Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon” uses odd images of various wells, surrounded by “dank moss”, “ferns”, and “slime” in order to express a paradoxical vision of poetic inspiration. Heaney does not go to the mountaintop in this poem, as poets have ever since the ancient Greeks; instead, he recounts his childhood fascination with “old pumps” and wells that are, really, the last places most people would expect a poet to go to find inspiration. Yet his images of overgrowth and “darkness echoing” are actually portals to self-discovery: Heaney makes the difficulties of self-knowledge, so manifold as to often defy understanding, vivid, redolent, even, “scaresome”. One never knows just what poetic reflection will rise up from the deep, dark wells of the self.
The speaker is drawn to these forgotten wells from the early days of his childhood. His images are rich with tactile metaphors and similes. “Old pumps with buckets and windlasses” are of particular interest for their “dark drop” and the “trapped sky” they hold within. As he “savoured the rich crash” when the bucket “plummeted down” the wells he explores, he might be called a connoisseur of abandoned wells of long ago. In other words, he is, from his childhood, a seeker of lost selves. This puller out of old roots that have sunk deep into the past can, it seems, with his shouting into darkened wells—that are ignored by “all adult dignity”—actually call forth “a clean new music” that becomes, in the drawing, poetry.