Seamus Heaney - Personal Helicon - Poetry Analysis

Jan 102012

Personal Helicon

In this final poem Heaney identifies the wells of his childhood as sources of his later poetic inspiration. Now a fully fledged poet he reflects on his transition from childhood to the here-and-now.

As a child Heaney was particularly drawn to wells: they could not keep me away from them with their buckets and windlasses. They appealed to all the senses of an Irish farm-reared child, looking down to see what he could see, smell, touch, imagine: the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells/ Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

He selects a well where, whilst he might enjoy larking around and the rich crash when a bucket/ Plummeted down at the end of a rope, he could only guess its depth:  So deep you saw no reflection in it.

From well to accessible spring under a dry-stone ditch, that, Fructified like any aquarium, teemed with life and in which, once vegetation was removed, he could see his own white face reflected.

He quotes other examples: a well with a clean new music in it into which he shouted and which answered his call; a scaresome spring from which a hidden rat slapped across my reflection.
What was rooted in him As a child is Now tempered by adult dignity. The old practices (pry into roots … finger slime or stare, big-eyed Narcissus, in admiration of his own reflection) have been superseded.

It is via his poetry that Heaney seeks a way to self-knowledge (to see myself) and, as with amplified sound in the confined space of a well, set the darkness echoing. Over the next 30 years Heaney might experience a great deal of political darkness but few would argue that these twin aims have not been realised.

  • Mount Helicon, beloved of the nine Muses, possessed 2 fountains; to drink from either brought inspiration and the gift of poetry; in contrast Heaney’s helicon is at or below ground-level;
  • mythological Narcissus, an extremely handsome but disdainful young man, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, unable to see that it was an image; he died unable to tear himself away from his own beauty; Heaney has avoided any such syndrome!
  • 3,000 listed holy wells in Ireland were almost all associated with saints;
  • dedicated to Michael Longley, co-member of Hobsbaum’s Belfast Group in the 1960s;


  • five 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;ʊ] rope/ so/ no; [ɪ]in/ brickyard/ rich; big-eyed Narcissus/ inyo/ spring/ is/ dignity; [u]  new/ music; [eə] scaresome/ there; [ai] rhyme/ myself;
  • interweaves of [ɪ] [æ]: dry ditch fructified like/ aquarium; same combination of sounds [ɪ] [æ] creates a chiasmic effect: pry into/ finger slime;


  • a childhood chore becomes a dramatic experience then a metaphor for the creative act (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.38);
  • glances back … yet forward to s future of poetic maturity (ibid p.74)
  • the potent symbol of the well (ibid);
  • Michael Parker refers broadly to: less alliteration, more vowel music and stress on images; an adult voice superseding a childlike sense of delight; melodramatic diction;
  • a poem that elaborates a psychology from a symbolically suggestive childhood world of vegetal process (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.11);
  • a little myth of poetic inspiration (ibid): 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 (p.11)