Personal Helicon for Michael Longley (Seamus Heaney)


In a tribute to Michael Longley, his contemporary poet and friend, Seamus Heaney describes his experiences of growing up as a poet. The powerful poem depicts the stages of his artistic development.

Explanations of Poem

As a child, they could not keep me from ……………. waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

In the poem Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’, revealing his affection for a common feature of the damp South Derry landscape. He identifies the wells of his childhood as sources of poetic inspiration (his Personal Helicon). Still, a part-time poet he reflects on the transition from childhood to the here-and-now and whilst acknowledging a debt to wells reveals that he has outgrown his childish pursuit. The youngster was fascinated by wells and old pumps that no parental cautions could keep me from, particularly on account of the winching gear (buckets and windlasses). Wells impacted strongly on his imagination, each one a scary hole in the ground (the dark drop), a dungeon (the trapped sky) and repository of mildewed odours (the smells/ Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss).

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board …………… saw no reflection in it.

He recalls a specific well (in a brickyard) whose neglected rotted board top provided an opportunity to lark about and enjoy the rich crash when a bucket/ Plummeted down at the end of a rope and disappeared into a darkness so deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch ……………. white face hovered over the bottom.

A second ground-level spring under a dry-stone ditch teemed with life (fructified like any aquarium) and, once vegetation was removed, reflected young Heaney’s own white face as if floating in mid-air.

Others had echoes, gave back your own ………….. a rat slapped across my reflection.

Variants included echoing wells in which his shout was answered (gave back your own call) distorted by individual acoustics (a clean new music in it) and an alarming, scare some spring where, from amongst the vegetaon, a rodent was both seen and heard (rat slapped across my reflection).

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.

Heaney clears up the time-lapse: what took root in him as a child is now tempered by adult dignity. The childish pursuits of an inquisitive (pry into roots. … finger slime or stare) self-admiring(big-eyed Narcissus) have been superseded by the grown man. Heaney’s deeper mission emerges: his poetry will be a journey to self-knowledge and identity (to see myself) and as with amplified sound in the confined space of a well, his poetic voice will aim to set the darkness echoing.

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The poet begins by reminiscing about his childhood when he was very attracted to wells. Then he goes on to describe three wells in particular. The first well is in a brickyard and has a rotted top. The poet used to like the bucket crash into the well which was so deep that one could not see his own reflection in it. The second well is shallow and teeming with mulch and long roots with a white bottom. The third well is scary because out of the ferns and foxgloves a rat slaps across the poet‘s reflection.

The poem concludes with the poet saying things like watching down wells do not behove an adult. Therefore, he has started looking within himself and writing poetry.

As a child, they could not keep me from wells: The poet was very much attracted to wells.

I savoured the rich crash: This refers to the bucket crashing into the deep well which the poet liked to see and hear.

With a clean new music in it: This refers to the echo produced by a well.

Point of view

The poem has been written from a personal point of view. The underlying message is once a person has realised his potential, he or she can work out with perseverance and dedication a bright future.

Q. What is the Theme of the poem?

Ans. “Personal Helicon” is a powerful and profound poem. The poet has used the well as a symbol for the experiences of a poet in the making. The maturing of a poet pervades the whole poem and the theme is particularly dealt with in stanzas 2 to 4. The first well represents the poet’s self-discovery as it is deep but reveals very little. The second well represents the stage where his power to fathom has increased so that the well is shallow but teeming with life. The third stanza talks about well that emanates music i.e. the poet is now in the stage of productivity although he still experiences some fears (represented by the rat).

Having now written about and surveyed life outside, the poet turns within, i.e., he becomes introspective and reflective. This is the most profound stage for the poet because it lends him dignity and he can set the unknown (‘darkness’) open (‘echoing’) in poetry. It also indicates that poets or writers sublimate their feelings and energies in order to produce great and enduring works of art.

Q. What is the tone of the poem?


The final stanza strongly implies that the poet was able to enjoy, think and reflect on life and himself through playing with wells, now, as an adult he believes it to be below his dignity “to pry into roots, to finger slime.” As an adult, he takes refuge in writing poems to connect with himself and “to set the darkness echoing.”

Personal Helicon for Michael Longley: Summary Poetic Devices and Questions


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