"Personal Helicon" was written by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney and published in Heaney’s first major collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Like many of the poems in this collection, "Personal Helicon" draws on Heaney’s experiences growing up in rural Northern Ireland. The poem's speaker (usually understood to be Heaney himself) describes the joy, wonder, and curiosity he felt while exploring old wells and water pumps as a child. "Helicon" refers to a mountain in Greece that, in ancient mythology, was home to two sacred springs deemed the source of poetic inspiration. The poem suggests that the speaker's childhood experiences became the source of his own poetic inspiration—his own "Helicon."
As a child, ...
... buckets and windlasses.
I loved the ...
... and dank moss.
One, in a ...
... of a rope.
So deep you ... reflection in it.
A shallow one ...
... like any aquarium.
When you dragged ...
... over the bottom.
Others had echoes, ...
... music in it.
And one ...
... across my reflection.
Now, to pry ...
... all adult dignity.
I rhyme ...
... the darkness echoing.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Heaney Reads "Personal Helicon" — Listen to the poet read “Personal Helicon,” along with a number of other works, in this recording from a 1971 reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
More on Heaney's Life — A biography of Heaney published at the website of the Nobel Prize, which the poet won for Literature in 1995. This particular article details Heaney’s childhood in County Derry, Northern Ireland, and how he continued to view this landscape as the “country of the mind” for his poetry.
"HomePlace" — Visit the website of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an arts and literature center devoted to Heaney’s life and legacy, to read a range of resources about the poet and his work. The Seamus Heaney HomePlace is located in the village in Northern Ireland where Heaney grew up.
"A Poet of Happiness" — Read this article by Stephanie Burt at the New Yorker to learn more about Heaney’s life and poetry, and why he has come to be understood as a “poet of happiness.”
Mount Helicon — Read more about the mythical mountain believed to inspire poetry.
The Belfast Group — Read more about the group of poets of which Seamus Heaney was a member in the 1960s. This group brought together Northern Irish poets and helped to shape a new generation of Irish writers.
for Michael Longley
1As a child, they could not keep me from wells
2And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
3I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
4Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
5One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
6I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
7Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
8So deep you saw no reflection in it.
9A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
10Fructified like any aquarium.
11When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
12A white face hovered over the bottom.
13Others had echoes, gave back your own call
14With a clean new music in it. And one
15Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
16Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
17Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
18To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
19Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
20To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.