An Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s Poem “Personal Helicon”
Seamus Heaney’s title choice for his poem “Personal Helicon” is rooted in ancient Greek mythology. Helicon is the name of a mountain in Greece. “In Greek mythology, two springs sacred to the Muses were located here: the Aganippe and the Hippocrene.”(Mount) The muses are goddesses of inspiration and the source of knowledge. Mt. Helicon is also where the fable of Narcissus takes place. Where Narcissus falls so in love with himself, and becomes so despondent when he realizes that he cannot have the object of his own desire, he takes his own life at the side of a spring. Narcissus and the other elements ascribed to Mt. Helicon are heavily used in his poem to help the reader grasp the meanings behind the quatrains. While reading it is important to remember the fables of Mt. Helicon, that the springs on the mountain were the source of inspiration itself. Thus the title of the poem must be specifically drawing parallels between the mountains springs and his sources of inspiration while a child. Unlike the unchanging mountain, Heaney’s inspiration undergoes a paradigm shift has as he grows older. One of the voices in this poem goes over the progression of this change, and tells the story about his inspirations.
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“Personal Helicon” is dedicated to another poet, a contemporary of Seamus’, Michael Longley from Belfast. It is unclear if Michael is the inspiration for the creation of this poem, but the two had worked together for some time during their careers. Before Seamus’ career, he was given birth to, and grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland. If the poem is taken literally, one can assume a good number of springs were present around his family’s farm. As such it comes as no surprise that they are a strong reoccurring theme of his childhood, and poem.
The poem is five quatrains based around 10 syllables in a 1,2,1,2 and 3,4,3,4 rhyming scheme. There are also a number of assonant effects:
“[ÊŒ] pumps/ buckets; fungus/ bucket plummeted [É’] drop/ moss; hovered/ bottom [É™ÊŠ] rope/ so/ no; [Éª]in/ brickyard/ rich; big-eyed Narcissus/ inyo/ spring/ is/ dignity; [u] new/ music; [eÉ™] scaresome/ there; [ai] rhyme/ myself;”(Fawbert)
” [Éª] [Ã¦]: dry ditch fructified like/ aquarium; same combination of sounds [Éª] [Ã¦] creates a chiasmic effect: pry into/ finger slime;”(Fawbert)
In this poem, he with such elegance explains the world to himself, and himself to the reader. It is no wonder he is considered one of the greatest living poets. Likely he was compelled by others as much as himself to revisit his journey of becoming poet. And of course this can only be done through poem. Using wells and springs as a way of personal reflection and understanding of the natural world, Seamus begins the reader at his childhood.
Seamus uses simplistic language and grotesque imagery to bring forth from the reader a sense of childhood. He is filled with curiosity and naivety. In the first line it becomes established that wells are a source fascination for him. Wells conveniently are a symbol of life. Here is found the effective beginning of his, this new passion for what he lives for. These strange doorways to underground worlds held untold mysteries which were irresistible to the young child. As so were the devices that brought forth the mysteries from the depths of these worlds. The “old pumps with buckets and windlasses” divinely attached devices that could cross the veil between worlds, may as well have been huge light up neon signs. Sirens who’s beckoning call could not be resisted. It is amazing he survived childhood. Little Seamus couldn’t help himself though, he
“loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.”
Not just full of synthesia, this bit is only synthesia. It pulls anyone who has ever been outside right back there. It invites the reader to experience the smells not of decay, but of the beginning of life. It asks the reader to peer into the darkness and the unknown. In this still primordial setting, the image of a young child staring into the darkness comes easily. He stares into the unknown and wonders how it got there, begging the reader to come explore with him. What are the origins of this life here in the well? How can the sky, something so big, get a bit of itself trapped in the well? And what other wonders lay hidden in the darkness? Let us turn the windlasses, and pull up the bucket. The empirical evidence brought forth will illuminate us all, but answers will only be had after repeated results.
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Seamus brings us to another well, and another stage of his life. Here he is older and wiser. Danger is starting to become apparent to him. In this well he brings us to, he explicitly notes that there is “a rotted board top.” The thirst for knowledge appears slated now. Here novelty and entertainment is the main draw. Not much to do on a farm, he spends time savoring
“the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.”
The well here is “so deep you saw no reflection in it.” Probably because it is full of allegories, and not water. The well is deep, but like all things it may be a symbol for, be it life, inspiration, or knowledge, there is an end. There is a bottom to everything, and Seamus is starting to get near to the end. However there is still darkness, and in the darkness there are yet things for him to learn. And from the description of the bucket, the hard sounds, the violent action, these things will be learned the hard way.
Onto another well, and another stage of life. Heaney’s third quatrain brings us to “a shallow one under a dry stone.” This well, though drying up is still teaming with life. If the depth of the well is taken his level ignorance about the world around him, then at this point there is not much left. He describes himself as dragging “out long roots from the soft mulch,” where he discovers “a white face hovered over the bottom.” This transitions him from learning about the world, to learning about himself. He no longer peers into the darkness or back up into the sky, the world is no longer reflected, and his time for introspection begins.
Roots are frequently a symbol of family and traditions. Here before he can look at himself, he must clear them away. His doing so can be considered an act of removing societal customs and traditions. To be able to see who he is, to let the person underneath come out and play, to experiment in being.
Described in playful ways, Seamus talks about his self-exploration and experimentations in being by describing his activities with even more wells. Using echoes he calls into the wells to listening to the mutations. This is a direct parallel for his imagination. Playing out “what if” scenarios in his mind to see how the changes play out. At least until he received a fright.
When while peering deep into his reflection one day, “a rat slapped across my[his] reflection” and scared him. It distorted his image into something disfigured and horrible. As Nietzsche once said “when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”(Nietzsche, 146) Assuming his gazing into his reflection is him taking an introspective look at things, then the rat is just a convenient device used to explain how he found something inside himself that was disturbing. As is often the case, one’s conceptualization of themselves is not what one truly is. When the difference is great, or goes against one’s own moral or social values it can be frightening. This time, it seems to have been so freighting as to put him off of it altogether.
No longer does he stare into wells. Seamus looks down upon exploring the wonders of the world. “pry[ing] into the roots, to finger slime” is unfitting the man he has become. He considers looking into himself directly narcissistic. Having grown into an adult other matters have taken precedence. His childhood activities are now “beneath all adult dignity,” and he must find alternatives. Summed up in the last, and arguably his best line we find salvation. “I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” The echo in the darkness much like the echo in the wells, we find the act of poetry has taken the place of gazing into wells. And we find him once again being able to live.
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