express and dear their dwelling. The tone and tenor of the same poem is exceptional as Lord Byron has beautified it with assonance, consonance, internal rhyming and numerous rhythmic words. The phrases have been written very artistically making the poem musical.
The imagery in both the poems as well as phrasing has been done admirably. Allusion exists in much more degree in To Helen but She walks in beauty has focussed more on illustrating the all-round beauty of a woman, in every aspect. One more common feature of both the poems is the soft and soothing tone.
Both the poems which have been analysed here are worth reading and learning from. Very elegantly framed, the phrases speak of the beauty of a woman and its significance, though in contrasting context and constructs. With so much of poetic adornment as well as great meanings conveyed, these poems are essentially two great works produced in English Literature.
– Byron, George G. “She walks in beauty”. A Portable Anthology. Page 486. Retrieved on Web 7 Dec 2012
– Poe, Edgar A. “To Helen”. The Literature Network. Retrieved on Web 7 Dec 2012