Seamus Heaney

Personal Helicon by Seamus Heaney

Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’ draws inspiration from his rural carefree childhood and intimate connection with nature.

Published as a part of the 1966 anthology Death of a Naturalist, ‘Personal Helicon‘ by Seamus Heaney explores the themes of nature, childhood, exploration, and coming of age. In the poem, Heaney reminisces about his carefree childhood in rural Ireland, full of adventure and imagination. At the same time, the poet effectively connects with nature by blurring the lines between man-made structures and environmental creations.

Personal Helicon by Seamus Heaney


Summary

Personal Helicon‘ is a versed poem that explores the carefree life of a child: full of excitement and discovery of what an adult would find mundane.

In ‘Personal Helicon,‘ Heaney uses imagery to portray the intricacies of the natural world around him, blurring the lines between natural and anthropogenic creations. The first stanza introduces Heaney’s childhood passion: water wells. The poet immerses the reader into the poem by adding sensory stimuli.

The second stanza narrows down to Heaney’s favorite well: deep, dark, and mysterious; as a child, he was enthralled by it. The third and fourth stanzas focus on other wells that are extended metaphors for the coming of age and maturing: juxtaposing the seemingly fast approach of adulthood with the desperate desire to stay a child forever. The final stanza is nostalgic: Heaney laments the dull adulthood existence and equates his being a poet to chasing the feeling of happiness he felt when he was a child.

The full poem may be accessed here.

Structure, Form, and Rhyme Scheme

Personal Helicon‘ is a regularly structured poem consisting of five stanzas, each a quatrain (four lines). The poem has a full rhyme scheme, alternating between complete rhyme and incomplete, or slant, rhyme. The variation in rhyme, meter and line length all contribute to the visual and mental connection to childhood: the irregularities and chaos. By keeping the stanzas the same length throughout the poem, Heaney effectively tames the chaos that is childhood, making ‘Personal Helicon’ appear controlled and organized from a visual standpoint.

Literary Devices and Punctuation

Literary Devices

  • Metaphor is the creation of comparison without using prepositions. Heaney uses a metaphor in the first stanza of ‘Personal Helicon‘, comparing himself to the plants that grew in the wells.
  • Juxtaposition is co-positioning two opposing ideas next to each other. Heaney juxtaposes his love for the plants that grow in the wells with the plants’ indifference and potential to kill in the first and fourth stanzas of ‘Personal Helicon‘.
  • Imagery is descriptive language that focuses on stimuli. Heaney introduces the sensory experience throughout the entirety of ‘Personal Helicon‘ of a bucket falling into the water, the smell of plants, and the distorted reflection of himself as a rat ran across it.


Punctuation

  • Enjambment is the lack of punctuation at the end of the line, allowing it to continue throughout the stanza or across several stanzas, contributing to the fluidity of the poem. Heaney uses enjambment in the first stanza; the lack of punctuation at the end of the first line allows it to flow into the second.
  • Caesura is the implementation of punctuation in the middle of the line, contributing to the breaking of rhythm. Heaney uses caesura in the third line of the fourth stanza, wherein he starts the sentence ‘And one…’ at the end of the line rather than at the beginning.


Title Breakdown

The title, ‘Personal Helicon,’ is intriguing. Most will recognize Helicon as a mountain prominent in Greek mythology, but what did Heaney mean by his own Helicon?

Firstly, it is essential to understand what the mountain represents. Located in Boeotia, Greece, the mountain was said to be a place of wisdom and inspiration. There are two sacred, Muse-exclusive springs: Aganippe and Hippocrene. Hippocrene, translated to ‘Horse’s Fountain’, was created when Pegasus, a winged horse, stroked a rock with his hoof so hard that a spring formed.

In the seventh century BCE, the Greek poet Hesiod referenced the Muses at the start of Theogony, a poem describing the origins of Greek gods. The Muses presented Hesiod with a laurel staff symbolizing poetic authority. Helicon has since become an emblem of poetic inspiration.

In the third century BC, Callimachus’ Aitia recounts a dream wherein Callimachus is young again and conversing with the Muses on Helicon, following in Hesiod’s footsteps. Moreover, Callimachus places Tiresias on Helicon. The man sees Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, bathing and is immediately blinded. He is, however, also given the gift of prophecy. It is reasonable to assume that this story is the origin of the belief that poetry and prophecy are linked.

Therefore, the title, ‘Personal Helicon,’ foreshadows that the poem will be about the object or event that inspired Heaney to write poetry.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

As a child, they could not keep me from wells

And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.

I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells

Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

The first stanza of ‘Personal Helicon’ introduces natural imagery and Heaney’s childhood memories. The tone of the quatrain is reminiscent, the rhyme scheme being slightly irregular, also known as slant rhyme. At the same time, ‘wells’ and ‘smells’ rhyme, ‘windlasses,’ and ‘moss’ have similar, but not identical, endings.

The first line of the poem begins with Heaney’s self-insert. This is seen through the use of singular first-person narrative throughout the stanza and poem as a whole. Heaney separates himself from the adults by using personal pronouns of ‘me’ and ‘them’, therefore introducing the prominent theme of childhood versus adulthood. The theme gets explored in more detail throughout the stanza; for instance, in the first line of the stanza, Heaney recounts that he could be kept away from wells. The line begins to explore the separation between Heaney’s childhood perception of the world, and the adults’, possibly through the eyes of his parents.

Family Context

Seamus Heaney was the oldest of nine children and grew up in a mixed-upbringing household. His father was a farmer and cattle dealer, whereas his mother worked at a linen mill. The contrasting attitudes of rural Ireland and urban Ulster caused tension between the parents that Heaney felt he had to diffuse. The poet’s loving attitude towards nature is likely the result of the childhood tension and commotion of a rural, large family.

Heaney felt that the only place truly his was the well in the yard, which was both fascinating to him and beneficial to the family. Considering the income brought in by the parents and consequently split between eleven people, Heaney neither got any money for entertainment nor was there any. The family lived in rural Northern Ireland, first on a farm between the towns of Castledawson and Toomebridge and later in the village of Bellaghy.

Wishing Well

Heaney’s peculiar interest in wells and water pumps stems from the combined lack of pocket money and a place to spend it. A well is both useful and eerily fascinating to a child; many are familiar with the concept of a wishing well.

The wishing well is a commonly used concept in European folklore, wherein a wish that is spoken into a well is guaranteed to be granted. The belief stems from the legends of water deities that lived in the wells. The origins of the overall concept stemmed from water shortages when water was considered a luxury, as well as the origin of all life.

Oligodynamic Effect

It is likely that the wishing well myth inadvertently led to the discovery of the oligodynamic effect. The effect explores the biocidal properties of metals such as copper and silver, both used in coin-making. Copper and silver improve the water quality, hence potentially prolonging the life of those who later on use the water for consumption. Considering the decreased life expectancy of those in rural communities, a wish for one and one’s family to be healthy would have been a common one.

Wells, Pumps, and Windlasses

Heaney effectively uses enjambment to continue his thought in the second line. He recounts that he physically could not be kept away from the wells and water pumps. In the first stanza, the poet clearly demonstrates another integral theme: the simple joys of childhood. No adult has the time or emotional capacity to stop and admire the raw beauty and simplicity of an old water pump or well; however, a carefree child looking to escape the tension and tumult of a busy household would find a deep, mysterious well captivating.

Natural Imagery and Sensory Input

The last two lines of the stanza introduce sensory input and natural imagery. Heaney expresses positive emotions associated with the simple pleasures of nature and the rawness of existence. The use of ‘loved’ in the past tense clearly indicates that the poem is about memory. Heaney looks back on his childhood and his connection with nature. He recounts the mysteries of the unseen well bottom and the ‘trapped sky.’ This clearly indicates the constraints of the child’s mind: the water in the well reflects the sky, making it appear trapped. As a child, Heaney would not have been able to comprehend the endless, unreachable sky; it is much simpler to understand when the sky is clearly constrained.

The final line is a continuation of the third: Heaney’s use of enjambment creates a fluid tone, allowing the poem to flow. The use of both polysyndeton (‘waterweed, fungus’) and asyndeton (‘fungus and dank moss’) creates a conversational tone, allowing the poem to feel more intimate. Heaney’s listing of the flora that grows in dark, unkempt conditions reflects his upbringing. With both parents at work and eight siblings to look after, Seamus would barely have had time for himself, likely having to raise himself in the absence of his parents. He feels particularly connected to the things that grow without love or care and yet flourish, regardless of hardships.

Stanza Two

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.

(…)

So deep you saw no reflection in it.

The second stanza of ‘Personal Helicon‘ explores Heaney’s favored well. The description of a seemingly ordinary, clearly run-down water well is strangely nostalgic. The first line of the stanza clearly portrays the themes of childhood interests and enjoyment of the simple life. The well is seemingly a meek, derelict structure that presents no interest to an adult eye. For a child, however, a water well is the site of never-ending adventures and infinite opportunities. The stanza demonstrates the childlike wonder and imagination of Heaney.

Obscure Pleasures of Childhood

As a child, Heaney has found excitement in a derelict object: water well with a rotten top. The presence of rotten wood on top of the well itself is symbolic in the sense that it presents the theme of expectation versus reality. To an adult, the well is nothing more than a water-bearing structure with rotten, molded wood on top, whereas to a child, it is an entrance to a wonderous and mysterious world.

From the previous stanza and personal, contextual knowledge, the reader could infer that Heaney would likely have spent a lot of time alone in an attempt to find peace. Having grown up in a tense household with eight siblings, quiet and serenity were uncommon; hence Heaney looked for a place to find himself; that, in addition, did not cost him money, as neither of the parents had high-paying jobs. The previous stanza allows the imagery of rotten wood to build up and contribute to the overall atmosphere of the poem: mold, just like fungus and ‘waterweed,’ grows on its own, without nourishment, coddling, and support, not dissimilar to Heaney. It is, therefore, appropriate that the poet’s favorite well is an extended metaphor for himself.

Addition of Sensory Stimuli

The second line of the stanza introduces the third sensory stimulus: sound. Heaney is said to have ‘savoured’, meaning profoundly enjoyed the ‘rich crash’ of a bucket. This is another addition to the theme of childhood wonderment and imagination. To be fascinated with something so trivial and mundane as the crash of a bucket can only be attributed to a child’s mind; no adult would ever stop their buzzing, and likely overworked, mind to enjoy the sound a hollow metal container makes against water.

The use of ‘plummeted’ is effective: instead of ‘fell’ or ‘dropped’, Heaney chose to utilize a more dramatic form of the verb, hence raising the tension in the stanza. Additionally, it is deliberate, as by using ‘plummeted,’ Heaney elicits the feeling of transcending dimensions, further alienating himself from the adults. He travels alongside the falling bucket, descending so deep that others cannot reach him. The rope tied to the bucket is the only thing that connects Heaney to the ‘outside world’.

Stanza Three

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch

(…)

A white face hovered over the bottom.

The third stanza of ‘Personal Helicon‘ describes one better; this time less mysterious than the one in the previous stanza. This well represents an outsider’s perspective on wells; Heaney’s use of imagery and descriptive language creates a clear separation.

Size and Depth Reversal

Heaney’s use of the adjective ‘shallow’ is effective: while referring to the depth of the actual well, it also refers to the lack of depth in the adults’ minds. Those around Heaney are, quite literally, shallow. Moreover, Heaney further separates himself from others by juxtaposing the endless depths and abundance of water in the second stanza with the dry, almost barren image of the well in the third stanza.

Furthermore, Heaney decreases the size of his image even further as the stanza progresses: the infinitely deep water well becomes a shallow, dried-up puddle, which then gets small enough to fit into an aquarium. In this line, Heaney subtly explores the hypocrisy of an adult mind: a well is nothing of interest, not worth one’s precious time; however, many spend time and money buying and decorating aquariums.

While water wells serve a purpose, aquariums are purely decorative. It is, therefore, ironic that one would berate a child for their fascination with a well while splurging on an aesthetic water bowl. Additionally, there is a further level of irony: children are universally considered to have one-track minds, unable to comprehend anything outside their immediate scope of vision or latest memory. Adults, on the other hand, are thought to be philosophical, delving into philosophy, the human mind, and the universe as a whole. By lessening the size of his image, Heaney effectively switches the cognitive roles of adults and children.

Plants as Heaney

In the third line of the stanza, Heaney personally addresses the reader (‘you’), allowing the poem to take on a more intimate and personal tone. Lines three and four are nostalgic: Heaney remembers someone, perhaps one of his family members, pulling out the growth of plants at the bottom of the well, leaving his reflection visible. This image is incredibly stark: removing childhood innocence and imagination, leaving only what is there. White is not a color, but a shade, whereas a child’s life is full of colors, patterns, and life. Nature, specifically plant imagery, is an extended metaphor for Heaney’s childhood. In the first stanza, Heaney recalls his love for the unusual plants that grow without care, just like him, whereas in the third stanza, he laments that ‘you’ pulled the plants out, revealing nothing but his own reflection.

Loss of Childhood

The pulling out of flowers signifies the loss of innocence and childhood through forced maturity. As the oldest of nine children, Heaney would likely not have had a childhood, having to not only grow up himself but also help raise his siblings while both of his parents worked. Heaney expresses his peculiar fascination with the plants that grew on and in the well. The third stanza reveals that someone has pulled those plants out with the roots, hence leaving no trace of childhood. Now, all that Heaney sees is his pasty reflection.

One of the events that could have caused the drastic loss of innocence and imagination is the death of his younger brother, who died in a car accident aged just four. It would have certainly had a deeply negative impact on the young mind of Seamus, who was fourteen at the time, and in no way prepared to deal with the death, let alone the death of his family members.

At the bottom of the well, Heaney is met with nothing but his own reflection. The face is white: revealing a contrasting, multifaceted image. On the one hand, white traditionally signifies innocence and childhood, whereas, on the other, white is the shade of ghosts, a muted neutral lacking brightness or intensity. By employing color symbolism, Heaney effectively shows the multidimensional view of childhood and the loss thereof. At first instance, it can be interpreted that beneath the plants and other coverings, Heaney finds himself. In contrast, some have the opposite view: Heaney’s childhood and imagination have been forcibly taken away from him, revealing nothing but the physical appearance of a boy devoid of emotion.

Stanza Four

Others had echoes, gave back your own call

(…)

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

The fourth stanza of ‘Personal Helicon‘ reveals details about other wells and a well that Heaney found scary due to the presence of a poisonous flower. The stanza follows an incomplete rhyme scheme, as ‘call’ and ‘tall’ rhyme, but ‘one’ and ‘reflection’ do not.

In the first two lines of the stanza, Heaney describes the sensory pleasure that is an echo, endlessly fascinating to a child. Heaney considers the reciprocation of his own voice or sounds to be music, clean and stark in its presentation. The metaphor highlights the bluntness and straightforwardness of childhood: children are not yet enveloped in the web of self-hate and doubt; they do not care how their voice sounds when they hear it back, instead choosing to focus on the miracle of echo itself.

Heaney’s use of onomatopoeia effectively creates a rhythm break in the second stanza. By starting a sentence at the end of the line, he not only visually startles the reader but subtly points out the irregularities of a childhood mind and how children often begin thoughts or phrases before finishing their previous ones.

Unconventional Natural Imagery

Heaney recalls being afraid of a well due to the presence of a toxic plant and a largely misunderstood animal that people were afraid of nevertheless. The ‘scaresome’ well is the exact opposite of the shallow well that was described in the previous stanza: this well is flourishing with flora and fauna, whereas the third stanza well is dried up and bare. Despite clearly enjoying the presence of nature in his life, even Heaney was overwhelmed with the potential dangers of what could be found. By implementing the more dangerous natural elements, Heaney effectively points out the everpresent possibility that a child could get lost in their imagination, metaphorically being lost by their parents and family.

Poisonous and Dangerous

A foxglove plant is a toxic plant with brightly colored, tubular flowers. The bright colors of the plant cleverly appeal to innocent creatures, both insects and Seamus Heaney alike. Despite being visually appealing, all parts, from the flowers all the way down to the roots, are poisonous and may cause heart attacks if ingested and untreated. Ironically, the plant is used as medicine to treat heart disease. By starting the sentence a line earlier, Heaney had the opportunity to start the final line of the stanza with the word ‘foxglove,’ capitalizing it and making it more important to the reader. The word eludes the energy of mystery and danger.

Following the foxglove image, Heaney includes an image of a rat that ran across the water surface, distorting his reflection. The idea is incredibly effective because it reveals a deeper meaning to the thought process of young Heaney. The poet was wary of the well not only because it contained poisonous plants and dangerous animals but also because those plants and animals did not even care for him. It would have been a tragic revelation: while Heaney reveled in the smell of plants and was endlessly fascinated with the inhabitants of the well, they did not care for him at all, likely never noticing his existence. The plants he so dearly held to his heart could kill him in under an hour, the animals he observed with painstaking patience distorting his sense of self with ease.

Stanza Five

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,

(…)

To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

The last stanza of ‘Personal Helicon‘ is a rendition of a more recent memory; Heaney transports the reader into the present. By starting the stanza with ‘now’ and then adding a coma, Heaney not only effectively uses onomatopoeia but also changes the tense and time of the stanza. It is clear from the beginning of the stanza that this is the present, with the poet being much older.

Heaney uses three verbs, all in their infinitive form – ‘to pry,’ ‘to finger,’ and ‘to stare.’ Using the most neutral form of the verbs, Heaney effectively creates an atmosphere of nostalgia, with a subtle hint of lamenting the invariably quick passing of his youth. The first two images are quite unrefined: dirty and unconventional in their needs. This, however, is what childhood is about: to be messy and weird and blunt, free from the acute understanding of others’ judgment and self-doubt. Perhaps to an adult, the idea of meddling in dirt-covered roots and slime seems almost grotesque, whereas to a child, the sensory exploration of nature is nothing short of fascinating.

Narcissus

Heaney’s next image is one of the most famously poetic and tragic ones: the mention of Narcissus is unconventionally fitting, as the poet is talking about himself as a carefree child, not a seasoned self-obsessed warrior.

The tragedy of Narcissus dates back centuries and has been explored from multiple angles: from the supernatural to the divine, to homosexual, to incestual.

According to Tzetzes, a Byzantine poet, Narcissus was a Greek hunter from Boetia who, after rejecting all romantic advances, fell in love with his own reflection and eventually died from being unable to be loved back.

Book Three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

In the third book of the Metamorphoses collection, Ovid wrote the story of Narcissus and Echo. When Liriope birthed Narcissus, she was warned by Tiresias that the boy would live a long and prosperous life as long as he didn’t discover himself. Decades later, when Narcissus was walking through a forest, he met an oread (mountain nymph) named Echo. Echo fell in love with Narcissus but ultimately got rejected, spending the rest of her life in glens until only an echo of her remained. When Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, heard about Echo, she decided to punish Narcissus. She created a pool of water that Narcissus came across when he was thirsty and, upon seeing his reflection, fell in love with it without realizing that it was him. Having gone mad at the torture of unrequited love, he burns in a fire of passion, turning into a white-and-gold flower.

Other Versions of Narcissus’ Story

Other versions of Narcissus’ demise include Conon’s (Ovid’s contemporary) story wherein Narcissus rejects a male warrior, Ameinias, who kills himself on the former’s doorstep. Upon seeing the damage that he has caused, Narcissus attempts to escape his actions by running away. He comes across a pool of water and falls in love with his own reflection, and when the love is not reciprocated, he kills himself.

Moreover, in 2AD, Pausanias, a traveling writer, retold the story wherein Narcissus falls in love with his twin sister and kills himself upon realizing that he will never be loved back.

Adult Dignity

The second and third lines of the stanza acknowledge that the views and minds of adults are vastly different from those of children. Heaney nostalgically remembers his carefree childhood and the societal pressure to now act completely different than how he wants to due to age. The simple joys of uniting oneself with nature and exploring its intricacies and dangers are long gone; adulthood is a routine, dull existence.

Rhyme = Play

The poem’s final line draws on the similarities between being a poet and a child. Now, instead of playing in the mud and hearing his own voice come back from the wells, Heaney writes poetry, making rhyming verses.

The metaphor is incredibly effective: being a child is quite similar to being an artist of any kind, but especially a poet. Often, children cannot express themselves in a socially acceptable or understood way, especially when they are young: they throw objects to show their displeasure, cry and shout whenever they are hurt or upset, and hide when scared or lonely. Just as children may sometimes express themselves physically, so too do poets express themselves through rhyme, comparison, or imagery.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Personal Helicon‘ about?

Seamus Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon‘ focuses on his childhood experience of nature play. Growing up in a large family, he would have likely not had much time or special attention and would have had to entertain himself. Having found wells in the area, he was enthralled by the mystery and abundance of life, which inspired the poem.

What happened to Seamus Heaney’s brother?

In 1953 Christopher Heaney died in a roadside accident when he was four, and Seamus was fourteen. The event was deeply traumatic for Seamus, who wrote the poem ‘Mid-Term Break‘ in an attempt to express the emotions he would have felt at that time. After the accident, the entire family moved to a new farm near the village of Bellaghy.

When did Seamus Heaney write Death of a Naturalist?

Seamus Heaney’s anthology, Death of a Naturalist, which included ‘Personal Helicon‘, was initially published in 1966 and later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. The anthology was the first of his major volumes, followed by Door into the Dark in 1969 and Wintering Out in 1972. In total, Heaney published twelve poetry collections from 1966 until 2010, which included over five hundred poems.

What does Helicon represent?

Mount Helicon is a mountain prominent in Greek mythology, said to be the place of creative and artistic inspiration. For example, in Theogony, the Muses gift Hesiod a laurel staff: a symbol of poetic authority. Moreover, Callimachus tells the story of Tiresias, who was blinded but also given the gift of prophecy. ‘Personal Helicon‘ reflects that the childhood wells of rural Ireland are Heaney’s own haven of inspiration and wisdom.


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Having obtained the International Baccalaureate diploma, Ekaterina is currently in university. She has 6 years of experience in poetry writing and 5 in academic poetry analysis.
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