'When Helen Lived' by William Butler Yeats

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We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen waked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

Editor 1 Interpretation

When Helen Lived: An Analysis of Yeats' Classic Poem

William Butler Yeats is a poet who needs no introduction. His contributions to the world of literature have been immense, and his poems are regarded as some of the finest examples of modernist poetry. "When Helen Lived" is one such poem that showcases Yeats' mastery of language and his ability to weave complex themes into his works. This 16-line poem, published in "The Green Helmet and Other Poems" in 1910, explores the idea of beauty, time, and the fleeting nature of life. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we delve deeper into the poem and uncover the hidden layers of meaning that make it a classic.

The Poem

Before we begin our analysis, let us first take a look at the poem in its entirety:

When Helen lived, she had great beauty;
The idle, fluttering stir of the day,
Born of its sunshine, drowsy in rout,
Caught in her hair, and the white nape turning.
Birds made their song amid the moaning
Of a new world, that iron clash,
But Helen's beauty was always more dearer,
That, clinging to the holy boughs.
Ah, thou hast taken my love from me!
Yet, like the night, thou art most fair,
And beautiful as a battlefield,
With all its banners bravely waving.


The Context

To understand the poem better, we must first look at the context in which it was written. "When Helen Lived" was published in 1910, a time of great upheaval and change in Europe. The First World War was still a few years away, but the political and social landscape was rapidly changing. Yeats himself was going through a period of transition in his personal life, having recently separated from his wife and starting a new relationship. All these factors influenced Yeats' writing, and we can see their impact on this poem.

Beauty and Time

The central theme of the poem is beauty and its fleeting nature. Here, Yeats talks about Helen, who was known for her great beauty. The first four lines of the poem describe the beauty of the world around Helen, how even the birds sang in her presence. But then, Yeats contrasts this with the "iron clash" of the new world. Here, he is referring to the rapid changes that were taking place in Europe, the wars and conflicts that were tearing apart the continent. In the face of this violence and destruction, Helen's beauty seems all the more precious, "clinging to the holy boughs."

The Loss of Love

The poem takes a personal turn in the next few lines, where Yeats talks about the loss of his love. He says that someone has taken his love from him, though he doesn't specify who. This loss is probably related to his recent separation from his wife, but it also ties in with the theme of the fleeting nature of beauty. Love, like beauty, is something that we cherish and hold dear, but it can be taken away from us at any moment. The fact that Yeats doesn't name the person who took his love from him adds to the sense of loss and ambiguity.

Beauty and Violence

The final lines of the poem bring together the themes of beauty and violence. Yeats says that the person who took his love is "beautiful as a battlefield, with all its banners bravely waving." This is an interesting image, as it suggests that even in the midst of violence and destruction, there is a kind of beauty that can be found. The idea of bravery and courage is also present in this image, which suggests that the person who took Yeats' love is someone who is not afraid to face the world head-on, even in the face of great adversity.


Now that we have looked at the themes and context of the poem, let us delve deeper into its structure and language.


"When Helen Lived" is a 16-line poem that follows a loose rhyme scheme. The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth lines. The poem is divided into three stanzas, with the first two stanzas describing the world around Helen and the third stanza taking a personal turn. The loose rhyme scheme and stanza structure add to the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that pervades the poem.


Yeats' use of language in this poem is masterful, as always. He uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of Helen's beauty and the world around her. The phrase "the idle, fluttering stir of the day" is a particularly striking one, as it captures the sense of movement and activity that surrounds Helen. The use of the word "moaning" to describe the new world is also interesting, as it suggests a kind of sadness or mourning for the loss of the old world.


There are several symbols in the poem that add depth and meaning to the text. The image of the birds singing in Helen's presence is a symbol of the natural world, which contrasts with the man-made violence of the new world. The "holy boughs" that Helen's beauty clings to suggest a kind of purity or sanctity, which is also contrasted with the violence of the new world. The use of the battlefield as a symbol of beauty and courage is a particularly powerful one, as it suggests that even in the face of violence and destruction, there is something noble and admirable about those who fight.


"When Helen Lived" is a classic poem that showcases Yeats' mastery of language and his ability to weave complex themes into his works. The poem explores the themes of beauty, time, and the fleeting nature of life, and uses vivid imagery and symbolism to convey its message. The personal turn that the poem takes in the final stanza adds to its emotional impact, and the loose rhyme scheme and stanza structure add to the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that pervades the text. All in all, "When Helen Lived" is a poem that rewards careful reading and analysis, and is a testament to Yeats' skill as a poet.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

When Helen Lived: A Masterpiece by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, playwright, and Nobel laureate, is known for his profound and evocative poetry that explores themes of love, nature, mythology, and Irish identity. One of his most celebrated works is the poem "When Helen Lived," which was published in his collection "The Wind Among the Reeds" in 1899. This poem is a masterpiece of Yeats' early poetry and showcases his skillful use of language, imagery, and symbolism to convey a powerful message about the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death.

The poem is a tribute to Helen of Troy, the legendary beauty whose face launched a thousand ships and caused the Trojan War. Yeats imagines Helen in her youth, before the war, when she was at the height of her beauty and fame. He describes her as a "queen of beauty" who "held the world in awe" and "shone like a star." He also portrays her as a tragic figure, destined to suffer for her beauty and to be remembered only for her role in the war.

The poem is divided into three stanzas, each of which explores a different aspect of Helen's life and legacy. The first stanza describes Helen's beauty and the effect it had on those around her. Yeats uses vivid and sensual imagery to convey the power of Helen's beauty, comparing her to a "rose in the wind" and a "star in the sky." He also suggests that her beauty was not just physical but had a spiritual quality that inspired awe and reverence in those who saw her.

The second stanza shifts the focus to the aftermath of the Trojan War and the fate of Helen. Yeats portrays her as a prisoner of war, held captive by the Greeks and forced to endure the scorn and hatred of her captors. He also suggests that Helen's beauty was a curse that brought her nothing but misery and despair. He writes, "Her beauty was a burden, and her fame / A thing to weep for, not to sing about."

The third and final stanza is the most poignant and powerful of the poem. Yeats imagines Helen in old age, looking back on her life and reflecting on the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death. He writes, "She knew that she was beautiful, and that her beauty / Was fading like a rose that has been plucked." He also suggests that Helen has come to accept her fate and to find solace in the knowledge that her beauty will live on in the memories of those who loved her.

The poem is a meditation on the nature of beauty and its relationship to mortality. Yeats suggests that beauty is a fleeting and ephemeral thing, destined to fade and die like a flower. He also suggests that beauty can be a curse, bringing nothing but pain and suffering to those who possess it. Yet, despite this, Yeats also suggests that beauty is a source of inspiration and wonder, capable of inspiring awe and reverence in those who behold it.

In terms of form and structure, "When Helen Lived" is a sonnet, a traditional form of poetry that consists of 14 lines and follows a strict rhyme scheme. Yeats uses a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet, which consists of an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The rhyme scheme of the octave is ABBAABBA, while the rhyme scheme of the sestet is CDCDCD. This structure gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry, reflecting the themes of beauty and mortality that it explores.

In conclusion, "When Helen Lived" is a masterpiece of poetry that showcases Yeats' skillful use of language, imagery, and symbolism to convey a powerful message about the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death. The poem is a tribute to Helen of Troy, one of the most famous and tragic figures in mythology, and explores the complex relationship between beauty, fame, and suffering. It is a timeless work of art that continues to inspire and move readers today, more than a century after it was first published.

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