a road through the woods

Comparing “Into My Own” and “Personal Helicon”

Essay Title

This question is about journeys.

Read again Into My Own by Frost and Personal Helicon by Heaney.

By close analysis of the poetic methods used, and drawing upon relevant external biographical information, compare and contrast how these poets write about journeys.

The Landscape

Both “Into My Own” and “Personal Helicon” focus on the physical and emotional journeys taken by the speakers. In Frost’s poem, the speaker imagines journeying into the “dark trees” and the world beyond. Of course, this can be interpreted as a literal journey, but I believe the poet is describing his own creative journey and finding his voice as a writer. Similarly, Heaney depicts his childhood treks from one well to the next, but this exploration also connects to his creative journey and desire to write poetry.

Barriers and Obligations

Both speakers express the desire to break free from the limits and barriers that seem to prevent them going on their journeys of self-discovery. For example, in the second stanza, Frost suggests he will not be “withheld” and, “some day”, he will be able to “steal” into the “vastness” of the woods. The reader is left to guess what might be stopping the speaker from simply journeying into that unknown. Perhaps the poet has obligations to fulfil to his family or there is work still to be completed on the farm. The word “withheld” often refers to money deposits and the verb “steal” can be defined as the misappropriate of funds or property for your own benefit. These images, therefore, point to the poet’s finances as an important reason why he cannot travel “unto the edge of doom”.

The description of the “dark trees” in the opening lines creates the impression they are an impassable barrier and that any sort of journey is impossible. The fact they are “so old and firm” could suggest the speaker feels the pressure of society and tradition because these trees would have deep roots and remained unchanged for generations. This anxiety or sense of responsibility is heightened by the use of the intensifier “so” used to strengthen the two adjectives. Perhaps the image of how they “scarcely show the breeze” suggest the speaker feels the world and its demands are stifling his creativity. The use of sibilance in these two lines in, for example, “wishes”, “scarcely” and “breeze”, creates a quiet and contemplative tone appropriate for the speaker who is yearning to journey into the woods.

The speaker in Heaney’s “Personal Helicon” also feels the need to break free from some of the barriers in his life. The opening line informs the reader that “they” are unable to “keep” him from exploring the “wells”. Again, the reader is left to guess the identities of the vague pronoun “they”, but the speaker is probably referring to the adults in his life. No one can keep him from his journey of discovery because he “loved” the “dark drop” and “smells of waterweed”. In addition, the images of nature running throughout the poem suggest this journey of self-discovery is natural to our human spirit.

Since the poem begins when the speaker was a “child”, he recognises the need leave behind his family to explore the wells beyond his home. Similarly, the speaker in Frost’s poem recognises he will also have to leave his friends and family behind if he is to venture into the woods. The pronouns “them” and “those” hints he may already be distant from them, but he cannot let their emotions to supersede his own feelings and desire to take a journey of discovery. The choice is not as easy for the speaker in “Into My Own” compared to Heaney’s poem, but both suggest the journey is inevitable.

Fearless Speakers

In the fourth quatrain of “Personal Helicon”, Heaney reveals that his journey was not always easy or straightforward. He describes how one of the wells was “scaresome”. It was hidden behind “ferns and tall foxgloves” which might connote his wider unknown world. Suddenly, the speaker is disturbed by the “rat” and how it “slapped across [his] reflection”. The use of the onomatopoeic “slapped” conveys the watery sounds of the rat’s damp footprints against the stone well. This tone of disgust is also created by the assonance in “rat” and “slapped” in two successive stressed syllables. The alliteration of /r/ in “rat” and “reflection” connects to two words and emphasises the deep fear caused by the creature.

Interestingly, when Seamus Heaney was a “child” growing up in Bellaghy, he had a fear of rats and spoke about how, above his bedroom, he could hear “scratching” and “scuttling”. He called the unwanted visitor “Mr Rat” in an attempt to alleviate his fears. The image of the rat in “Personal Helicon” indicates the speaker’s journey of self-discovery was difficult because the world was scary, but he refused to be stopped by his fears.

The speaker in “Into My Own” also has to travel through a dark and unknown world. However, he believes he will remain “fearless” of the consequences so it does not matter if he finds “open land” and remains lost in the woods. It also does not matter if he finds a “highway” to follow. Nothing will hold him back from taking this journey.

The Journey of Self-discovery

Both poems suggest journeys can be full of rewards. In “Personal Helicon”, Heaney takes a literal journey and travels further and further from his home to discover new wells. The first well is in a “brickyard” which suggests it is beside his house because many farms in Northern Ireland had access to their own wells.

Since he “saw no reflection” in its water, and there is no immediate success, the speaker journeys to a second well located at a “dry stone ditch”. Stone walls are used to mark the boundaries between neighbouring farms so he is beginning to leave his home behind. This time, the speaker sees a “white face hovered over the bottom”. There is an increasing awareness of the self but not quite full understanding yet.

The final well between “ferns and tall / foxgloves” suggests he is now far from the safety of his home and stumbling, as the enjambment here suggests, through an untamed landscape. When calls down into these wells, he notes the “echoes” they give back, with a “clean new music”. There is clarity in these wells now, demonstrated through the use of the metaphorical “clean”, and the reward is “music”, something beautiful and calming. After an arduous journey, the speaker has found his voice in the world!

Robert Frost also shows the potential rewards that come from a journey of self-discovery. In the rhyming couplet that concludes the sonnet, the speaker states that he is “more sure of all I thought was true”. The tone here is full of confidence. He is sure he will make the correct decision and enter the “dark trees” because the journey will enable him to become his “true” self.

Context

There is a strong biographical connection in both poems. Although he no longer searches for wells because it is “beneath all adult dignity”, Heaney continues his journey of self-discovery through his poetry. Like seeing his reflection in the water, he “rhymes / to see myself”. Poetry allows him to explore the “darkness” of his personality and his place in the world.

In terms of the title, Helicon is a place in Greek mythology where the spring of inspiration runs. Anyone who drinks this water will be given the gift of writing poetry. Heaney will not stop his journey of self-discovery and desire to find new sources of inspiration.

We can also see Frost’s determination to write poetry in “Into My Own”. However, it is one of his earlier poems and the use of old-fashioned words, such as “’twere” and “e’er”, shows how he was yet to find his own voice. Written when he was still working on his farm in Derry to support his family, Frost was incredibly keen on leaving that agricultural life behind and moving to England to realise his dream of becoming a poet full-time.

Conclusion

Both “Into My Own” and “Personal Helicon” use images of journeys and exploration to convey the poets’ determination to find their poetic voice in the world. They demonstrate the importance of finding out more about ourselves by going beyond the safety and comfort of our familiar surroundings and entering the “dark” and “scaresome” unknown. The advice offered by Frost is essential: sometimes you must put your own needs first when it comes to discovering your own identity and come into your own. As Heaney suggests, we need to ignore the adult voices and continue to challenge our creative impulses throughout our lives and not just as a child. Our journeys should never end.

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