“To Helen” is perhaps the most famous song by Charles Martin Loeffler. It is a setting of what is considered one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best verses.
Near the beginning of the 20th century, Charles Martin Loeffler showed an increased interest in the poetry of English and American authors. Having earlier composed songs to French texts, Loeffler chose, in the summer of 1905, to set two poems by Edgar Allan Poe, and one each by George Cabot Lodge (son of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The four songs for voice and piano, published collectively by G. Schirmer as Four Poems, op. 15, were premiered in Boston on April 10, 1906, by soprano Susan Metcalfe and pianist Heinrich Gebhard.
Unlike Loeffler's works from the previous decade that were morbid and macabre in character, Four Poems features songs that contain hints of nostalgia, tenderness, and sadness. "To Helen," was written in 1831, when the poet was 22 years old. Loeffler’s composition captures Poe's elegant text in what has been described as an "expressive simplicity," making "To Helen" one of the composer's most beautiful song settings.
--Library of Congress
by Edgar Allan Poe
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.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! In yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Photo: Helen. Currier & Ives, c1855. Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.