Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships - or does Faust behold an allegory of false and seductive images?

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack'd;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear'd to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azur'd arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

No, this was not the face that launched a thousand ships; it is rather the face of a demon that has assumed the image of Helen, wife of Menelaus.  Moreover, on the Elizabethan stage the actor playing the role of Helen would have been a boy. All is dross that is not Helena?  But isn't the demon, the false image--isn't this dross? And would Faust commit acts of military enormity for what is but an image? The evening sky filled with stars is indeed beautiful, but is this heavenly beauty, or, in comparison, mere elements and lights that charm but are cold...  Bright as Jupiter when he appeared in unveiled and total glory before Semele, whereupon his dazzling divine radiance overwhelmed her mortal nature and destroyed her? Finally, the proclamation, "More lovely than the monarch of the sky/In Arethusa's azure'd arms" (among the most beautiful alliterative lines in English poetry)--the image of the sun merely reflected in the fountain or tarn to which Arethusa fled to evade the advances of lustful Alpheus--the river stream in which she had been innocently bathing. Carrying the tenor, the Monarch of the skies--"the sun"--is merely the reflection rather than the substance of the glory Faust aspires to.  Recall earlier in the play when Faust demanded a wife, Mephistopheles denied him, explaining marriage was a sacrament, and Faust through the act of selling his soul was forbidden sacraments.  Further inquiry regarding Arthusea's connections with poetry and the underworld will tease out possibilities for more interpretation.  Rather than images and phantom gods, Faust would do well to pursue reality, which of course is Christ and the narrow way to eternal salvation. Alas, the Classical world holds for Faust many charms and many inescapable enticements. Indeed, for who can escape what he desires?

As the sailors of a thousand ships can tell you!

Gustave Moreau - Jupiter and Semele (1894-95)



Ludovico Dolce - Ceres and Arethusa (1558)