Personal Helicon

Personal Helicon

dedicated to Michael Longley, co-member of Hobsbaum’s Belfast poetry Group in the 1960s.

In the collection’s final poem Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ulster magically special and unique for him) 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 pursuits.

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).

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 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.

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, scaresome spring where, from amongst the vegetation, a rodent was both seen and heard (rat slapped across my reflection).

Heaney clears up the time-lapse: what took root in him As a child (l.1) is Now (l.17) 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childish pursuits of an inquisitive (pry into roots … finger slime or stare) self-admiring big-eyed Narcissus have been superseded by the grown man.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.

Over subsequent decades Heaney will witness a great deal of social and political gloom. His lyrics will resound worldwide.

  • helicon: Mount Helicon, beloved of the nine Muses, possessed 2 fountains; to drink from either brought inspiration and the gift of poetry; Heaney’s helicon is below ground;

  • well: open shaft driven into the ground as a source of drinking- water;

  • pump: construction using suction to raise drinking-water to the surface; 3000 listed holy wells in Ireland were almost all associated with saints;

  • windlasses: winches used to raise buckets of water;

  • trapped: imprisoned image;

  • waterweed: submerged aquatic plant;

  • fungus: organic mould;

  • dank: unpleasantly damp;

  • moss: natural lichen growth associated with wet area;

  • brickyard: place where bricks are fired/ stored;

  • rotted board top: decayed wooden safety-cover;

  • savour: taste for enjoyment;

  • crash: fall from the sky;

  • plummeted down: dropped at high speed;

  • dry stone: built without mortar;

  • ditch: channel to carry water away;

  • fructified: containing plant-life;

  • aquarium: fish tank;

  • dragged: pulled with effort;

  • mulch: compost, decayed materials;

  • hover: hang poised;

  • scaresome: (unusual) scary, frightening;

  • ferns: tall, frondy plants;

  • foxgloves: tall plant with pinkish-purple flowers shaped like gloves;

  • slapped across: describing the watery sound produced;

  • pry into: be inquisitive about, examine closely;

  • finger: touch, feel so as not to damage;

  • slime: thick, slippery liquid;

  • Narcissus: beautiful mythological youth who  fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, pined away and was changed into the flower that bears his name;

  • spring: where water wells up from an underground source;

  • beneath dignity: unworthy, inappropriate

  • rhyme: write poetry;

  • set … echoing: bring music to;

  • MP refers to the potent symbolism of the well(74);

  • six quatrains based around 10-syllable lines; rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc., some assonant, others approximates;

  • rich in assonant effects: [ʌ] pumps/ buckets; fungus/ bucket plummeted; [ɒ] drop/ moss; hovered/ bottom; [əʊ] rope/ so/ no; [ɪ]in/ brickyard/ rich; big-eyed Narcissus/ inyo/ spring/ is/ dignity; [u]  new/ music; [eə] scaresome/ there; [ai] rhyme/ myself;

  • interweave of [ɪ] [æ]: dry ditch fructified like/ aquarium; same combination of sounds [ɪ] [æ] creates a chiasmic sound effect: pry into/ finger slime;

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;

  • the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;

  • the first sentence, for example, weaves together interlabial [w] and a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b],velar [k]) alongside nasals [n] [m];

  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:

  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur

  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

  • a poem that elaborates a psychology from a symbolically suggestive childhood world of vegetal process (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney 11);

  • a little myth of poetic inspiration (id): the wells become the springs of the mountain of the Muses which gift poetic inspiration to the drinker (ibid)

  • NC suggests evidence of the Narcissus myth and self-reflexivity of the final line;

  • NC feels Heaney is, less selflessly, suggesting that the aim of this poem is to reveal the poet to himself (11)

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