Ilium - definition

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

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Ilium - Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium - definition Ilium - explanation Ilium - note: Marlow's text states "WAS THIS the face" rather than "IS THIS the face" -

Ilium - definition

Someone found this site with a search for "topless towers of ilium meaning" - this led the seeker to an essay on Ezra Pound's poem "The Garret" which does not supply the answer to the question, although it does establish where the quote comes from:-

Similarly bare of imagery is W. B. Yeats's poem "When Helen Lived", which was written at about the same time, in 1913 (Yeats: 176). However, Yeats does make classical references to Helen of Troy (line 9) and to Troy itself (line 11). Yeats's poem also contains a literary reference to Christopher Marlow's play "Doctor Faustus", in which Faustus has Mephostophilis invoke a vision of Helen and declares, V.i.97-98:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
(In case there's any doubt about the spelling, let me show it in lower case letters: i - l - i - u - m.)


"Ilium" (spelt i - l - i - u - m) is an alternate name for the city otherwise known as "Troy". (Another alternate name for the same city is "Ilion", that is, "i - l - i - o - n".)

"Topless" means "having no top," which is just a poetic way of saying "high". Consequently, "the topless towers of Ilium" means "the high towers of Troy".

Paris, a prince of Troy, eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, provoking a war in which Troy was destroyed.

The variant spelling "i - l - i - o - n" is used on this website in the poem Helen of Troy (contains adult content) as follows:-

This is the song of those named,
And many not yet called:
Among them, Achilles,
Not least,
This is the story of Troy, of Ilion,
Priam's six-gated city,
East of Greece, across the Aegean Sea.
Many voices speak, energies shaping,
Gathering strength across three thousand years
To drive a single engine: this
War machine.
Another person found this site by searching for "literary meaning the face that launched a thousand ships" - See the above. Helen's "face" (in Marlow's text, quoted above, her literal "face" - her eyes, mouth and nose face) (or, we could reasonably say, her physical attractiveness to Paris) caused the Trojan War, in the course of which many ships (poetically, "a thousand ships") were launched by the Greeks when they set out to make war on the Trojans.

Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook