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Personal Helicon -- Seamus Heaney

Our apologies for the irregular service over the last few days; both Martin
and myself have been rather busy with the Real World.
(Poem #883) Personal Helicon
 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.

 One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
 I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
 Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
 So deep you saw no reflection in it.

 A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
 Fructified like any aquarium.
 When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
 A white face hovered over the bottom.

 Others had echoes, gave back your own call
 With a clean new music in it. And one
 Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
 Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
 To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
 Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
 To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
-- Seamus Heaney

"Personal Helicon" first appeared in "Eleven Poems", published in 1965.
The poem is dedicated to Michael Longley, a contemporary of Heaney's at
Philip Hobsbaum's poetry workshop in Belfast.
Mt. Helicon in Greece is said to be the home of the Muses, nine sister
goddesses in Greek mythology presiding over song and poetry and the arts and


Seamus Heaney has always been fascinated with the earth, with the quality of
earthiness. His poems are invariably dense and muddy, clumps of murky
adjectives and plodding nouns pulling the reader into a world full of 'the
smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss'. Even his titles reflect this
preoccupation, from "Bogland" (the very first poem in his very first
collection), to his justly celebrated (if somewhat unsettling) masterpiece,
"Death of a Naturalist".

Unfortunately, this predilection is not a very fashionable one - indeed, I
can't help but shudder at some of the imagery in "Naturalist" - which is
perhaps why Heaney chose to expand on it in today's poem. As the title makes
clear, this is a poem about poetic inspiration: Heaney's Muse is a gritty,
plodding, deliberate creature, more Caliban than Ariel. A perfectly
legitimate choice (if it can be called a choice at all), and one which sets
his poetry apart, and gives it distinction.


[broken link] is a biography which
delves quite deeply into Heaney's themes and poetic development; here's an
extract which talks about today's poem:

"Heaney is here presenting his own source of inspiration, the 'dark drop'
into personal and cultural memory, made present by the depths of the wells
of his childhood. Now, as a man, he is too mature to scramble about on hands
and knees, looking into the deep places of the earth, but he has his poetry.
This serves as his glimpse into places where 'there is no reflection', but
only the sound of a rhyme, like a bucket, setting 'the darkness echoing'. "
        -- [broken link]

Surprisingly for a poet of his stature, Heaney has featured only once on the
Minstrels. The lovely "Song" can be read at poem #61, along with the EB
bio, critical assessment, and some external links.


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