to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
How far does this statement apply to and sum up Seamus Heaney’s intentions in writing poetry? In part Seamus Heaney uses his poetry to explore himself but he also explores beyond himself. In his earlier work he mainly explores his childhood. However this develops in his later work, where he looks at his nationality and explores the concept of Irish identity. Heaney also explores darkness on varying levels from the literal to the metaphysical in terms of morality, as well as shining effulgence on the forgotten people. “Personal Helicon” marks a departure from his autobiographical earlier work, within the collection “Death of a Naturalist”, “Personal Helicon” shows this transition from exploring childhood, to exploring the world beyond himself, in terms of national history, and identity; though by extension implicitly understanding and exploring himself.
“We know who we are only when we know who we are not”.
The transition from childhood is markedly shown and emphasised in personal Helicon. The poems structure is composed of five stanzas; the first four stanzas are mostly composed of monosyllabic nouns with a simple lexicon, mimicking a child’s speech; the exception being, “Fructified”. Therefore in the first four stanzas it clearly explores Heaney as a child looking back in the past tense at his “raison d’etre”, he is preoccupied with the hedonistic, perhaps epitomizing Freud’s psychological principle with the, “will to pleasure”, or Adler’s “will to power”. As shown by the delight Heaney as a child gains from the onomatopoeia noise and power of throwing the bucket down the well,
“I savoured the rich crash when a bucket,
Plummeted down at the end of a rope”
Moreover other subtle means shown the primeval senses of the child are invoked using a childlike litany monosyllabic olfactory images coupled with assonance and alliteration making the prosody uniform, flirting with the readers senses, perhaps trying to invoke childhood memories.
“I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus, and dank moss”,
As well as the more explicit aural imagery, again with alliteration showing glee within the child.
“others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it”.
Likewise the discovery of the child seeing himself in the second stanza as a reflection in a shallow well becomes a voyage whereby he tries to understand himself, “A white face hovered over the bottom”, yet even when it is seen it is still not clear. The lack of reflection in the first stanza nonetheless brings joy at the overcoming the danger of looking into something so mysterious and unknown which potentially is fatal, but adventure defeats any sense of danger. But the reflection is on an abstract level as along with the echo a form of self creation.
The metaphor of reflection is corrupted in the last two stanzas, where the images turn more ambivalent and threatening to the persona, with a “foxglove1”, a flower of life and death. However the child’s image is finally corrupted by a rat that scurries across the reflection.
This inversion of the previously seductive dark, mystery Sisyphus quest for the reflection, a form of effulgence from within the dark heron becomes scares some. Perhaps it is inextricably linked to the loss of innocent self adventure and with it an apostasy of childlike innocence exploring the dark, in terms of the more literal level shown by images of “slime”.
The last stanza denotes the shift; in the present tense Heaney states that his raison d’ etre is paradoxically inspired not by self gratification and exploration, which he derides as “Narcissistic”, unifying the image of reflection by using mythology reinforcing the sense of shift from child to adult, but more importantly it is “beneath all adult dignity” to be so introspective; instead he will, “rhyme to see myself
to set the darkness echoing”....