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.
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 poet‘s tone is nostalgic, positive and serious. He does believe that adult life is not as carefree as childhood, but he also talks about maturity as the fruit of labour and dedication.
Q. Bring out the various poetic devices/techniques used in the poem.
Allusion: The word ‘Helicon’ in the title of the poem, ‘Narcissus’.
Alliteration: ‘dark drop’, ‘dry stone ditch’, ‘ferns and tall/Foxgloves’.
Synaesthesia: ‘dark drop‘, ‘set the darkness echoing’.
The central image of the poem is a well, or a series of wells remembered from the poet’s childhood. Heaney uses the well as a metaphor: it is a source of wonderment, enjoyment and self-reflection (as in stanzas 1, 2, 3 and 4) but also represents the unknown and fear (as in stanzas 2 and 4). He makes heavy use of natural, earthy imagery, such as waterweed, fungus, rats, foxgloves and mulch. These images conjure a sense of childhood innocence, the poet’s ongoing fascination with the natural world and physical sensation, and they also are easily recognizable to the average reader, reinforcing Heaney’s efforts to speak clearly to his audience.
Imagery Visual: ‘old pumps with buckets and windlasses‘, ‘ferns and tall/Foxgloves’, ‘white face’.
Auditory: ‘rich crash’, ‘echoes‘, ‘clean new music‘.
Olfactory: ‘the smells/of waterweed, fungus and dank moss’.
Tactile: ‘the soft mulch’, ‘to finger slime’.
Q. Discuss the symbol of the well used in the poem.
Ans: The symbol of the well has been accurately developed in the poem. The well is a common object in nature but the poet has used it to signify the depth of knowledge and the secrets of nature, which the poet is meant to open through stages of growth till he attains maturity in his art. The well is also the poet’s source of inspiration from childhood as well as the symbol of quest and curiosity. The poet has been shown to be a serious, contemplative, mature and wise being.
The title of the Poem
In Greek mythology, Helicon was the name of the mountain where the Muses lived. Two springs sacred to the Muses were located here: the Aganippe and the Hippocrene, both of which bear “horse” in their names. In a related myth, the Hippocrene spring was created when the winged horse Pegasus aimed his hoof at a rock, striking it with such force that the spring burst from the spot. The word is now used, like “Muse,” to describe a source of poetic inspiration. So in choosing this title, Heaney can be seen as setting out to describe, explore and explain his personal source of inspiration.
On Mount Helicon too was the spring where Narcissus was inspired by his own beauty.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter from who was known for his beauty and loved everything beautiful. One day, he chanced to see his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with himself.
Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance or public perception.
The poet alludes to Narcissus to describe his own fascination with peering into the water to see himself.
The Muses are minor goddesses of the Greek pantheon. They are the personifications of literary arts, music, visual arts, and science. The Nine Muses in Greek mythology have been an inspiration to artists since antiquity. Each Muse was assigned expertise in a particular domain of the arts.
Structure of The Poem
The poem has five, four-line stanzas with a rough ABAB rhyming scheme, meaning that the last words of the first and third and second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. In this case, however, the rhymes of the second and fourth lines are not “true;” they do not rhyme completely but merely sound similar. For example, the last words of the second and fourth lines of the first stanza are “windlasses” and “moss.”
The rhythm and punctuation of the poem are also unusual; it is uncommon in a poem with a rhyming scheme like this to insert full stops that break up the rhythm, as in the following stanza:
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.
These changes to the conventional pattern of an ABAB poem indicate the poet asserting his personal style and challenging the reader to reflect on this.
The poet makes use of both onomatopoeia and alliteration. For example, “rich crash” is onomatopoeic because it evokes the sound of the bucket crashing into the well. An example of alliteration is “dark drop” because the same sound is repeated in the first syllable of each word.
These techniques indicate that Heaney would like the reader to enter into the world of the poem in order to picture and understand the images and themes he describes.
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.”
Absolutely helpful. Looking forward to more notes like this. Great work. Thank you.