Table of Contents
“Personal Helicon” is a poem by Seamus Heaney that expresses the influence of nature and childhood inquisitiveness and mischief that inspired Heaney to turn towards poetry as a medium to revisit his childhood and recall the perversity of it. The poem is dedicated to Michael Longley, co-member of a poetry group in the 1960s.
About the Poet
Seamus Heaney is an Irish Poet and playwright who received a Nobel Prize in Literature. His most known work is “Death of a Naturalist” and his poems involve themes of memory, loss, and the ever changing world.
“Personal Helicon” is a poem consisting of five stanzas each stanza has four lines. The variations in the rhyme and metre reflects the childhood nostalgia. Although there is no fixed metre, this absence is intentional.
Summary and Analysis
As a child, they could not keep me from wells And old pumps with buckets and windlasses. I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
When the poet was a child, he constantly spent most of his time around wells and old pumps in the countryside. It was hard to keep him away from these wells and old pumps with buckets and rope used to access water from its depth. This depth was what the poet loved as a child. The wells were dark inside due to the depth and the top of the deep water reflected the bright blue sky. It looked as if the sky was trapped inside the well. The poet also loved the smell of waterweed, fungus and moss that grew all around these wells.
The title, “Personal helicon” which is unnamed but suggests the speaker is the poet himself, refers to the mythical mountain from Greek Mythology. Mount Helicon was taught to be the source of poetic inspiration and wisdom. Therefore, the title “Personal Helicon” foreshadows that the poem is about Heaney’s inspiration towards poetry.
Heaney starts the poem by using natural imagery in the first stanza. Speaker recalls his childhood in the first stanza.He remembers spending most of his time playing around wells due to his fascination towards it. The poet uses “they” to refer to the adults at the time when he was a kid. This suggests the theme of the poem being childhood vs adulthood.
The speaker liked playing near wells due to its mechanism that Heaney mentions in the second line. The buckets attached to a rope for accessing the water that’s deep down the well although looks simple, attracts a child’s attention and interest.
Other than this the speaker loved how deep and dark the wells were. Despite the darkness, the water somehow managed to reflect the sky upon it which looked as if the sky was trapped inside the well. He also loved the smells that surrounded the wells, earthly smells due to the growth of fungus, waterweed, and moss around the wells.
One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top. I savoured the rich crash when a bucket Plummeted down at the end of a rope. So deep you saw no reflection in it.
One well in the yard where bricks were made and was covered by a rotten wooden board. The speaker was able to relish the crashing sound made by the bucket when dropped to the full length of the rope with a splash. This well was deeper therefore no reflection was seen in the water.
The second stanza tells more about the obscure pleasures of childhood. Here, the speaker recalls one of these occasions where he was by the deep well and dropped the rope all the way to its end in the brickyard. The bucket made an ample sound as it hit the water and for the speaker, this sound was pleasurable as it fulfilled his inquisitiveness.
The well, he further describes, was so deep that the water could not reflect the bright blue sky above. It was plain dark like a void. Therefore, the sound was more limpid.
A shallow one under a dry stone ditch Fructified like any aquarium. When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch A white face hovered over the bottom.
There was a shallow well that was dug under a dry stone ditch and it had some greenery or plants growing inside it which is compared to an aquarium. These roots could be pulled out because the soil was soft and mushy. After dragging out the roots, the water released a white pale face as a reflection of the speaker.
The speaker then talks about a shallow well that was built over a dry ditch of stones. This well has some fungus and other plants growing inside of it. The poet compares this image to an aquarium. He also suggests that the soil that holds these roots was soft and mushy, allowing the plants to detach its roots from the soils with an easy pull.
He then mentions that when these plants were moved aside the water reflected his face which he refers to as “a white face”. This tells of the alienation he feels from the society as a child, the curiosity is often judged. He doesn’t even recognise himself in the water.
Others had echoes, gave back your own call With a clean new music in it. And one Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
The other wells echoed the callings one made into them, and your voice returned to you. ALthough not exactly the same, it added clean music into it. One well scared the speaker once, because as he was about to yell, from the flowers and plants around darted a rat out of the water and it ran across his reflection, making slapping sounds.
In the next stanza, the speaker describes other wells that echoed his voice when he yelled something inside them. This echo carried a musical tone to it making the sound more precise and symphonic. He then talks about one well that scared him because it had huge ferns and foxgloves.
Foxgloves are poisonous plants that are dangerous to humans, therefore the speaker is scared of going near this well. In the next lines, the speaker mentions that he noticed a rat coming out of these ferns and running across his reflection in the water. As it ran over the water, there was a slapping sound that the speaker remembers.
For the speaker, who is a child, he might not have been afraid of the poisonous plants or the wildlife but to his surprise the wildlife did not care about him. It was a revelation for young Heaney that the wildlife seems dangerous because it does not look at us empathetically.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime, To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
Now that the poet is all grown up, he can no longer continue this reckless curiosity of prying the roots of plants or shoving his fingers in slime, or to stare into the spring with big wide eyes like Narcissus. Because all these things will be called immature now. That is why he chooses to rhyme, write poems to see himself into the wild and to echo the darkness.
The last stanza of the poem starts with the word “now” which brings the readers back to reality. The poet is no longer young but rather old and grown up, an adult. He creates an image of nostalgia as he mentions to pry into the roots, to finger the slime and to stare into the spring like big-eyed Narcissus, also known as daffodil. These things are what the poet did when he was a child. Although now, fellow adults like him will consider this unhygienic or childish, the poet misses doing all these things.
But this is not the Narcissus the poet is referring to, it can mean Narcissus from the Greek Mythology who was known for his beauty who rejected all romantic relations that approached him. He believed he is the most beautiful person and stared at his own reflection for the rest of his life, but he was never loved back by the reflection.
Heaney believes that these activities will ruin his adult dignity. Therefore, he decides to rhyme, to write poems. As children are the most imaginative, it is easy to compare them to artists. Every kid is an artist but they grow up and get lost in their life and worries and forget about their creative and imaginative side.