Everyone is familiar with the legend of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in Greece. Hilda Doolittle takes Helen’s story and uses it to make the reader confront the prejudices that exist in modern times. With themes of misogyny and mythology, this analysis allows the reader to dive deeper into Doolittle’s poem.

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Table of contents

    “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle Quick Facts: Poem Year

    AuthorHilda Doolittle (1886-1961)
    FormFree verse
    ThemesMisogyny & mythology
    MeaningDoolittle uses the myth of Helen of Troy to show how patriarchal norms persist from ancient times to the present day.

    Helen, Image of Hilda Doolittle, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Hilda Doolittle, author of "Helen," Doolittle wrote extensively about women's treatment and status within society, as she does here with the poem "Helen."

    The Context for “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle

    Before diving into the summary of “Helen,” it is important to provide some context to understand the poem fully. The Helen referenced by the title and who the poem discusses is Helen of Troy, known as the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. Helen is betrothed and married to King Menelaus of Sparta. Paris, Prince of Troy, seduces Helen and brings her to Troy. This sparks the Trojan War, which lasts 10 years. The most famous record of the Trojan War is Homer’s Iliad.

    Text of "Helen" by Hilda Doolittle

    All Greece hates

    the still eyes in the white face,

    the lustre as of olives

    where she stands,

    and the white hands.

    All Greece reviles

    the wan face when she smiles,

    hating it deeper still

    when it grows wan and white

    remembering past enchantments

    and past ills.

    Greece sees unmoved,

    God’s daughter, born of love,

    the beauty of cool feet

    and slenderest knees,

    could love indeed the maid,

    only if she were laid,

    white ash amid funereal cypresses."

    “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle Summary

    “Helen” is divided into three stanzas of increasing length—5, 6, and 7 lines. The first stanza details how all of Greece hates Helen. She is described as having a white face and white hands, her skin shining like olives.

    The second stanza again repeats that all of Greece hates when she smiles—when she is happy. As she remembers both the good and bad, the people of Greece wishes her nothing but unhappiness.

    In the third stanza, it becomes clear what the people of Greece wish for Helen. Despite her being the daughter of love, and despite her immense physical beauty, the people of Greece could only love her if she were dead, “laid,/white ash amid funereal cypresses.” (17-18).

    “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle Meaning

    While only spanning 18 lines and sparsely worded, Doolittle packs meaning into her poem “Helen.” While describing the hate that all of Greece feels for Helen for leaving Sparta and becoming Helen of Troy, very little is said about Helen’s personality or thoughts. Instead, Doolittle only describes her body, what the people of Greece can see. They hate her beauty and they hate her for what they see as her abandoning them and causing the Trojan war.

    By focusing on the hate that Greece feels toward Helen, however, Doolittle is making a statement on how people place blame. In different retellings of the Trojan War, Paris is alternately described as kidnapping, abducting, or eloping with Helen. It is deliberately ambiguous as to whether her removal from Troy was with or without her consent. Despite this fact, all of Greece “hates” (1) and “reviles” (6) Helen, not Paris. The blame is placed solely on her, for being beautiful. Nothing is said of Paris and his abduction of Helen, but instead, the cause of the war and subsequent deaths is the beautiful woman.

    Helen is famously referred to as "the face that launched a thousand ships" in a poem by English poet Christopher Marlowe. The line refers to her great beauty, and again places the cause of the war on Helen's beauty.

    “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle Analysis

    Doolittle imbued “Helen” with many different literary devices and themes such as beauty and hatred.

    Helen, Painting of Helen of Troy, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Painting of Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the subject of Doolittle's poem and the woman considered to be the most beautiful in all of Greece.


    Doolittle uses rhyme throughout the poem to lend it an almost musical tone. Much like how she uses mythology thematically throughout the poem, the use of rhyme lends a fairytale-esque feel to the poem. The rhyme scheme of the first stanza is AABCC, the second stanza is AABCDB, and the third stanza is ABCDDE.


    Similar to her use of rhyme, Doolittle employs alliteration throughout the poem. She writes: “when it grows white and wan” (9), referring to Helen’s face. The alliteration draws the reader’s attention to this line, and Helen’s face—going from smiling in line 7 to white and wan in line 9—reflects her treatment by the people of Greece. She cannot even smile or be happy without the vitriolic hatred of the people of Greece, and, perhaps thanks to this treatment, her smile turns to an expression of sadness or discomfort.


    While the entire poem alludes to the story of Helen of Troy, the line “God’s daughter, born of love” (13) is an allusion to Helen’s parentage; in the stories of her life, she is the daughter of the god Zeus. This allusion is also ironic, as Doolittle notes that she was born of love but in life experiences the hate of the Greek people. She was born of love but only could receive love if she was dead.


    Doolittle makes use of irony throughout the poem in the way Helen is described and in her resulting treatment. Doolittle exclusively describes Helen and her famous beauty with words that would normally inspire appreciation—the "lustre" of her skin, her "beauty," the fact that she is "God's daughter, born of love"—each of these would make the reader believe that Helen is appreciated and loved for these aspects of her beautiful physical appearance. Ironically, it is these very beautiful features of Helen that inspire the hatred of Greece and are exploited by the patriarchal structures in which she lives.

    Themes in “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle

    Doolittle uses themes of beauty, misogyny, and mythology to explore the classical myths we learn and the patriarchal norms that dominate them.


    Doolittle’s poem deals with misogynistic societal norms toward women. Helen is hated because the Greek people blame her for the Trojan War. Despite the fact that Paris is often described as having abducted Helen, it is her irresistible beauty and her abduction that causes the war. No mention is made of Paris, the one who does the abducting, as all of their hate is reserved for the woman they see at fault.

    The people of Greece wish for her unhappiness. The only way that they could ever truly love Helen is if she is dead, turned to dust. Doolittle uses the classical myth of Helen to showcase the misogynistic characteristics of society and how it views women.

    Furthermore, Helen is only described physically. All Greece hates her physical beauty and has no regard for her thoughts, opinions, or actions. Rather, the statuesque portrayal of Helen in Doolittle's poem—"still eyes," (2) like they are made of stone—serves to undercut the one-dimensional way that society treats women. No thought is spared for the personality or thoughts of Helen as a woman, but she is valued and discarded solely based on her physical appearance.


    The theme of classical mythology is shown through the subject of the poem—Helen of Troy. Even as Doolittle sets the poem in the present day with “All Greece hates” (1) and “All Greece reviles” (6) rather than hated and reviled, she shows how these classical myths both inform and reflect our present day. By saying that "all" of Greece hates and reviles Helen, Doolittle shows the extent to which patriarchal norms that devalue women exist in society—both ancient and modern. All of Greece—the country, the institutions, in addition to the people—perpetuates this hate. This can be drawn out to the modern world in which these same institutions and cultural norms exist; Doolittle draws attention to the continuities between Ancient Greece and our modern world.

    The people of Greece in Doolittle’s poem still hate Helen of Troy as the people contemporaneous to her life did. Doolittle exposes how the misogynistic cultural norms of the ancient world persist into the modern-day. The hatred of a woman for the actions of the men around her persists, and the inability to love her when she speaks for herself is reflective both of the people in Helen’s time and in our world today. Classical mythology is used to illuminate these perpetuating patriarchal myths.

    Helen - Key takeaways

    • “Helen” (1961) is a poem by American poet, author, and memoirist Hilda Doolittle.
    • The poem consists of three stanzas and 18 lines written in a free verse style with no set rhyme scheme.
    • The poem uses the myth of Helen of Troy to showcase how misogynistic cultural norms persist from ancient times to the present day.
    • Themes of misogyny and mythology are shown through Doolittle’s use of rhyme, alliteration, and allusion.
    • The poem takes a new perspective on the classic myth to interrogate where and why blame is placed.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Helen

    What is the theme of “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle?

    Doolittle writes with themes of mythology and misogyny throughout the poem. The misogynist attitudes of the ancient Greeks toward Helen persist in the modern-day. She notes that Helen could only be loved by the Greek people if she were dead. Doolittle uses the myth of Helen to show how little has changed in terms of these cultural norms. 

    What is the poem “Helen” about?

    “Helen” is about the Greek people’s hatred for Helen of Troy. Doolittle writes the poem to examine the prejudices of the people for blaming Helen for the Trojan War, rather than Paris. The beautiful woman who men could not resist was at fault, rather than the man who abducted her.

    Who is the speaker in “Helen” by Hilda Doolittle?

    The speaker in “Helen” is not named or described by Doolittle. Instead, the speaker just recounts the facts regarding the opinion of the Greek people toward Helen. The speaker adopts a very factual, detached tone, and relays the information as a list of facts. Doing so brings the vitriolic reaction of the Greek people into starker contrast.

    What type of poem is “Helen?”

    “Helen” is a free-verse poem. There are three stanzas and each stanza increases its lines by one—5, 6, and 7. Each of the stanzas employs its own rhyme scheme. 

    What is the author's purpose behind the poem “Helen?”

    Doolittle approaches “Helen” in a way to expose some of the prejudices that underlie the classical myth. Rather than blame Paris for the Trojan War—for he was the one who, in many retellings, abducted Helen unwillingly—all of the blame for the fighting and the death is on Helen. She is the scapegoat for all of Greece’s hatred, and thanks to her beauty she was responsible for the war.

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