Wednesday 31 August 2016

Rereading Seamus Heaney’s ‘Personal Helicon’

This poem’s music has been bumping along at the back of my brain, coming in and out of focus along with the words.  I’m obsessed with the poem and have to write about it.  (A completely different experience from the often exasperating one of having a song on the brain.)    

Like many readers and students of poetry, Irish and British at least, I’ve known ‘Personal Helicon’ for years, especially its much-quoted ending.  Recently I picked up Death of a Naturalist again, started on the last page and was transfixed as if I’d never read it before.  Last poem of Heaney’s first book (and nicely balanced with ‘Digging’, the opening poem).  It’s here, with a recording of him reading it.  

The odd title (personal what? first-time readers must ask) sets us up for something elevated and classical.  Mount Helicon was a haunt of the Muses and its springs were said to inspire poetry – hard for northern Europeans used to rain and damp earth to grasp the magic of fresh water in the arid mountainscape of central Greece.  But from the first line we’re down in wells: deep in the unknown earth whose crust we live on unthinkingly, amid dankness, rats, echoes, weed and mud; deep in the unknown self, in origins and childhood fascinations.  And down in wells we stay (or rather half looking down, half down there) though in the last verse Narcissus brings us back to Helicon, where Echo fell in love with him and he with his own reflection. 

The rhythms of the poem are based on iambic pentameters but move far from them.  Stressed syllables tend to be strongly stressed, almost Hopkins-like; two often occur next to each other, as in the first two lines of the second verse:

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.

The consonants in the second line mimic the crash.  The third line unwinds the bucket from the windlass in rapid dactyls.  There’s humour in all this but it’s scary too – there’s danger in the rotted top, the crash, the reflectionless depths that get their own short sentence for emphasis.  Later in the poem the lines smooth out to become more conventionally iambic – until disturbed by “a rat slapped…”

There’s such relish in the language – as always with Heaney – unLatinate, onomatopoeic, often monosyllabic, enriched with words like windlasses, scaresome, mulch.  My shorter OED hasn’t taken scaresome on board.  Then, as if for fun, Heaney gives us a Latinate line with an unusual word, “Fructified like any aquarium”. 

Heaney’s laying claim to his own language here, his own territory, as well as his right to be up that Greek mountain.  It’s a political poem, subtly so. 

Apart from the aquarium line there’s little metaphor in the poem whose effects come from graphic, pungent detail: rat, roots and slime, smells and sounds.  Despite these the brilliance of language and rhythm, the relish and the humour give a sense of refreshment.  The word “reflection” appears twice to bring in both light and thought.

And of course the whole poem’s a metaphor, leading up to the denoument of the fifth verse:

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. 

The perfection of that last sentence sets up echoes of its own in the reader.  The final line is a lone hexameter – declarative.  It acts out the echoing in -self, set, -ness, ech-, following lots of short and long i's in the rest of the verse.   

Has anyone expressed the Why of writing poetry, the introspection and excitement, as well as this?  Not just in that sentence and the lovely, serious piss-take preceding it (poets, self-obsession/-indulgence, vanity) but also the run-up, the set-up, the whole poem? 


  1. Dear Fiona

    Seamus Heaney, of course, famously described himself as 'a minor poet.' I wouldn't dare to disagree with him.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

  2. Dear Fiona

    As C Day Lewis warned us back in 1964: 'Stop venerating poets as sages, as this inhibits criticism. A poet, after all, is no wiser than most other people.'

    Best wishes from Simon