Beyond Happy Ever After

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I’m feeling in a poetry kind of mood. You can tell stories with poetry in a completely different way to prose, in the same way that you can sing what would sound terrible if it was just said. You can also structure poetic stories very differently, as was seen with my last poem post The Listeners. Today I want to share another example, by one of my favourite word-smiths. The thing I love about this poem is that he takes a very well-known story and subverts it, stretching the tale past the traditional (albeit off-page) ‘happy’ ending to a natural progression of time. This also kind of ties into what I was saying about Anna Karenina – that pushing of the tale to its bitter end, which changes the characters as a result. I hope you find it as interesting as I do.

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MENELAUS AND HELEN

I

Hot through Troy’s ruin Menelaus broke

To Priam’s palace, sword in hand, to sate

On that adulterous whore a ten year’s hate

And a king’s honour. Through red death, and smoke,

And cries, and then by quieter ways he strode,

Till the still innermost chamber fronted him.

He swung his sword, and crashed into the dim

Luxurious bower, flaming like a god.

High sat white Helen, lonely and serene.

He had not remembered that she was so fair,

And that her neck curved down in such a way;

And he felt tired. He flung the sword away,

And kissed her feet, and knelt before her there,

The perfect Knight before the perfect Queen.

II

So far the poet. How should he behold

That journey home, the long connubial years?

He does not tell you how white Helen bears

Child on legitimate child, becomes a scold,

Haggard with virtue. Menelaus bold

Waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys

‘Twixt noon and supper. And her golden voice

Got shrill as he grew deafer. And both were old.

Often he wonders why on earth he went

Troyward, or why poor Paris ever came.

Oft she weeps, gummy-eyed and impotent;

Her dry shanks twitch at Paris’ mumbled name.

So Menelaus nagged; and Helen cried;

And Paris slept on by Scamander side.

~ Rupert Brooke

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