Throughout “Personal Helicon,” the speaker describes the wells and water pumps that he loved to explore as a child. Then, in the poem’s closing lines, the speaker says that he now “rhyme[s],” or writes poetry, “[t]o see [him]self, to set the darkness echoing.” Just as the speaker once looked into wells to see his own reflection, and called into wells to hear the echo of his own voice, the poem implies that he now writes poetry to see his own reflection or hear his own voice transformed into music within his poems.
Those wells and water pumps, then, and the speaker’s experiences looking into them, become an extended metaphor in the poem, representing both poetry and the process of writing. Just as the speaker once adventurously explored wells with openness and curiosity, this metaphor implies that now, for him, the act of writing poems includes a similar process of discovery.
This extended metaphor also carries additional levels of meaning. First, it is worth noting that wells are constructed things, made out of stone, concrete, or metal, and dug into the earth. The speaker emphasizes that he values all the crafted, made qualities of the wells he encountered, including the “rotted board top” on one and the bucket that he could lower to the end of a rope until it hit the water with a “rich crash.” Similarly, poems are crafted out of language, which is shaped into phrases, sentences, lines, and stanzas. “Personal Helicon” emphasizes this crafted quality, since it is structured into steady quatrains and uses a rhyme scheme.
At the same time, though, the speaker suggests that what he most values in the wells are the living things within and around them, as well as the sense of profundity and mystery that the wells allow him to glimpse. He notes the plants growing around the wells, calling attention to the way the wells, as a water source, enable life. He also remarks on one well so deep that he could see “no reflection in it,” as well as the experience of calling into wells to hear the echo of his own voice “[w]ith a clean new music in it.” These details suggest that for the speaker, what he most loves about the wells are the life they can support, and the depths that he can look into within them.
By extension, the metaphor implies that it is these same qualities that the speaker values in poems. While a poem is a crafted thing, the speaker suggests that why he truly writes is to see beyond the made thing, to look into his own experiences and memory, and into the vastness of the universe itself. This extended metaphor, then, creates a vision of poetry, suggesting that just as wells enable people to access the life-giving element of water, poems can allow people to see into what is most meaningful and real in the world and in themselves.