Yeats’s “No Second Troy”: A Reworking of the Hellenic Myth

Indrajit Mukherjee, Durgapur High School

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“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.”

— Marlowe: Dr. Faustus (v.i. 99-101).

“Helen, whose beauty summoned Greece to arms

And drew a thousand ship to Tenedos”

—- Marlowe: Tamburlaine II(II.iv. 87-88)

“Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicéan barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.”– Poe: To Helen

 Since the days when Marlowe (1564-’93) studied the classics at Cambridge, Helen, historically a destructive wanton, and dramatically a demonic phantom, in terms appropriate for the female wisdom figure, retained in Christian theology as a created analogue for Christ, the second person of the Trinity, had been his cynosure of comparison — comparison with Tamburlaine (1590) and even with Gaveston in Edward II ( 1592). But metaphor is never enough for Marlowe; he must have the real thing, beauty in person; in The Jew of Malta (1592) policy was personified by Machiavelli himself, and the consummation of Faustus’s desire — or the consolation, at any rate, for his regret — is to have Helen as his paramour. To sum up the classical myth: Menelaus, one of the many kings to rule Greece, had a beautiful wife, Helen. She was abducted by the beautiful but cowardly Trojan Prince, Paris, one of the fifty sons of King Priam of Troy, who took her to Troy. The Greeks, led by Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, the High King, laid siege to Troy, but the city held out for ten years, until the Trojan horse, containing the Greek soldiers, was introduced to the city. Thus, the Trojans were butchered and battered “on the threshold of their undone years” and “the topless towers of Ilium” were destroyed “on the ringing plains of windy Troy”. Helen , Western’s culture prime example of the catastrophic social consequences of private obsession, appears in Shakespeare ( 1564 – 1616) too:

“Why, she [Helen of Troy ] is a pearl

Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships

And turned crowned kings to merchants”

(Troilus and Cressida, II. ii. 81-83).

Richard II, the son of York, identifies himself with the damned Faustus; or rather, like Faustus in his concluding speech, his reflexions oscillate between the visions of Heaven and Hell, and the shadow of Helen stresses the sensuality in Richard’s narcissism. “No Second Troy” (1908), Yeats’s most powerful blending so far of mythological, ironic contemporary passion, epigrammatic expression and glowing verse, incorporates this classical myth, but with this difference that Yeats radically modifies the image of Helen: from a sex object over whom men fight their battles to a warrior that she herself becomes, previously identified by the smile of the bow as an Amazon. Yeats’s active syntax attributes to her the agency of a subject: instead of causing Troy to be destroyed, she burns it herself. Yeats expresses his nationalism when he remarks, “We are what we are because almost without exception we have had some part in public life in a country where public life is simple and exciting” (1936: XV-XVI).

Maud Gonne had always been a political activist, but the younger Yeats’s preferred to represent her as a static avatar of Eternal Beauty or an un-individualized Rose. Yeats notes, “Her beauty, backed by her great stature, could instantly affect an assembly, and not, as often with our stage beauties, because obvious and florid, for it was incredibly distinguished, and if—as must be that it might seem that assembly’s very self, like the face of some Greek statue, showed little thought, her whole body seemed a master-work of long labouring thought, as though a Scopas has measured and calculated, consorted with Egyptian sages, and mathematicians out of Babylon, that he might outface even Artemisia’s sepulchral image with a living norm” (1995: 364-365). Although “No Second Troy” celebrates her as unique, her beauty “solitary” in a banal age, Yeats’s representation of femininity in the poem draws energy from women who have adopted mass protest, offering the spectacle of a world turned upside down, the little streets hurled upon the great:

“Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?” (VP 256-257).

The opening of “No Second Troy” has something more positive than an acceptance of the sadness caused by the earlier relationship. “Words” has shown how the nature of the relationship was necessary to the writing of the poetry; “No Second Troy” makes Maud Gonne a symbol of the nobility of a passed heroic age, and so sets up an image to which the present might aspire, or at least points to lack within the present age.

“No Second Troy” indicates that for Yeats as speaker, poetic “manliness” meant giving up the abject laments of the forsaken lover. Why should we blame her for rejecting him? “Manly” poetics consisted in the elliptical condensation of syntax, the replacement of parataxis by subordination, strong enjambment, stress-packed lines, colloquial diction, and emphasis on consonants rather than vowels: in the construction of an energetic spoken language. Voice, energy, and agency have traditionally been denied to women, and Yeats sees Maud Gonne as a heroic woman who lacked a tragic stage on which to speak her “mind”. Gonne, in “No Second Troy”, becomes the very type of the heroic misplaced in an unheroic age: “a kind / That is not natural in an age like this” (VP 256-257). There is a similar sense of the struggle of the imagination to capture the legendary beauty of the young Maud Gonne, latter -day avatar of the Homeric Helen, in “Peace” (1910):

“All that sternness amid charm,

All that sweetness amid strength” (VP 259).

The poetic elevation of the original sonnet heroines, Beatrice and Laura, reflected no social power. Yeats’s Helen, however, has taken power into her own hands: if she is “high” above the poet it is because she has placed herself there. She transgresses all the stereotypes of femininity, she is violent, courageous, noble, fiery, solitary, and stern; her beauty is a weapon rather than a lure:

“ What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?” (VP 256-257).

Yeats did not believe in violent rebellion, and afterward he wrote one of his most famous and painful poems, “Easter 1916”, in which he declared, “ A terrible beauty is born”.

From one point of view an elaborate compliment that exalts Maud Gonne by condemning the modern world as inadequate to the second Helen ( the modern world contains “No Second Troy” ), the poem also implicitly identifies Yeats as no second Paris — a self -deprecating gesture indeed if Yeats accepts Gonne’s primitive version of heroism, but a rather self-congratulating gesture if Yeats is criticizing Gonne’s inability— “being what she is” — to recognize the modern Juan’s different form of heroism — the heroism of the artist’s intellectual endeavour. The political point Yeats ends up indirectly making is similar to the point made about Maud Gonne in “No Second Troy” — there is no second Troy to burn: “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” (VP 256-257). Yeats justifies Gonne’s incitement of violence by suggesting that something in her beauty — as in Helen of Troy — inexorably sowed the seeds of violence. The conjunction of Gonne, Helen, and violence cannot be read apart from “Leda and the Swan” (1923), in which Yeats suggests that Zeus’s rape of Leda led not only to the birth of the beautiful Helen (“the only paragon of excellence”), but to the violent sack of Troy and even the murder of Agamemnon at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra:

“A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead”.

There is a temptation to see Gonne’s attraction to violence as only oratorical and Yeats’s, justification of it as only theoretical, casting Leda’s rape as a metaphor for the violence attendant upon the periodic influxes of the divine into history described in A Vision. But by the time of “No Second Troy”, Gonne had sought to further an Irish Republican Brotherhood plot to blow up British troop ships during the Boer war in 1899 and had acquiesced in MacBride’s aborted plan to assassinate king Edward VII (1901-’10) during their honeymoon in Gibraltar. Whereas Helen seems to have played at most a passive role in role in the destruction of Troy, Gonne’s affinity for violence was not only active, but part of her appeal. By analogizing Gonne to Helen, whose name was a variant of Selene, the Moon Goddess, and who was inhabited by the Wisdom principle, Yeats at once casts Gonne as a White Goddess and links her penchant for violence with her unnatural beauty and the divine violence that engendered Helen’s birth.

“No Second Troy”, a piece of The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) volume, is nevertheless an ambiguous poem, in which the celebration of Amazonian female agency and power is qualified by the poet’s restrictions on the exercise of that power. Foucault notes, “Power prescribes an ‘order’ for sex that operates at the same time as a form of intelligibility: sex is to be deciphered on the basis of its relation to the law” (1979: 83). Gonne lived in an age that, according to Yeats, afforded no fitting outlet for the energy of the heroic woman. Revolution, whether nationalist or feminist, was not an appropriate activity for a Helen. Thus the lyric takes back with one hand what it gives with the other : the exceptional woman is acknowledged, but her freedom to constitute herself as a subject through political action is denied, and her frustrated power is defined as destructive. When in old age Yeats lamented the fact that he had known

“A Helen of social welfare dream,

Climb on a wagonette to scream” (VP 626),

he abandoned creative ambivalence and drew instead on anti-suffrage propaganda, which commonly deployed the nineteenth- century stereotype of the hysterical woman. Daniel Albright remarks, it is Maud Gonne to whom Yeats generally reserved the name Helen” (1994: 804).

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Indrajit Mukherjee (UGC NET) teaches in Durgapur High School.

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