Pretty much the only poem I care about (SORRY POEMS) is Hilda Doolittle (H.D. to you)’s “Helen” on the “Of Troy” lady of the same name.
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.
AAAGHGHHH, right? That pretty much sums up Western society’s attitude towards women and beauty for the last 2500 years or so. Anyhow. Helen of Troy is the absolute best. She was the daughter of Zeus and Leda (yes, the swan lady), the most beautiful mortal woman in existence, and was kidnapped roughly 400 times before the age of 20. Kidnapping, in ancient Greece, was really just a friendly way of saying hello, how’ve you been, I’m running away into the hills above Lacedaemonia with all of the women in your family but you can have at least half of them back if you’re willing to challenge me in a footrace. Ladies who hadn’t been kidnapped by a certain age had a wan, forlorn look to them, as if to say Where are the simple joys of maidenhood, like the poet says.
So! Helen spent a great deal of her childhood being flung about from heroic figure to heroic figure, being briefly kidnapped by Theseus of all people before finally settling down with Menelaus, the king of Sparta. SMASH CUT TO ten years later when Paris, after having judged Aphrodite to be the most beautiful of all the goddesses and earning her favor, sails into town and takes Helen home with him to Troy.
This is the fun part! Because, you know, this was a beloved subject for European painters for centuries, and European painters had a lot of conflicting and varied opinions about female agency and morality. So there are roughly 4000 paintings titled “The Abduction of Helen,” all with varying degrees of actual abduction. (Helen ended up being fine, or as fine as a woman can be who has been kidnapped as often as one of Liam Neeson’s daughters; she either tired of Paris or never truly loved him and rejoined her husband and children in Sparta after the Trojan War, which is more than you can say for the Trojans.)
Here are some of them, in order of abduction.
The title of this painting is not the Abduction of Anybody, the title of this painting is Right This Way, My Lady.
This is just a calm walk to a boat with a deeply unattractive Paris.
She had time to bring her dog and a little monkey on a leash! And people are just standing around in the distance as their queen switches countries! Not caring a whit, like you do when your queen is abducted.
This one at least has a battle going on in the background, which seems appropriate, but Helen is just languidly waving goodbye, like you do when you abandon your family/are forcibly removed from your country. She’s already grabbing Paris’ abs with her other hand! This is a stellar abduction.
THIS ONE IS MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE. The entire painting is wall-to-wall action shots and Helen is just LYING DOWN ON THE GROUND. “Someone pick me up when all of this is over, I don’t care what country I’m the queen of next.”
Here we see Helen receive a triumphant piggy-back ride from her lover and captor as they flee the city.
This one is right in the middle. There’s clearly a struggle going on, but Helen is already pulling out the Shruggie. “What are you gonna do,” she seems to say. “I’m already in the boat, honey. Nothing to be done about it. You just come find me in Troy if you want me to come home later.”
THIS is an abduction. THANK YOU. (I mean. Not THANK you, obviously. Don’t abduct anyone.)
Something about this painting just doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the moment. Helen looks more miffed than anguished, and the fellow brandishing the short sword on the far left side of the line is doing so rather wanly. Two stars.
This is a good kidnapping! Helen is trying to avoid being dragged onto what appears to be a third of an actual boat, and there are people actively fighting over her in the background.
This has all of the hallmarks of an abduction, but no one is actually behaving as if one is currently going on. All the soldiers are just standing around looking at one another. “Xanthos! How’s it been? Has it really been eight years since the last time I fought you for the possession of Helen? How’s Thebes?”
Helen’s face is so grimly determined here, which I absolutely love. “My name is Paris – I sailed here for love of you – how you must despise me for tearing you from your children and lord, but I could not resist your beauty, for I –”
“Just take me away from here. I don’t care what your name is.”
The Mild Convincing Of Helen
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“Come on. You’ll like it.”
“Oh, all right then.”
“No, help, don’t, stop, save me, Menelaus — oh, is this ship for me? Put me down on the port side, I want to see the islands.”
This is not the face of a woman who has just been forcibly removed from her family and country; this is the face of a woman who has been cut off by a bartender she thought was flirting with her but was actually just concerned about her drinking.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.