bucket sitting on a well

Personal Helicon

Introduction

Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon” describes his childhood fascination with the different wells he explored near his home in Mossbawn. He “loved” their “dark drop” and “smells” and “savoured” their “rich” sounds. However, now that he is older, he recognises that it is “beneath all adult dignity” to search these beautiful and frightening worlds.

It is important to note that “Personal Helicon” is the final poem in Heaney’s first major collection, “Death of a Naturalist” (1966), which focused on his experiences growing up on the farm in Northern Ireland. He was the young “naturalist” who wanted to “pry into roots” and “finger slime”. However, by including the poem at the end of the book, Heaney expresses his eager determination to explore the world through poetry and “rhyme” with the same inquisitive exuberance he had when he “dragged out long roots from the soft mulch”.

Seamus Heaney Reads Personal Helicon

Narrative Structure

The first line establishes the perspective of the adult speaker recalling his search for “wells” when he was a “child”. There is some tension between “they” and “me”; the third-person pronoun probably refers to his parents who were worried about their young boy getting hurt on his adventures. He ignored their concerns and disapproval because he “loved the dark drop” of wells.

The next three stanzas focus on the different wells Heaney discovered near his home in Mossbawn and his intense excitement.

The adverb “now” in the final stanza returns the audience to the present and the world of the adult speaker. He recognises the desire “to stare… into some spring” is inappropriate because it is “beneath all adult dignity”. However, the speaker declares he will continue his journey of self-discovery by writing poetry.

Instead of hearing the “echoes” from some wells, Heaney will use “rhyme… to set the darkness echoing”.

In “Personal helicon”, the poet plays with the abab rhyme scheme. There are some obvious end-rhymes, such as “slime” and “rhyme”, and “wells and smells”. Other lines conclude with the same consonant sounds but don’t quite echo. For example, the /p/ in “top” and “rope” or /n/ in “one” and “reflection”. Heaney is finding his own poetic voice.

What is Helicon?

In Greek mythology, Mount Helicon was where the poet Hesiod saw the Muses and was inspired to sing about the origins of the gods. That is why the mountain is considered to be a source of poetic inspiration. Instead of drinking from the deep blue springs for divine intervention, Heaney is trying to find his “Personal Helicon” in the wells around Mossbawn.

According to the legend, Narcissus saw his reflection in one of the streams at Helicon. He pined away because he was so enamoured with his image. The references to “echoes” and “echoing” are allusions to Echo who fell in love with Narcissus. After a humiliating rejection, she wilted away until all that remained of her was the sound of her echo.

Heaney's allusion to Greek mythology in Personal Helicon
John William Waterhouse (1903)

Heaney mocks the idea of an adult wasting their time trying to “to stare… into some spring” to see their reflection. The image of “big-eyed Narcissus” emphasises the naiveté and innocence of his youth. This dismissive tone is also heard in the alliteration of /s/ and the vague adjective “some” in this line.

Poetry is now his obsession because he can see his reflection in the “rhyme”.

The Wells

In the opening stanza, Heaney states he “loved the dark drop” of wells. His deep affection is emphasised by the alliteration and stress in “dark drop”. The image of the “trapped sky” denotes the bright reflection of the skyscape in the water. The metaphor is interesting because we normally look up to see the sky, but Heaney has managed to catch it in the darkness of the wells, gaining an insight into the world above. The triple of damp and vigorous “smells” at the end of the stanza conveys his unusual love for the natural world. He was a “naturalist”.

The first specific well was located in a “brickyard”. This suggests it was close to the safety of his home. The “rotted board” was placed on “top” to stop anything falling into the well and spoiling the water, so the young boy had to be careful. Using sibilance to emphasise the violent sound, Heaney tells the reader he “savoured” the “rich crash” of the “bucket” hitting the water. The enjambment splitting “bucket” and “plummeted” draws attention to the drop. It was like food to the inquisitive child.

Interestingly, the well was “so deep” he was unable to see his “reflection in it”. This could symbolise the speaker had yet to find himself in the world.

The third stanza describes a “shallow” well “under a dry stone ditch”. Dry stone walls are often found along the boundary line of a farm which suggests the speaker has ventured to the edge of his home but remains within its safety. This particular well is “fructified like any aquarium”. Heaney is clearly mesmerised by the ordinary scene because the simile compares the fecundity of the water to the rich and exotic life on display in an aquarium. The “long” vowel sounds emphasise the length the “roots” being “dragged” from the “soft mulch”. It was tough work uncovering some of the old wells.

Importantly, the speaker can now see “a white face”. It might be a blank face, but he is beginning to see himself in the world.

The fourth stanza mentions how “others had echoes”. Heaney was able to “call” down and hear his own voice come back “with a clean new music”. The reference to music obviously links to the lyrical world of the poet. The young boy is now learning to articulate his thoughts and feelings with artistic precision.

Seamus Heaney’s Fear of Rats

In the fourth stanza, the final well is “scaresome” because a “rat” suddenly “slapped across my reflection”. The poet emphasises the sounds of the creature’s paws hitting the water through the onomatopoeic “slapped” and the assonance in “rat” and “slapped”. Listen to the repetition of /æ/ in “a rat slapped across”, especially if you stress all four of those syllables. The rhythm could convey the rat’s movement or even the terrified poet’s fast and deep breathing.

Resting in his childhood bedroom, Heaney could often hear the “scratching” and “scuttling” of mice coming from the roof space. Sometimes there would be “a more substantial traveller”. Describing the scene in the 2009 interview, the poet said the thought of “Mr Rat” was “most unwelcome”. He also mentioned this experience in “An Advancement of Learning” when he recalled the rats “on ceiling boards above my bed”. The memory of the sounds obviously shaped Heaney’s identity.

The way the “rat” seems to attack his “reflection” in “Personal Helicon” is a reminder that not all his early adventures were idyllic, but facing those challenges was an important aspect of growing up and discovering his poetic voice.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Explain the title’s allusion and suggest why Heaney chose to refer to the myths.
  2. What impression is created of the speaker in the first line?
  3. What impression is created of the adults in the first line?
  4. Suggest why the water is described as a “dark drop”.
  5. What is the significance of the “trapped sky”?
  6. In your own words, describe the well in the second stanza.
  7. Why did Heaney choose the word “savoured” to describe how he felt about the “bucket” crashing into this well?
  8. How and why does the speaker try to involve the reader in the second stanza?
  9. Discuss the description of the second well.
  10. Line eleven has ten syllables but how and why does Heaney elongate the rhythm of the line?
  11. Heaney does not see a “reflection” in the second stanza. Why is it important that a “white face hovered” in the third stanza?
  12. Comment on the effectiveness of the verb “slapped” to describe the movement of the “rat”.
  13. What is the function of the adverbial “now” at the start of the fifth stanza?
  14. If Heaney finds it “beneath all adult dignity” to peer into wells, what does the poet now do to find his “reflection”?
  15. Following on from the previous question, how important is the word “rhyme” to your interpretation of the poem?
  16. Analyse the structure of the poem, focusing on the stanza divisions, line length and rhyme scheme.

Further Reading

“Personal Helicon” signals the young naturalist’s transition into adulthood and becoming a poet. You should compare this poem to Robert Frost’s “Into My Own” and explore the American poet’s desire to discover his “true” identity in the wilderness.

O’Driscoll, D (2009) “Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney”

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