The first name in romance, the most ancient and the most enduring, is that of Argive Helen. During three thousand years fair women have been born, have lived, and been loved, “that there might be a song in the ears of men of later time,” but, compared to the renown of Helen, their glory is dim. Cleopatra, who held the world’s fate in her hands, and lay in the arms of Caesar; Mary Stuart (Maria Verticordia), for whose sake, as a northern novelist tells, peasants have lain awake, sorrowing that she is dead; Agnes Sorel, Fair Rosamond, la belle Stuart, “the Pompadour and the Parabere,” can still enchant us from the page of history and chronicle. “Zeus gave them beauty, which naturally rules even strength itself,” to quote the Greek orator on the mistress of them all, on her who, having never lived, can never die, the Daughter of the Swan.
While Helen enjoys this immortality, and is the ideal of beauty upon earth, it is curious to reflect on the modernite of her story, the oldest of the love stories of the world. In Homer we first meet her, the fairest of women in the song of the greatest of poets. It might almost seem as if Homer meant to justify, by his dealing with Helen, some of the most recent theories of literary art. In the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” the tale of Helen is without a beginning and without an end, like a frieze on a Greek temple. She crosses the stage as a figure familiar to all, the poet’s audience clearly did not need to be told who Helen was, nor anything about her youth.
The famous judgment of Paris, the beginning of evil to Achaeans and Ilian men, is only mentioned once by Homer, late, and in a passage of doubtful authenticity. Of her reconciliation to her wedded lord, Menelaus, not a word is said; of her end we are told no more than that for her and him a mansion in Elysium is prepared —
“Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow.”
We leave her happy in Argos, a smile on her lips, a gift in her hands, as we met her in Troy, beautiful, adored despite her guilt, as sweet in her repentance as in her unvexed Argive home. Women seldom mention her, in the epic, but with horror and anger; men never address her but in gentle courtesy. What is her secret? How did she leave her home with Paris — beguiled by love, by magic, or driven by the implacable Aphrodite? Homer is silent on all of these things; these things, doubtless, were known by his audience. In his poem Helen moves as a thing of simple grace, courtesy, and kindness, save when she rebels against her doom, after seeing her lover fly from her husband’s spear. Had we only Homer, by far our earliest literary source, we should know little of the romance of Helen; should only know that a lawless love brought ruin on Troy and sorrow on the Achaeans; and this is thrown out, with no moral comment, without praise or blame. The end, we learn, was peace, and beauty was reconciled to life. There is no explanation, no denouement; and we know how much denouement and explanations hampered Scott and Shakespeare. From these trammels Homer is free, as a god is free from mortal limitations.
All this manner of telling a tale — a manner so ancient, so original — is akin, in practice, to recent theories of what art should be, and what art seldom is, perhaps never is, in modern hands.
Modern enough, again, is the choice of a married woman for the heroine of the earliest love tale. Apollonius Rhodius sings (and no man has ever sung so well) of a maiden’s love; Virgil, of a widow’s; Homer, of love that has defied law, blindly obedient to destiny, which dominates even Zeus. Once again, Helen is not a very young girl; ungallant chronologists have attributed to her I know not what age. We think of her as about the age of the Venus of Milo; in truth, she was “ageless and immortal.” Homer never describes her beauty; we only see it reflected in the eyes of the old men, white and weak, thin-voiced as cicalas: but hers is a loveliness “to turn an old man young.” “It is no marvel,” they say, “that for her sake Trojans and Achaeans slay each other.”
She was embroidering at a vast web, working in gold and scarlet the sorrows that for her sake befell mankind, when they called her to the walls to see Paris fight Menelaus, in the last year of the war. There she stands, in raiment of silvery white, her heart yearning for her old love and her own city. Already her thought is far from Paris. Was her heart ever with Paris? That is her secret. A very old legend, mentioned by the Bishop of Thessalonica, Eustathius, tells us that Paris magically beguiled her, disguised in the form of Menelaus, her lord, as Uther beguiled Ygerne. She sees the son of Priam play the dastard in the fight; she turns in wrath on Aphrodite, who would lure her back to his arms; but to his arms she must go, “for the daughter of Zeus was afraid.” Violence is put upon beauty; it is soiled, or seems soiled, in its way through the world. Helen urges Paris again into the war. He has a heart invincibly light and gay; shame does not weigh on him. “Not every man is valiant every day,” he says; yet once engaged in battle, he bears him bravely, and his arrows rain death among the mail-clad Achaeans.
What Homer thinks of Paris we can only guess. His beauty is the bane of Ilios; but Homer forgives so much to beauty. In the end of the “Iliad,” Helen sings the immortal dirge over Hector, the stainless knight, “with thy loving kindness and thy gentle speech.”
In the “Odyssey,” she is at home again, playing the gracious part of hostess to Odysseus’s wandering son, pouring into the bowl the magic herb of Egypt, “which brings forgetfulness of sorrow.” The wandering son of Odysseus departs with a gift for his bride, “to wear upon the day of her desire, a memorial of the hands of Helen,” the beautiful hands, that in Troy or Argos were never idle.
Of Helen, from Homer, we know no more. Grace, penitence in exile, peace at home, these are the portion of her who set East and West at war and ruined the city of Priam of the ashen spear. As in the strange legend preserved by Servius, the commentator on Virgil, who tells us that Helen wore a red “star-stone,” whence fell gouts of blood that vanished ere they touched her swan’s neck; so all the blood shed for her sake leaves Helen stainless. Of Homer’s Helen we know no more.
The later Greek fancy, playing about this form of beauty, wove a myriad of new fancies, or disinterred from legend old beliefs untouched by Homer. Helen was the daughter of the Swan — that is, as was later explained, of Zeus in the shape of a swan. Her loveliness, even in childhood, plunged her in many adventures. Theseus carried her off; her brothers rescued her. All the princes of Achaea competed for her hand, having first taken an oath to avenge whomsoever she might choose for her husband. The choice fell on the correct and honourable, but rather inconspicuous, Menelaus, and they dwelt in Sparta, beside the Eurotas, “in a hollow of the rifted hills.” Then, from across the sea, came the beautiful and fatal Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. As a child, Paris had been exposed on the mountains, because his mother dreamed that she brought forth a firebrand. He was rescued and fostered by a shepherd; he tended the flocks; he loved the daughter of a river god, OEnone. Then came the naked Goddesses, to seek at the hand of the most beautiful of mortals the prize of beauty. Aphrodite won the golden apple from the queen of heaven, Hera, and from the Goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, bribing the judge by the promise of the fairest wife in the world. No incident is more frequently celebrated in poetry and art, to which it lends such gracious opportunities. Paris was later recognised as of the royal blood of Troy. He came to Lacedaemon on an embassy, he saw Helen, and destiny had its way.
Concerning the details in this most ancient love-story, we learn nothing from Homer, who merely makes Paris remind Helen of their bridal night in the isle of Cranae. But from Homer we learn that Paris carried off not only the wife of Menelaus, but many of his treasures. To the poet of the “Iliad,” the psychology of the wooing would have seemed a simple matter. Like the later vase-painters, he would have shown us Paris beside Helen, Aphrodite standing near, accompanied by the figure of Peitho — Persuasion.
Homer always escapes our psychological problems by throwing the weight of our deeds and misdeeds on a God or a Goddess, or on destiny. To have fled from her lord and her one child, Hermione, was not in keeping with the character of Helen as Homer draws it. Her repentance is almost Christian in its expression, and repentance indicates a consciousness of sin and of shame, which Helen frequently professes. Thus she, at least, does not, like Homer, in his chivalrous way, throw all the blame on the Immortals and on destiny. The cheerful acquiescence of Helen in destiny makes part of the comic element in La Belle Helene, but the mirth only arises out of the incongruity between Parisian ideas and those of ancient Greece.
Helen is freely and bitterly blamed in the “Odyssey” by Penelope, chiefly because of the ruinous consequences which followed her flight. Still, there is one passage, when Penelope prudently hesitates about recognising her returned lord, which makes it just possible that a legend chronicled by Eustathius was known to Homer — namely, the tale already mentioned, that Paris beguiled her in the shape of Menelaus. The incident is very old, as in the story of Zeus and Amphitryon, and might be used whenever a lady’s character needed to be saved. But this anecdote, on the whole, is inconsistent with the repentance of Helen, and is not in Homer’s manner.
The early lyric poet, Stesichorus, is said to have written harshly against Helen. She punished him by blindness, and he indited a palinode, explaining that it was not she who went to Troy, but a woman fashioned in her likeness, by Zeus, out of mist and light. The real Helen remained safely and with honour in Egypt. Euripides has made this idea, which was calculated to please him, the groundwork of his “Helena,” but it never had a strong hold on the Greek imagination. Modern fancy is pleased by the picture of the cloud-bride in Troy, Greeks and Trojans dying for a phantasm. “Shadows we are, and shadows we pursue.”
Concerning the later feats, and the death of Paris, Homer says very little. He slew Achilles by an arrow-shot in the Scaean gate, and prophecy was fulfilled. He himself fell by another shaft, perhaps the poisoned shaft of Philoctetes. In the fourth or fifth century of our era a late poet, Quintus Smyrnaeus, described Paris’s journey, in quest of a healing spell, to the forsaken OEnone, and her refusal to aid him; her death on his funeral pyre. Quintus is a poet of extraordinary merit for his age, and scarcely deserves the reproach of laziness affixed on him by Lord Tennyson.
On the whole, Homer seems to have a kind of half-contemptuous liking for the beautiful Paris. Later art represents him as a bowman of girlish charms, wearing a Phrygian cap. There is a late legend that he had a son, Corythus, by OEnone, and that he killed the lad in a moment of jealousy, finding him with Helen and failing to recognise him. On the death of Paris, perhaps by virtue of the custom of the Levirate, Helen became the wife of his brother, Deiphobus.
How her reconciliation with Menelaus was brought about we do not learn from Homer, who, in the “Odyssey,” accepts it as a fact. The earliest traditional hint on the subject is given by the famous “Coffer of Cypselus,” a work of the seventh century, B.C., which Pausanias saw at Olympia, in A.D. 174. Here, on a band of ivory, was represented, among other scenes from the tale of Troy, Menelaus rushing, sword in hand, to slay Helen. According to Stesichorus, the army was about to stone her after the fall of Ilios, but relented, amazed by her beauty.
Of her later life in Lacedaemon, nothing is known on really ancient authority, and later traditions vary. The Spartans showed her sepulchre and her shrine at Therapnae, where she was worshipped. Herodotus tells us how Helen, as a Goddess, appeared in her temple and healed a deformed child, making her the fairest woman in Sparta, in the reign of Ariston. It may, perhaps, be conjectured that in Sparta, Helen occupied the place of a local Aphrodite. In another late story she dwells in the isle of Leuke, a shadowy bride of the shadowy Achilles. The mocking Lucian, in his Vera Historia, meets Helen in the Fortunate Islands, whence she elopes with one of his companions. Again, the sons of Menelaus, by a concubine, were said to have driven Helen from Sparta on the death of her lord, and she was murdered in Rhodes, by the vengeance of Polyxo, whose husband fell at Troy. But, among all these inventions, that of Homer stands out preeminent. Helen and Menelaus do not die, they are too near akin to Zeus; they dwell immortal, not among the shadows of heroes and of famous ladies dead and gone, but in Elysium, the paradise at the world’s end, unvisited by storms.
“Beyond these voices there is peace.”
It is plain that, as a love-story, the tale of Paris and Helen must to modern readers seem meagre. To Greece, in every age, the main interest lay not in the passion of the beautiful pair, but in its world-wide consequences: the clash of Europe and Asia, the deaths of kings, the ruin wrought in their homes, the consequent fall of the great and ancient Achaean civilisation. To the Greeks, the Trojan war was what the Crusades are in later history. As in the Crusades, the West assailed the East for an ideal, not to recover the Holy Sepulchre of our religion, but to win back the living type of beauty and of charm. Perhaps, ere the sun grows cold, men will no more believe in the Crusades, as an historical fact, than we do in the siege of Troy. In a sense, a very obvious sense, the myth of Helen is a parable of Hellenic history. They sought beauty, and they found it; they bore it home, and, with beauty, their bane. Wherever Helen went “she brought calamity,” in this a type of all the famous and peerless ladies of old days, of Cleopatra and of Mary Stuart. Romance and poetry have nothing less plausible than the part which Cleopatra actually played in the history of the world, a world well lost by Mark Antony for her sake. The flight from Actium might seem as much a mere poet’s dream as the gathering of the Achaeans at Aulis, if we were not certain that it is truly chronicled.
From the earliest times, even from times before Homer (whose audience is supposed to know all about Helen), the imagination of Greece, and later, the imagination of the civilised world, has played around Helen, devising about her all that possibly could be devised. She was the daughter of Zeus by Nemesis, or by Leda; or the daughter of the swan, or a child of the changeful moon, brooding on “the formless and multi-form waters.” She could speak in the voices of all women, hence she was named “Echo,” and we might fancy that, like the witch of the Brocken, she could appear to every man in the likeness of his own first love. The ancient Egyptians either knew her, or invented legends of her to amuse the inquiring Greeks. She had touched at Sidon, and perhaps Astaroth is only her Sidonian name. Whatever could be told of beauty, in its charm, its perils, the dangers with which it surrounds its lovers, the purity which it retains, unsmirched by all the sins that are done for beauty’s sake, could be told of Helen.
Like a golden cup, as M. Paul de St. Victor says, she was carried from lips to lips of heroes, but the gold remains unsullied and unalloyed. To heaven she returns again, to heaven which is her own, and looks down serenely on men slain, and women widowed, and sinking ships, and burning towns. Yet with death she gives immortality by her kiss, and Paris and Menelaus live, because they have touched the lips of Helen. Through the grace of Helen, for whom he fell, Sarpedon’s memory endures, and Achilles and Memnon, the son of the Morning, and Troy is more imperishable than Carthage, or Rome, or Corinth, though Helen
“Burnt the topless towers of Ilium.”
In one brief passage, Marlowe did more than all poets since Stesichorus, or, at least since the epithalamium of Theocritus, for the glory of Helen. Roman poets knew her best as an enemy of their fabulous ancestors, and in the “AEneid,” Virgil’s hero draws his sword to slay her. Through the Middle Ages, in the romances of Troy, she wanders as a shining shadow of the ideally fair, like Guinevere, who so often recalls her in the Arthurian romances. The chivalrous mediaeval poets and the Celts could understand better than the Romans the philosophy of “the world well lost” for love. Modern poetry, even in Goethe’s “Second part of Faust,” has not been very fortunately inspired by Helen, except in the few lines which she speaks in “The Dream of Fair Women.”
“I had great beauty; ask thou not my name.”
Mr. William Morris’s Helen, in the “Earthly Paradise,” charms at the time of reading, but, perhaps, leaves little abiding memory. The Helen of “Troilus and Cressida” is not one of Shakespeare’s immortal women, and Mr. Rossetti’s ballad is fantastic and somewhat false in tone — a romantic pastiche. Where Euripides twice failed, in the “Troades” and the “Helena,” it can be given to few to succeed. Helen is best left to her earliest known minstrel, for who can recapture the grace, the tenderness, the melancholy, and the charm of the daughter of Zeus in the “Odyssey” and “Iliad”? The sightless eyes of Homer saw her clearest, and Helen was best understood by the wisdom of his unquestioning simplicity.
As if to prove how entirely, though so many hands paltered with her legend, Helen is Homer’s alone, there remains no great or typical work of Greek art which represents her beauty, and the breasts from which were modelled cups of gold for the service of the gods. We have only paintings on vases, or work on gems, which, though graceful, is conventional and might represent any other heroine, Polyxena, or Eriphyle. No Helen from the hands of Phidias or Scopas has survived to our time, and the grass may be growing in Therapnae over the shattered remains of her only statue.
As Stesichorus fabled that only an eidolon of Helen went to Troy, so, except in the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” we meet but shadows of her loveliness, phantasms woven out of clouds, and the light of setting suns.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52