Sunday, October 31, 2004


Regret in Sparta

Let's start out with a mythological refresher. The goddess Eris (Greek for strife or discord) was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation for this snub, she rolled a golden apple inscribed "For the fairest" into the midst of the wedding guests. A squabble arose among the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who deserved the apple. They held a beauty contest to decide the question and chose Paris, son of Troy's king Priam, as judge. Each of the three contestants tried to bribe Paris. Hera offered him power, Athena offered him martial prowess, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world.

Paris decided in favor of Aphrodite. The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, already married to Menelaus of Sparta, so Paris travelled to Sparta, seduced Helen, and carried her off with him to Troy. Menelaus' brother Agamemnon summoned an army of Greek warriors to win her back. They sailed to Troy, and so began the ten-year Trojan War.

In the midst of the conflict, the old men of Troy caught a glimpse of Helen on the battlements, and concluded that, despite the hardships of war, she was worth fighting for. Homer described the scene in Iliad 3.146-160, translated in the form of a sonnet by Andrew Lang (1844-1912) entitled Helen on the Walls:
Fair Helen to the Scaean portals came,
Where sat the elders, peers of Priamus,
Thymoetas, Hiketaon, Panthous,
And many another of a noble name,
Famed warriors, now in council more of fame.
Always above the gates, in converse thus
They chattered like cicalas garrulous;
Who marking Helen, swore "It is no shame
That armed Achaean knights, and Ilian men
For such a woman's sake should suffer long.
Fair as a deathless goddess seemeth she.
Nay, but aboard the red-prowed ships again
Home let her pass in peace, not working wrong
To us, and children's children yet to be."
The ancient sophist Gorgias also composed an encomium in defense of Helen.

Eventually Paris was slain in battle, the Greeks won the war, and Helen returned to her husband. By most accounts she and Menelaus lived happily ever after in Sparta. We see their domestic bliss, for example, in the fourth book of Homer's Odyssey. But a modern poet, Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), imagined another ending to the story, in a pair of sonnets entitled Menelaus and Helen:

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.


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.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?