“Mount Helicon” by Seamus Heaney

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.
seamus-heaneySeamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” This poem “Personal Helicon” is the last poem in Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first published collection. Heaney was born in the countryside of Northern Ireland, and his rural upbringing had a profound impact on his writing. Images of Ireland and his childhood find their way into most of his work, and the wells he speaks of in this poem are no exception.

Helicon is the mountain believed to be home to the nine muses in Greek mythology. IMG_3214On this beautiful mountain, there existed two springs meant to give the poetic gift to any who drank from them. However, Heaney does not need to travel to Greece, nor into the ancient past to feel inspired. This poem makes a metaphor out of Heaney’s childhood wells, and gives the reader insight into his creative process.

Heaney first speaks of a well, “in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.” This well seemed bottomless, his bucket ricocheting off the well walls, into water, “so deep you saw no reflection in it.” The next well he describes is shallow, serving as a mirror so that his, “white face hovered over the bottom.” While the first only gave him darkness, the second well gave him back his reflection. In his youth, his reflection seems to be nearly as important to him as it was to Narcissus who allegedly fell in love with his own reflection on Mount Helicon.

Yet now Heaney may feel past the time to dwell on such things. In the fourth stanza, he describes another well that, “gave back your own call / with a clean new music in it.” If the first well is deep, going into the darkness, and the second well is a reflection of himself, I find this well to be a combination of the two, the reverberation of his soul in words.

This last well encapsulates what Heaney wants in his poetry, “I rhyme / to see myself, to set darkness echoing,” he says. The darkness found in the first well is a thought not yet expressed into words, and combined with self-reflection, Heaney finds his poetic inspiration. The wells of his childhood, some of them traditionally holy wells dedicated to saints, are his Mt. Helicon, a place where poetry can prosper.

Heaney, Seamus. “Personal Helicon.” Open Ground. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998. 14. Print.

To read more of Mr. Heaney’s work, visit: http://www.amazon.com/Seamus-Heaney/e/B000APGCXE


posted by Rachel Baker

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


“Spring” by William Shakespeare

When daisies pied and violets blue
   And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
   Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
   And merry larks are plowmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
   And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
William Shakespeare, 1564-1616
William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

Today marks the start of National Poetry Month, four weeks dedicated to the celebration of poetry throughout the years. William Shakespeare’s exact birthdate is unknown, but we do have enough historical evidence on record to know that he was born in April. So, this week’s selection for Poem of the Week–“Spring,” by the Bard–serves as a small gesture to celebrate the birth of one of the most famous poets and playwrights of all time.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and began his professional life in the theater in 1594 as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men players company. Over the course of his career, he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Although there have been several conspiracy theories since his death that question the authorship of his works, it is widely believed that Shakespeare is the legitimate author of each play and poem that is credited him.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The poem “Spring” is actually a song, sung in the final scene of Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost. In the poem, we see several stylistic choices that are used very frequently throughout Shakespeare’s work. The first is the rhyming couplet. Shakespeare is known to use this device in many of his sonnets. As we can see in this poem/song, he repeats two separate rhyming couplets in each of the poem’s stanzas. This first couplet is: “The cuckoo then, on every tree / Mocks married men; for thus sings he.” The second is: “Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear / Unpleasing to a married ear!”

From these couplets we can also note the humorous play-on-words that Shakespeare is using. Shakespeare is known for his wicked sense of humor, which can be seen in many of his comedies. In this poem, he plays on the sound that the cuckoo bird makes:

“…Cuckoo, cuckoo: Oh word of fear / Unpleasing to a married ear!”

Shakespeare is insinuating that this bird’s call sounds like the word “cuckold,” actually derived from the cuckoo bird, because female cuckoo birds have a habit of laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. A “cuckold” is a medieval term used to describe a  husband whose wife has been unfaithful to him. It is a derogatory term, because it refers to a man who is usually unaware that he’s married to an adulterous.  Thus this little song weds the conventional season of new birth and relief from winter with domestic dread.  When nature emerges from its shelters and protective restraints, it brings the threat of unbounded passions.  Perhaps Eliot echoed this aspect of spring when he wrote that “April is the cruelest month.”  Of such tangled possibilities and ambiguities is the most memorable poetry conjured and constructed.

To read more of Shakespeare’s poetry and sonnets (including “Spring”), visit PoetryFoundation.org.


posted by Meaghan Latella

“Dew” by Michael Johnson

Kindles in the cool grass,
and the night builds hoarfrost
like small cities of glass.

Dawn will spill across
these scattered
shadows leaves of light.

A hummingbird
will sip a bluebell flute
of dew and go on burning.

Grass blade, feather blur,
light, everything —
we are all a kind of fire.


SONY DSCMichael Johnson is currently living in Okanagon Falls, Ontario. His work has appeared in the Fiddlehead, Queen’s Quarterly, Weber Studies, The Best American Poetry and The Best Canadian Poetry anthologies. He is from Bella Coola, British Columbia and currently works as a wine consultant at a vineyard in Ontario.

“I…a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.” This quote was originally spoken by 20th century theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman. Though this quote covers a much broader scope (the entire universe) than Michael Johnson does in “Dew,” the ideas behind both the quote and the poem are similar. “Dew” is about finding meaning and information from the world around us. Something as small as a dewdrop on a blade of grass can contain an entire metaphorical “city of glass.” Johnson is looking at how we can extract magic and power from small details in life, just as the hummingbird is extracting sustenance from its “bluebell flute.” Each detail of nature and life in “Dew” reminds us that we are all an insignificant component of an intense, massive story; it also shows us that there is an intense, massive story happening within us at any given moment. This message is both profoundly humbling and encouraging. We are not the center of the story of life, but he drives home the major takeaway in the last line: “we are all a kind of fire.” It is our job to bring that fire to life and use it.

Johnson supplements the deeper subplot here with a lighter sensory theme: lovely, breezy weather on a spring morning. We can all remember the way glass cities of dew look when they rest on a freshly cut lawn or in a wild meadow outside the city limits. We know the sunrise he describes in the second stanza: the one that slowly and gradually envelopes the skyline, and seems to suck away each lingering shadow one by one. The image of the dignified hummingbird “sipping” on dew like champagne out of a vibrant flower conjures ideas of the “springtime elite,” members of nature who rules the time of the year when the weather is finally bearable again. And the last stanza walks us through opposing ideals that begin to live in harmony again when winter thaws: sharp blades of grass provide a contrast to soft “feather blurs,” and dew is foiled by the light and fire that exists in all of us.

12801532_849411111351_1432895161291845961_nThis poem, if nothing else, has encouraged me to simply get out more. I often take for granted the beauty and freshness of the nature surrounding me here in Rockbridge County. Additionally, in the age of Instagram and iPhone editing apps, I definitely fall into the trap of only being impressed by a large, grandiose display by nature. Only the brightest, most magnificent scenes catch any attention: sunsets, wildflowers, waterfalls. But Michael Johnson has reminded me of a crucial detail I often forget: something as small as a dewdrop can contain a city’s worth of beauty.


To read more from Michael Johnson, you can read his piece about poetry itself in The Best Canadian Poetry here: http://www.bestcanadianpoetry.com/2011/03/what-is-poetry.html

Featured image retrieved from http://winteryknight.com/tag/hummingbird/

Posted by Mansie Hough

“First Poem for You” by Kim Addonzio

I like to touch your tattoos in complete

darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of

where they are, know by heart the neat

lines of lightning pulsing just above

your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue

swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent

twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you


to me, taking you until we’re spent

and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss

the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until

you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists

or turns to pain between us, they will still

be there. Such permanence is terrifying.

So I touch them in the dark; but touch them, trying.



Kim-AddonizioKim Addonzio was born in 1954 to a champion tennis player. She has won numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. In this poem, Addonizio blends an old and trusted form, the sonnet, with newer variations through the use of meter, imagery, and line breaks. Love, the age-old theme, also gets a new twist: it is that feeds the main theme of the poem: permanence. This theme also reflects Addonizio’s use of the sonnet form: although she changes the sonnet structure, she keeps its relevance intact.

The theme of love in the role of intimacy and desire plays a large role in this poem, and has been the subjects of sonnets for hundreds of years. However, where older sonnets have focused on yearning or praise for the beloved, Addonizio’s focuses on the permanence of love and intimacy after the relationship’s initiation. The speaker introduces the motif of her lover’s tattoos, “I like to touch your tattoos in complete / darkness, when I can’t see them” (ll 1-2). These lines present two polarized ideas. Tattoos are symbols of permanence: once inked on the body, they cannot fade away. They will last through “whatever persists / or turns to pain between us.” The speaker’s active seeking of the tattoos demonstrates her attraction to this idea, but the physical darkness mirrors the conflict and fear in her own mind.

1308196393_water_dragon_by_o_eternal_o-d3g1cscThe stanza break in the middle of the poem also demonstrates the poet’s conflict over permanence. The effect occurs with her desire for intimacy: “when I pull you // to me, taking you until we’re spent” (ll 7-8). The speaker’s need for full union contrasts with the sonnet split. The subtle rebellion in dividing the sonnet into 7 and 7 lines rather than the accepted Petrarchan 8 and 6 also shows the poet’s determination not to stick to what has remained constant, but to seek out her own voice in the confines of an old form. Furthermore, it demonstrates her own uncertainty within her relationship despite her deep intimacy.

The poem’s diction also reverses the sonnet’s formal expectations. It sets up a conversational tone with informal words such as “like” and “can’t.” While attempting this may seem counterintuitive to a tight form such as the sonnet, the effect actually makes the form feel more fluid and deceptive. The diction also develops the poem’s central theme. Consonance such as “know” and “neat,” “above” and “nipple” helps weave the sonnet together. However, sibilance highlights the volta: “they’ll last until / you’re seared to ashes” (ll 10). This volta demonstrates the crux of  the motif and overtly states the theme. Like the tattoos on her lover’s skin, the sonnet form remains permanent: time has not yet rendered it irrelevant.

Kim Addonzio’s poem can be found on the Poetry Foundation Website, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176985. For more information on her life, follow this link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/kim-addonizio

Posted by Claire Sbardella

“The Municipal Gallery Revisited” by W. B. Yeats

AROUND me the images of thirty years: An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side; Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars, Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride; Kevin O’Higgins’ countenance that wears A gentle questioning look that cannot hide A soul incapable of remorse or rest; A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;

An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand Blessing the Tricolour. ‘This is not,’ I say, ‘The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’ Before a woman’s portrait suddenly I stand, Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way. I met her all but fifty years ago For twenty minutes in some studio.

Heart-smitten with emotion I Sink down, My heart recovering with covered eyes; Wherever I had looked I had looked upon My permanent or impermanent images: Augusta Gregory’s son; her sister’s son, Hugh Lane, ‘onlie begetter’ of all these; Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale As though some ballad-singer had sung it all;

Mancini’s portrait of Augusta Gregory, ‘Greatest since Rembrandt,’ according to John Synge; A great ebullient portrait certainly; But where is the brush that could show anything Of all that pride and that humility? And I am in despair that time may bring Approved patterns of women or of men But not that selfsame excellence again.

My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend, But in that woman, in that household where Honour had lived so long, all lacking found. Childless I thought, ‘My children may find here Deep-rooted things,’ but never foresaw its end, And now that end has come I have not wept; No fox can foul the lair the badger swept —

(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue). John Synge, I and Augusta Gregory, thought All that we did, all that we said or sang Must come from contact with the soil, from that Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong. We three alone in modern times had brought Everything down to that sole test again, Dream of the noble and the beggar-man. VII And here’s John Synge himself, that rooted man, ‘Forgetting human words,’ a grave deep face. You that would judge me, do not judge alone This book or that, come to this hallowed place Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon; Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace; Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was I had such friends.


W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. In literary and academic circles his reputation precedes him so I’ll keep the introductory formalities brief. Although he won many awards throughout his long and illustrious career, his most prestigious recognition came in 1923 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in the Literature. He was the first Irishman to be honored. The committee praised his work as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”
With Saint Patrick’s Day on the horizon, it’s fitting that we remember the contributions of the Emerald Isle’s foremost poet. In the particular poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” the narrator recalls a visit to the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, at the time known as the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, where he remarks on the faces and legacies painted on the walls. While the particular figures to whom this eulogy is addressed have their own important place in Irish history that may be too long, too nuanced, too political, or too important to condense and tell here, the sentiment towards the end of the ballad resonates most.

The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (formerly known as the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art)
The Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (formerly known as the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art)

When I think of this poem, I’m reminded of an old friend, who recently sent me the final lines of this poem in a message—

Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,And say my glory was I had such friends.

As Yeats revisits old friends and old memories, he is “heart-smitten with emotion.” And, although I can’t say with certainty what inspired the sentimental message from my, it struck me with a wave of nostalgia and coincidental gratitude—smitten. I cannot divine Yeats intentions in writing these final lines, but I can relate them to personal experience—it can be rewarding to revisit in memories old friends from our own lives and in visiting, be thankful.

posted by Nolan Doyle

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.