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Menelaus and Helen

February 24, 2010

This 1909 poem by one of the Golden Boys of English myth, Rupert Brooke (1887 -1915), shocked me the first time I read it.  It is a contemplation on the tragedy of the relegated hero, a circumstance that eroded many of the survivors of Brooke’s doomed generation.

Rembrandt's Prophet Jeremiah mourning over the destrution of Jerusalem (detail of head)

Portrait of Helen of Troy, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

Hot through Troy’s ruin Menelaus broke
To Priam’s palace, sword in hand, to sate
On that adulterous whore a ten years’ hate
And a king’s honour. Through red death, and smoke,
And cries, and then by quieter ways he strode,
Till the still innermost chamber fronted him.
He swung his sword, and crashed into the dim
Luxurious bower, flaming like a god.

High sat white Helen, lonely and serene.
He had not remembered that she was so fair,
And that her neck curved down in such a way;
And he felt tired. He flung the sword away,
And kissed her feet, and knelt before her there,
The perfect Knight before the perfect Queen.

Marble statue detail of Menelaus, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence

II
So far the poet. How should he behold
That journey home, the long connubial years?
He does not tell you how white Helen bears
Child on legitimate child, becomes a scold,
Haggard with virtue. Menelaus bold
Waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys
‘Twixt noon and supper. And her golden voice
Got shrill as he grew deafer. And both were old.

Often he wonders why on earth he went
Troyward, or why poor Paris ever came.
Oft she weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent;
Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.
So Menelaus nagged; and Helen cried;
And Paris slept on by Scamander side.


Rembrandt's Mother in old age

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