In ‘Personal Helicon’, Heaney proclaims that he writes poetry in order ‘to set the darkness echoing’. Heaney’s poems often explore language as a means of examining reality and the individual’s relationship with the world, and he once said that ‘words themselves are doors’ that open up new ways of understanding. In the final lines of ‘Personal Helicon’ the ‘darkness’ is the unknown, the things that remain hidden, concepts that have not been brought into the light and articulated in words. Whether it is personal fears or social injustices, poetry is a medium to bring these ‘unspoken’ attitudes to the world, to make it ‘echo’ and resound with force.
In the poem the ‘Helicon’ is a reference to the mountain in Greek mythology where the nine muses live. The streams that run down the mountain have the power to give those who drink from it the inspiration to write poetry. It is in this context that the poem explores the nature of writing or at least a definition of poetry.
The speaker finds his poetic source in the wells of the farmyard.
It is probably useful to know that the Helicon is a mountain in Greece where, in legend, two springs, sacred to the Gods were to be found. It is also thought that Narcissus, the Greek boy who pined away looking into his own reflection in a pool did so at one of those Heliconian springs. This basic knowledge of the classics then, sets up the understanding of Heaney’s ode to the rather less sparkling and perfect wells and springs he was fascinated by as a child. The description in the second stanza of the disused deep well in an old brickyard, where he sends the bucket tumbling down, echoing and rattling, possibly to find no water at the bottom, would be enough to send shivers down the spine of any parent. Then he moves on to the kind of well or spring we have a lot of in the West of Ireland, basically a pool where ground water has come up to the surface. Those kind of wells, many people actually getting their drinking water from even up to maybe fifteen years ago, can be shallow and muddy, and choked with weed – his descriptive – soft mulch – describes it exactly. Others can be deceptively bottomless in this soggy countryside of ours, and we still marvel that this young water baby grew up to tell his tale. The differences between the first and the second well, of course, is that the second gave back his reflection, which seems to be nearly as important to him as it was to narcissus in the Greek legends. And the Greek theme is found again in the next stanza, with the deep echoeing well. Echo, in the legends, was a maiden who loved Narcissus, but he was too wrapped up in himself and she pined away until only her voice remained. And then, in the final stanza we learn that the adult, having survived the risks of falling, drowning or catching typhus or bubonic plague in his exploits now scoffs at such childish games and instead views his narcissistic self in the poems he composes. The poem, is a nostalgia trip into the poet’s boyhood, entwined in a classical mythology with which it has some incidental connections, and a revelation about his self-examining reasons for writing his poetry.
Helicon is the name of a mountain which is considered a sacred place and the dwelling of nine muses. Muses are the pattern of fine arts who inspire the artistic spirit of artists. So Personal Helicon means the personal inspiration. The poet asserts that when he was a child, he was very curious and his curiosity could not be restricted by any means. He means to say that the worldly pressure could not dictate upon the soul of the poet. He looked into wells and the windlasses (a crank or a handle to lift the buckets out of a well). As a child he used to watch the mystery of drawing buckets of water from the well.
It fascinates him that the water was coming out of some mysterious underworld as dark drop here suggests the mysterious flow of water. Trapped sky is also a mysterious symbol as the sky is reflected in the water at the bottom of the well. This fascinates him that the sky has been trapped in a small well. Then there is the smell of water weed, fungus and dank moss. These are pictures of synsthesia—a blending of all the five senses.
He sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. So his entire physical being is involved in the mysterious experience of the water being drawn from a deep well.
He feels the strange sound of a full bucket that turns at the end of a rope. The well is so deep that the water is dark. His mystical experience is that something is coming out of darkness. There is also a sound of empty bucket striking against a stone. As a fish moves the aquarium similarly the bucket brings up with it small branches of some plant from the weeds at the bottom. Perhaps he sees his own face reflected in some buckets whereas the other buckets produce echoes.
He sees his own face in the full buckets and hears his own voice from the empty buckets. So this is how Heaney tries to explain the phenomenon of inspiration. Something is revealed from the mysterious and something emerges from the consciousness that two blend and make the inspiration.
Thus Heaney would suggest that inspiration is the echo of the mysterious in the consciousness. Then suddenly the poet has an experience of fear and a rat jumps out. Perhaps this suggests that inspiration is exciting as well as frightening. What he means to say is that to go to the details of inspiration will be an immature activity. To him, there is something of the narcissus in the process of inspiration. Actually inspiration is only the echo of one’s own soul. It will be unwise to analyse the process of inspiration.
Heaney says that he is inspired by his own soul and the darkness echoes, that is the mystery speaks through his own soul. He says that the poet’s inspiration is the resonance of his own soul.
This poem suggests: Heaney believes that the poet lives in his own world unconcerned with the world around him. It is for this reason that Heaney wants nothing to do with the politics of suffering. He is only interested in the aesthetics of suffering.