The Legend of Fair Helen as Told by Homer, Goethe, and Others Eugene Oswald Author
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From the PROLOGUE: DEDICATED TO THE MEMBERS OF THE ENGLISH GOETHE SOCIETYIn Goethe's Helena—which Heine called 'the most splendid statue that ever left the sculptor Goethe's studio'—the poet handles a treasury of old, partly contradictory fables, adding some of his own more modern fancies and thoughts. The magician may be said to play with the whole inventory, bringing before us the old as well as the new precious things in rapid and unexpected intermingling, and with a total disregard of time and place, but striking out from the combination new sparks of light and beauty in a phantasmagoria—that is his own expression— of infinite enjoyment for those of us who are not bound in pedantry or party spirit, who can free themselves from the fetters of the antique and from the new fetters of the modern so-called realism.Does Goethe's second Faust allegorize his hero's excursion into the passion of the Renaissance for classical beauty? So the Encyclopedia Britannica (9th edition): 'Goethe (Faust, Part II.) introduces Helena apparently to symbolize the Greek spirit acting on the modern mind.' Is Goethe's poem the intermingling of the classic poetry with that of the Middle Ages, of Achilles and King Arthur, of Helena and Brunhild, of Virgil and Tasso, of the Siege of Troy and the Crusades, of Homer and the spirit of the Minnesingers, whence the New Spirit is born, figured forth as Euphorion-Byron? Let it be this, but it is much more besides. No formula seems to exhaust the riches of Goethe's words, the dignity and harmony of his verse, the gallery of pictures he unrolls before our eyes, his praise of pathetic beauty.People find symbolism and allegory in the poem. Carlyle calls it 'fantastic and figurative; not an allegory, but a phantasmagory— properly speaking, a Märchen.' 'The whole piece has a dream-like character,' he says elsewhere, 'and in these cases no prudent soothsayer will be altogether confident.'Helen of Troy, then, is our subject — one of those beauties who stand out in history and legend eternally for both the admiration and the pity of mankind.Listening to what I hope to have the pleasure of saying to you about fair Helen, and the various accounts of her, it will be for you to decide for yourselves whether she was a real person, typical of beauty, charm, failings, and sufferings, such as she appeared to generation after generation—a sister to Cleopatra, to Mary, Queen of Scots, perhaps to Marie Antoinette of France; or was she altogether a creation of fancy, or, again, a symbol or embodiment of the moon—a myth, and a mere phantom of beauty?Let me not prejudge, but go with you through the charming and widespread maze, the fairytale of fortune and misfortune.In so doing, I shall have to say many things which to a great number of my audience will be as well known as to me, or better. Let them show kindly patience at the repetition of their own knowledge for the sake of others, who may be less well at home in these regions.One more introductory remark, to disarm the learned critics: I shall indiscriminately use the names of Zeus and Jupiter, of Aphrodite and Venus. Virgil will be with us, as well as Homer.


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