Text of the Poem
Oenone is a nymph—that is, she is the daughter of a river-god, and is herself a kind of demi-goddess. She is writing to Paris, who is the son of King Priam of Troy. Oenone and Paris married some years earlier, when Paris was only a shepherd, or perhaps a servant of a shepherd, and was ignorant of his royal parentage. Paris has now taken another wife—the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Helen has some disadvantages, though: she is not only a foreigner (a Greek), but is also already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. The tragic events of the Trojan War, sparked by Paris’ marriage to Helen, are about to unfold. In her letter, Oenone reproaches Paris for deserting her for this “new wife,” reminds him of their own past life together, stresses Helen’s bad character, and pleads with him to return.
The story starts with Helen’s birth—or rather with her conception. Jove, the king of the gods, became enamored of a human woman, Leda. Leda was married to Tyndareus, the king of Lacedaemon in Greece, but this did not stop Jove. He took the form of a swan, and then either seduced or raped Leda. As a result, Leda gave birth to Helen. Helen was raised as Tyndareus’ daughter.
Helen was incredibly beautiful—she was said to be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. Even when she was still quite young, she was kidnapped by the legendary Greek hero Theseus, although she is said to have been returned to her parents unharmed. As a young adult, she was sought as a bride by virtually every king in Greece. So Tyndareus was faced with a problem: if he chose one suitor for Helen’s husband, then he would offend practically every other king in the land. Even worse, there was the danger that someone among the unsuccessful suitors would not take “no” for an answer, and would attempt to kidnap Helen from her husband, starting inter-clan fighting or even full-scale civil war.
Enter the clever Ulysses, king of Ithaca (his Greek name is Odysseus, and he is the hero of Homer’s Odyssey). Ulysses wanted to marry Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. He told Tyndareus that, in return for help in winning Penelope as his wife, he would devise a plan by which no unsuccessful suitor would interfere with Helen’s marriage. Here was Ulysses’ plan: he got all the suitors to swear a solemn oath to defend Helen’s marriage, regardless of who was chosen. If anyone tried to take Helen away from her husband, the rest of the suitors would form a military alliance to get her back. The plan worked. Helen was married to Menelaus, king of Sparta, and remained peacefully wed to him for a number of years.
Now we have to shift to another part of the world. In Troy, a city in Asia Minor (its ruins are located in modern-day Turkey), Priam was king. His wife, Hecuba, was pregnant with a son. She had a dream (or there was some other sort of prophecy—it depends on what accounts you read) that she gave birth to a burning torch, from which serpents issued. It was decided that the unborn son was going to be a deadly danger to the city, and so orders were given that he should be killed at birth. The son’s name was Paris. There are several versions of why he survived, but one of the more common ones is that he was “exposed” in the countryside and left to die, and that a shepherd saved him and raised him. Paris was ignorant of his true parentage, and grew up as a shepherd; in some accounts he was a shepherd’s servant. As he neared manhood, he fell in love with the nymph Oenone, the daughter of the river-god Cebrenis. The two were married, and lived as husband and life in the countryside. Some time later, during a festival at Troy, he was recognized as the king’s son and restored to his place in the royal household.
So here we have the three principal figures in this letter: Oenone, who writes the letter; her husband, Paris; and Helen, the beautiful woman for whom Paris deserts Oenone. The story of how they came together takes us back to Greece.
Jove, the king of the gods, and Neptune, the principal god of the sea, had sexual designs on the Nereid Thetis (a sea-nymph). However, they discovered a prophecy that Thetis would bear a son who would be mightier than his father. Since neither god wanted a son who might overthrow him, they decided to avoid the problem by having Thetis marry a human. They chose Peleus, because of his reputation for good character. All of the gods were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, with the exception of one—Eris, the goddess of discord. To avenge the snub, Eris showed up at the wedding anyway, and threw a golden apple into a group of goddesses; the apple was inscribed with the words “for the fairest.” The goddesses Juno, Venus, and Minerva all claimed the apple, and appealed to Jove to settle the dispute. Jove did not want to get involved (Juno was his wife, and Venus and Minerva were his daughters), so he referred the decision to Paris, who was supposed to be wise in the ways of love and a great judge of feminine beauty. The result was the famous “Judgement of Paris.” All three of the goddesses tried to bribe him: Juno (queen of the gods) promised him the rulership of a kingdom; Minerva (goddess of wisdom, learning, and defensive warfare) promised him wisdom; and Venus (goddess of love) promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus.
A little later, Paris was sent on an embassy to Sparta, where Menelaus was king. There he wooed Menelaus’ wife, Helen. When Menelaus went on a journey to Crete, Paris either eloped with Helen or abducted her, and took her back to Troy as his wife. At this point, Menelaus invoked the oath that all the other suitors had taken, and demanded that they band together to bring back his wife. The result was a coalition of forces under the leadership of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ elder brother, which sailed to Asia Minor and besieged Troy for ten years, finally taking it by the stratagem of the Trojan horse, and burning the city to the ground. Paris himself was mortally wounded before the siege ended, and appealed to Oenone for help; Oenone had been taught the arts of healing by the god Apollo, but she refused to heal the husband who had deserted her. She repented of her refusal too late, and arrived to find Paris dead; she then committed suicide. Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, and they lived happily as husband and wife once more.
Oenone’s letter appears to be written after Paris returns with Helen, but before the beginning of the Trojan War.
Opening lines: These first two lines are not included in all editions of the text, and they are not included in the line numbering here. They add a conventional opening to the letter, in which Oenone identifies herself as the writer ("The nymph" who is writing from "the mountain heights of Ida"), and Paris as the recipient. They also identify the basic problem to be addressed--that Paris will "refuse to be hers."
Lines 1-4: If the first two lines are excluded, the the letter does not start with a conventional opening or identification of the sender at all. Instead, it begins abruptly, even confrontationally, with two questions: “Will you read this through? Or does your new wife forbid it?” Already Oenone has identified the problem—the “new wife,” and her own status as abandoned lover. She then further establishes her position by identifying herself as not being “Mycenean”—she is one of Paris’s own compatriots, not a foreigner like the new wife. It is not until the third line that she identifies herself personally as “Oenone of the fountain,” suggesting her status and prestige by calling herself “renowned” and reminding Paris again that she is from his own homeland by using the word “Phrygian” (Phrygia was an area near Troy). She then ends this introductory section in the fourth line, making her claim that she has been injured by him and appealing for a reconciliation. This is a short section, but it sets up the rest of the letter very neatly, even without the first two questionable lines: it establishes Oenone as the injured party and Paris as unfaithful; it suggests criticism of, or at least doubts about, the new wife; and it opens the door for Paris to return to his first love.
Lines 5-8: This short section continues laying the groundwork for the rest of the letter, focusing on Oenone’s position as innocent victim—she has done nothing wrong, but she is the one being “punished” nevertheless.
Lines 9-30: In this longer section, Oenone begins her direct appeal to Paris. She begins by reminding him of the original difference in their status: she was a nymph of divine parentage, while he was a “slave”—a reference to the story that he was the servant of a shepherd. In spite of this difference in social class, she married him—“a Nymph, I endured to wed a slave!” She goes on to remind him of the activities they shared as husband and wife—tending the sheep, hunting, happily living the simple life in a rustic hut. She also reminds him of his devotion to her—how he carved her name in a tree-trunk, and how he swore that if he ever abandoned her, the waters of the river Xanthus would flow backward. She ends the section by calling on the river to fulfill his oath and reverse its direction.
Lines 31-38: Oenone now moves on to the critical event of the “Judgement of Paris,” when Paris chose which goddess to give the golden apple to. Her contempt for the charms of the competitors comes through in her comment on the warrior-goddess Minverva, whom she describes as “more pleasing when she bears arms” than when she is naked. She gives her own reactions plenty of drama, with shuddering and a “cold shiver” through her bones. Then, lest we should think she is exaggerating in hindsight, she backs up her reactions by saying that she consulted wise elders at the time, who all agreed that the incident was a “great evil.”
Lines 39-48: Both this section and the next one dwell on Paris’ departure for Sparta and on the couple’s leave-taking from one another. Paris’ mission is given some magnitude in the first two lines, in the account of the building of a fleet to carry him on his journey. Oenone emphasizes Paris’ emotions at having to part from her—she urges him not to deny the fact that he cried, and describes the way his arms clung to her. There is even a little joke at his expense: she describes how he complained that adverse winds kept the fleet from leaving, when in fact the wind was favorable, and how his companions smiled at his foolishness. She ends the section by re-emphasizing how Paris could hardly bear to leave because of his love for her.
Lines 49-56: In this section, Oenone recounts her own grief after his departure—her tears and her prayers to the nymphs of the sea (the Nereids) for his safe return. But the complaint over Paris’s infidelity reemerges here, as she emphasizes the irony of her prayers—his safe return brought Helen.
Lines 57-72: This section jumps forward to Paris’s return from Sparta. Oenone places herself in a dramatic position—high atop a great crag, looking out to sea. She sees the ships, and discovers Helen clinging passionately to Paris. Helen is no longer described as “your new wife” here—rather, she is “your shameful lover.” She describes her reaction in terms of the behaviors that were conventionally associated with overwhelming grief in the classical world—she weeps and wails, tears at her face and beats her breast. But she ends the section with a curse, wishing the same fate on Helen.
Lines 73-84: The section uses another jab at Helen (“those who … desert their lawful husbands”) as a transition into more reminders of Oenone and Paris’ past life together. Here Oenone emphasizes the difference in status between them in those early days of marriage—when she was the daughter of a god and he was a poor shepherd. She expresses disregard for Paris’ present wealth and prestige (“I am not dazzled by your wealth, nor does your palace move me”), and she sounds almost a little defensive as she re-emphasizes the prestige of her own parentage (“I am worthy to be the wife of a man of great power,” etc.).
Lines 85-94: Here Oenone finally settles into a full-scale attack on Helen’s disadvantages. She compares her own devotion (“my love is safe, in it no wars are prepared”) with the love of Helen (“The Tyndarid fugitive is now demanded back with hostile arms”), warning of the impending Trojan War. She refers to the advice of Paris’ own family and countrymen, who think Helen should be sent back. She then accuses Paris of “shameful” behavior, for putting “your stolen bride ahead of your fatherland,” and claims that Menelaus is justified in bringing war to Troy.
Lines 95-108: The attack on Helen becomes more personal in this section. She is presented as fickle and unfaithful: “don't expect … that the Laconian will be faithful.” She loved Menelaus, and now she has deserted him; in the same way, she will desert Paris when the time comes. She then compares Paris unfavorably with brother, Hector, who is faithful to his wife, Andromache, and ends the section with an extended comparison between the fickleness of Paris and the “lightness” of dried-up vegetation.
Lines 109-120: In this section, Oenone digresses from her direct and personal criticism of Helen to give a dramatic account of a prophecy rendered by Cassandra, Paris’ sister. As a result of refusing the amorous advances of the god Apollo, Cassandra was blessed with the gift of prophecy, but cursed so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Cassandra predicts the coming of Helen, calling her a “Greek heifer” (a word for a young cow), and foresees the destruction of Troy.
Lines 121-130: In this section, Oenone’s attack on Helen’s character comes to a climax; she is “an adulteress,” and “she has forsaken her marriage gods.” She brings up the story of Helen’s abduction by Theseus, and expresses doubts about just how much a virgin Helen would have been afterwards. The then suggests that any woman who has been abducted so often must have must have been a willing participant in her own disgrace. She finishes off by re-drawing the contrast with herself—the wife who has remained faithful even when she had ample justification not to be.
Lines 131-140: In this section, Oenone returns to her own merits and attractions. She has been desired by many others—the Satyrs, the god Faunus, and even mighty Apollo himself wanted her love. She laments that Apollo’s gift to her—the power of healing—is useless for curing her of her own love for Paris.
Lines 141-146: She ends the letter with a final appeal to Paris. He alone can deliver her from her pain, she says, and she pleads for his pity. She reminds him that she is the cause of no foreign wars, and that she has been his love from childhood. She ends with the prayer that she will always be his.
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Last updated 06/22/2013