Helen's Burning

Ruth Hoberman: On "Helen's Burning"

In speaking about (Riding) Jackson's use of mythical/classical characters in her fiction, Hoberman suggests important background for analyzing (Riding) Jackson's classical images in poetry.

Both epic and traditional history privilege the "material changes" over "characterless narration." In the process, they privilege male over female activities, closure over open-endedness, detachment over intimacy. ... Defining itself against male-centered, culturally privileged epics, Riding's ... aim is to let commonalities among characters and between readers and characters emerge. Riding's concern is with identification and sympathy, not detachment and objectivity; she contrasts herself explicitly with the archeologist digging for objects.... Riding's aim is communication through "sympathy"-i.e., through identification with her subjects, not investigation of them. (p. 69)

Deborah Baker: On "Helen's Burning"

In "Helen's Burning" such paradoxes [love as good and evil] are explored in ways that suggest how deeply imbued was Riding's "poetic sense" with the dialectical conjurings of metaphysical poetry. That such rhetorical gambits tended, time and time again, to steer all her arguments toward ultimately nihilistic and self-destructive ends is perfectly captured in this early poem.... In Riding's inexorable and self-embracing "logic," meaning searches for its purest expression not in the mythic ideal but in Helen's "whole fate," her ugliness and her beauty her life and her death "in one breath." ... The "gift of prophecy," the vatic power of Helen's transcendental and mythic beauty, was Riding's poetic inheritance. To forsake this mystery to unmask the whole fate" of woman risked the revelation that Helen's beauty might be no more than mortal, and the gift of prophecy, delusion. (pp. 177-178)