How to Interpret "Personal Helicon"

"Personal Helicon" is a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It was first published in Heaney's first collection, "Death of a Naturalist," in 1966 and is regarded by many people as important to understanding the poet's oeuvre. The poem, dedicated to Michael Longley, Heaney's friend and fellow poet, deals with themes of childhood, wonder at the natural world, loss of innocence and maturity, and it also directly examines Heaney's reasons for writing poetry. The poem can be interpreted in several potential ways, and it is crucial to consider a number of factors.

Examine the title. In Greek mythology, Helicon was the name of the mountain where the Muses lived. The word is now used, like "Muse," to describe a source of poetic inspiration. So in choosing this title, Heaney can be seen as setting out to describe, explore and explain his personal source of inspiration.

Study the poem's structure. The poem has five, four-line stanzas with a rough ABAB rhyming scheme, meaning that the last words of the first and third and second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. In this case, however, the rhymes of the second and fourth lines are not "true;" they do not rhyme completely but merely sound similar. For example, the last words of the second and fourth lines of the first stanza are "windlasses" and "moss." The rhythm and punctuation of the poem are also unusual; it is uncommon in a poem with a rhyming scheme like this to insert full stops that break up the rhythm, as in the following stanza: "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." These changes to the conventional pattern of an ABAB poem indicate the poet asserting his personal style and challenging the reader to reflect on this.

Relate the poetic techniques. The poet makes use of both onomatopoeia and alliteration. For example, "rich crash" is onomatopoeic because it evokes the sound of the bucket crashing into the well. An example of alliteration is "dark drop" because the same sound is repeated in the first syllable of each word. These techniques indicate that Heaney would like the reader to enter into the world of the poem in order to picture and understand the images and themes he describes.

Identify the imagery. The central image of the poem is a well, or a series of wells, remembered from the poet's childhood. Heaney uses the well as a metaphor; it is a source of wonderment, enjoyment and self-reflection (as in stanzas 1, 2, 3 and 4) but also represents the unknown and fear (as in stanzas 2 and 4). He makes heavy use of natural, earthy imagery, such as waterweed, fungus, rats, foxgloves and mulch. These images conjure a sense of childhood innocence, the poet's ongoing fascination with the natural world and physical sensation, and they also are easily recognizable to the average reader, reinforcing Heaney's efforts to speak clearly to his audience.

Consider the conclusion. The final stanza strongly implies that where before the poet was able to enjoy, think and reflect on life and himself through playing with wells, he now, having grown out of this, does so through "rhyme," through writing poetry.

About the Author

Carl Mathie began working as a translator, editor and writer in 2004 at two independent literary publishers in London. His work has been published in the "Financial Times" and online at Readysteadybook and Vulpes Libris. He has translated for several important international publishers including Grupo Planeta and Oxygen Books. He has a Bachelor of Arts in comparative American studies from the University of Warwick.

Photo Credits
  • Voyagerix/iStock/Getty Images