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The Face That Launch'd a Thousand Ships





Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!


Most of what I know about Helen of Troy (formerly of Sparta) I got from Wolfgang Peterson’s apparently not-so-faithful 2004 Brad Pitt-starring Troy, with Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) playing thousand-ship launcher Helen. Pretty, yes, but worth all the trouble? Regardless of how ones rates Kruger’s hotness and rightness for the role, the mythical Helen of Sparta is really, really, really hot. Hot enough to cause a war and make men go loco-er than normal.


This poem is, from the male perspective, basically about a dude trying to make himself sound as macho and strong as possible, totally trying to impress Ms. Helen. He will “wound Achilles” and “combat..Menelaus”, and conclude his activities and “return to Helen for a kiss.” He’s a total romancer, in a big, sweet epic kind-of-way. The poem showcases what a very attractive woman does to a guy who really can’t get this gal out of their mind: a splendid, verbose description of the powers her beauty contains, and what a man would do for her (like beating up Brad Pitt and Brian Cox).


Plus, just kissing her is bliss. As Marlowe writes in metaphor, “for heaven is in these lips”, why would one fear any of these people (Achilles, Menelaus) when heaven herself is right in front of you?  (Marlowe utilizes metaphor again, relating Helen as “fairer than the evening air.” Boy gee golly, I needs to get me a time machine and meet up with Helen.


It’s a love poem, plain and simple. From the sounds of it, the writer has seen Helen, but doesn’t exactly have a steady relationship with the gal (relationship meaning anything: friendship, uncle, stalker, etc., etc.), and is instead relating her beauty from afar. This could, in fact, be a personification of the writer’s mental process, just a transcription of what the guy’s thinking. Cool theory, dare I say so myself. I dare!


For a poem like this so heavily focused on a female – negative or positive, your choice – one can’t help but look at it under the literary technique of ‘gender roles’, or for our purposes here, ‘feminist theory.’


Women will first take note of Helen’s role in this play. Obviously, written from the point of view of a man, a woman isn’t typically about to be the Ripleyof the play and have a completely three-dimensional persona. Besides, that’s not what this play is about. And it’s here that feminist theory would point out that Helen becomes nothing more than a form of objectification. Is Helen just a personification of man’s lust, naught a care in the world for any of her personality traits that makes her so…um, delicious? Instead of delving into who she is, what she stands for, why she is cherished so…she’s given the Edward Cullen treatment and made out to be a vision of beauty that makes words so mundane and unworthy in their presence.


Aside from the poem, let’s take a moment and look at the story of Helen overall. She’s a powerless woman in a vast sea of men championing to be her, uh, man. Taking her affection for Paris out of the equation, despite being an important part of a mega war, she’s also insignificant in that her role is quickly outsized; bugged down, so to speak.


The final line’s declaration of Helen being ones paramour, or “love” (god bless the dictionary for denotation words). At least there’s something in that – from the sounds of it, the writer wants something more than a fling with dear Helen of Sparta -- love may actually play a part in the equation. But then again, how can a bloke be in love with a gal he doesn’t really know? Sorta problematic.


One final note, Poems Poet suggest the poem was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a Africa American poet from the late 1800s. Seemingly, that is the only website through a quick Google search that features that connotation. The Ancient History section of cites Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus as the originator of the world renowned line “the face that launched a thousand ships.”