Helen: transcendence and immortality

Helen and the Trojan War

In one of the most well known passages from Dr Faustus, the mythological figure of Helen of Troy is evoked:

Was this the face that launched 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 be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy shall Wittenburg be sacked;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest:
Yea, I will wound Achilles on the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O thou art fairer than a thousand stars,
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azured arms;
And none but thee shall be my paramour.
Scene 12, 89-108

Helen of TroyIt is Helen's famed beauty that leads Faustus to summon her as his lover, and this speech opens with what is probably the best-known line from the play. The story of Helen's abduction by Paris and the ensuing war between the Trojans and Greeks, culminating in the siege of Troy, is told by Homer in The Iliad. The aftermath of the war for two of the individuals involved is told in Homer's The Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid.

Helen's celebrated beauty was thus the cause of suffering, death and exile. But Faustus is prepared to suffer all this. He proposes to sacrifice Wittenburg instead of Troy, to fight Menelaus, Helen's husband, and defeat even the Greek hero Achilles. His comparison of himself to these ancient heroes is another example of his conceit.

Immortality and sensuality

He sees in Helen a mortal and fleshly version of salvation and immortality. Lines like ‘make me immortal with a kiss', ‘her lips suck forth my soul' and ‘heaven be in these lips' are blasphemous in that he seeks, in the vision of a mortal, the salvation that only religious faith can deliver. The emphasis is very much on Helen's lips (see also, ‘And then return to Helen for a kiss'), affirming the sensuality of Faustus' aspirations at this late stage in the play.

Exalted comparisons

In the final part of the speech, Faustus praises Helen in exalted terms: she is ‘fairer', ‘Brighter', ‘More lovely' than the mythological figures and natural phenomena to which she is compared. For these comparisons, Faustus turns to:

  • The stars, the most distant heavenly bodies
  • Jupiter (also known as Zeus), chief among the gods and a synonym for the sky, who seduced Semele (the moon), appearing to her as thunder and lightning; their offspring was Dionysus, one of the most important of the Greek gods
  • Alpheus, a river-god, associated with the sun (hence ‘monarch of the sky') who seduced the nymph Arethusa
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