Loved Helen and Other Poems

By T. H. White

The following in an excerpt from Kurth Sprague's introduction to A Joy Proposed, a later compilation of White's poetry.

In the fall of 1927 a group of T. H. White's Cambridge dons, upon learning that White was suffering from tuberculosis, raised a collection of 200 to send him to Italy for a year's convalescence. Told — possibly by his mother — that he had six months to live, White began work on two novels and negotiated a contract for a book of poetry. Only gradually must it have been borne in upon White that he was not going to die quite so soon, not die young in Italy like Shelley and Keats; indeed, it is likely that many of these early poems were penned in the belief that he laboured under sentence of death.

Upon his return to England and while he was in his last year at Cambridge, Loved Helen and Other Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1929) appeared with its Latin dedication to his mother, Constance White. Among White's papers is a letter dated 12 March 1929 which he wrote in Italian to a lady whom he had known in Positano. She had written White seeking Helen's identity. Addressing her as ‘felicissima, gentilissima Signorina,’ White answered her in romantic fashion:

You asked who Helen is. I don't know. I seek her in the sky and on the sea every day but I cannot find her. Helen is as we say in English ‘my better half’ — (the superior half) — my only woman. We are very sure of not meeting.

The ‘gentilissima Signorina’ — astringent but herself disconcertingly romantic — would have none of White's posturing: she sent the letter back to White, with comment:

You do not find her because you cannot love with that type of love which transforms and beautifies everything, makes us blindly believe that we have found our ideal. It is only when it starts vanishing or when it is no more within us that [love] makes us speak as you are speaking. Otherwise love would not exist for anybody.

It may be that these remarks about love are perceptive and just, but they demonstrate an insensitivity to the sincerity of White's romantic pose which, in his evident pleasure at having a created character taken for real, he adopted with such youthful relish. It may be that White never experienced the kind of incandescent, transforming love of which she speaks, but his poetry shows that he remained painfully aware of its possibility, that he quite probably desired its achievement above all else, and that he was supremely able to describe his plight. The ‘gentilissima Signorina’ ignores White's genuine concern that he might never find a Helen for his Paris. In fact, the search seems to have taken him the next thirty-one years, and when he found her* he would be content to admire her from a distance.

*refering to Julie Andrews, for whom White amended the original Helen

Poetry Samples

England Have My Bones: For the Reader of the Works of T. H. White
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Unless otherwise noted, entire contents 1996, J. Moulder and M. Schaefer. All rights reserved.
Revised Saturday, 28-Sep-2002 22:11:30 CDT.