On Personal Helicon: Heaney.

Personal Helicon

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

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.

A shallow one under a dry-stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

This short poem concludes the anthology Death of a Naturalist and in doing so draws together many of the ideas explored though the poems in the collection. In it Heaney, who began the set with Digging, an exploration of his decision to seek an alternative path to his male forebears, yet one equally exacting in the need to delve ‘down and down/for the good Turf’, states his vision of his vocation. Called by the Muses to Helicon, we read that Heaney travels not upward toward Heaven, but rather downward into the earth, as his father, grandfather and Great-uncle (Ancestral Photograph) have done before him. As we are used to reading in this collection he travels from a time of innocent wonder as a child, by means of a clear Volta, to a recognition of the reality of life seen from an adult viewpoint.

The poem comprises 5 quatrains with lines which circle around 10 syllables suggesting a pentameter trying to assert order on the memory. This is not clearly an iambic poem, there are far too many variants of metrical foot which help to accentuate key ideas and to lend the poem and unforced naturalism in voice. However, at the end the iambic tread seems to impel the reader to the close, yet even here the extra syllable of ‘echoING’ seems to suggest that the search goes on, much as the echo resonates through the ‘darkness’.

The poem opens with the juxtapositioning of the ‘child’ against an unnamed force: ‘they’. Presumably this is the adult world from which he excluded and is seen in numerous poems and explored in Mid Term Break through the sinister ‘whispers’ which ‘informed’ on him and kept him removed from such society. In this poem, ‘they’ are no doubt anxious for his safety, ye this inner drive to explore his roots and all which lies beneath the surface in life is too strong. He recalls poems like ‘Early Purges’ in referencing the ‘old pumps’, the scene of the kitten-murder which provides one of the many steps on his journey through life, before focusing on the wells themselves. It is unclear whether his love is based on imagination or experience at this stage, yet the images are clear – darkness and a curiously morbid fascination with nature: the sky is ‘trapped’ and the joy comes not from flowers but from ‘waterweed, fungus and dank moss’. Presumably this is before the same ‘rat grey fungus’ which attacked his blackberries, and the ‘dank’ world recalls his experience around the ‘flax-dam’ of the title poem. Heaney, even as a young boy, seems to have a very experienced outlook, not tricked by a veneer of beauty into believing that all things really are bright and beautiful. His fascination seems to see under the surface and to recognise the same faults which inhabit us all -the original sins if you like. The poem will establish the recognition that as a child we might obsess on our desires, but the adult needs to remain aloof and to dig deep to see more clearly.

Heaney takes the reader to some of the objects of his fascination in stanzas 2-4 and we see, within unromantic settings how is fascination grows. He is drawn by sound, almost synaesthetically ‘savouring’ the ‘rich crash’ of the bucket vanishing into the darkness yet takes equal pleasure in a ‘shallow one’ stuffed with foliage. He uses the verb ‘fructified’ to suggest over abundant growth and also to pick up the sense of fruitfulness explored in ‘Blackberry Picking’ – in that poem he sees his sin of greed awaken a recognition of the pain of loss of innocence, in this one, having removed the ‘long roots’ (everything seems to dig deeper in his world of ‘digging’) he is rewarded with a ‘white face’ which ‘hovered’ over the bottom of the well – maybe the sky or maybe his own. Helicon is the mountain in Greek Myth on which Narcissus fell in live with his own reflection, ever to be sought after his drowning by Echo calling from the crags. Heaney suggests the myth throughout the poem, starting the next stanza with a reminder of echoes, to conclude with the recognition that the young innocent is ‘big-eyed Narcissus’ – indulging in self-love rather than exploring the realms of reality.

In other wells he receives a ‘clean new music’ in the echo, as though his calls – his searches – were purified by his visions and also receives the sort of frights which mark the epiphanic moments of recognition in poems such as Advancement of Learning or Death of a Naturalist. The ‘rat’ which ‘slapped’ across his reflection, embodying in the internal assonance is part of a new world – one in which poisonous foxgloves hide their danger beneath pretty flowers. The verb is as sharp as a physical awakening   -he is jolted from his complacent reverie.

Foregrounding the Volta with ‘now’, the final stanza brings the reader to the present; the adult Heaney reflecting on his philosophy. He is aware of the vanity of youth and acknowledges that he is old enough to know better – the idea of such self-absorption being beneath adult dignity does, however, still suggest a slightly tongue in cheek response to the dilemma. The final sentence disposes of this pomposity and bares the truth: He is a poet in order to expose himself to scrutiny and to explore the ‘darkness’ – his true soul and the darkness of the heritage whence he comes.

This darkness is more of mystery and secrecy than carrying overtones of evil -yet in Heaney’s world such contradiction is common. He seeks to dig and to probe the earth rather than to climb heavenwards and clearly feels himself as fully aware of the idea of sin which attaches itself to the experienced once removed from the innocent world of childhood. The poems in this collection echo in the darkness as they try to summon the spirit of Heaney’s youth as a means to discover the truth of his adulthood.