“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

“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.


“The Passing” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was the hour of dawn,
When the heart beats thin and small,
The window glimmered grey,
Framed in a shadow wall.

And in the cold sad light
Of the early morningtide,
The dear dead girl came back
And stood by his bedside.

The girl he lost came back;
He saw her flowing hair;
It flickered and it waved
Like a breath in frosty air.

As in a steamy glass,
Her face was dim and blurred;
Her voice was sweet and thin,
Like the calling of a bird.

“You said that you would come,
You promised not to stay;
And I have waited here,
To help you on the way.

“I have waited on,
But still you bide below;
You said that you would come,
And oh, I want you so!

“For half my soul is here,
And half my soul is there,
When you are on the earth
And I am in the air.

“But on your dressing-stand
There lies a triple key;
Unlock the little gate
Which fences you from me.

“Just one little pang,
Just one throb of pain,
And then your weary head
Between my breasts again.”

In the dim unhomely light
Of the early morningtide,
He took the triple key
And he laid it by his side.

A pistol, silver chased,
An open hunting knife,
A phial of the drug
Which cures the ill of life.

He looked upon the three,
And sharply drew his breath:
“Now help me, oh my love,
For I fear this cold grey death.”

She bent her face above,
She kissed him and she smiled;
She soothed him as a mother
May soothe a frightened child.

“Just that little pang, love,
Just a throb of pain,
And then your weary head
Between my breasts again.”

He snatched the pistol up,
He pressed it to his ear;
But a sudden sound broke in,
And his skin was raw with fear.

He took the hunting knife,
He tried to raise the blade;
It glimmered cold and white,
And he was sore afraid.

He poured the potion out,
But it was thick and brown;
His throat was sealed against it,
And he could not drain it down.

He looked to her for help,
And when he looked – behold!
His love was there before him
As in the days of old.

He saw the drooping head,
He saw the gentle eyes;
He saw the same shy grace of hers
He had been wont to prize.

She pointed and she smiled,
And lo! he was aware
Of a half-lit bedroom chamber
And a silent figure there.

A silent figure lying
A-sprawl up on a bed,
With a silver-mounted pistol
Still clotted to his head.

And as he downward gazed,
Her voice came full and clear,
The homely tender voice
Which he had loved to hear:

“The key is very certain,
The door is sealed to none.
You did it, oh, my darling!
And you never knew it done.

“When the net was broken,
You thought you felt its mesh;
You carried to the spirit
The troubles of the flesh.

“And are you trembling still, dear?
Then let me take your hand;
And I will lead you outward
To a sweet and restful land.

“You know how once in London
I put my griefs on you;
But I can carry yours now –
Most sweet it is to do!

“Most sweet it is to do, love,
And very sweet to plan
How I, the helpless woman,
Can help the helpful man.

“But let me see you smiling
With the smile I know so well;
Forget the world of shadows,
And the empty broken shell.

“It is the worn-out garment
In which you tore a rent;
You tossed it down, and carelessly
Upon your way you went.

“It is not you, my sweetheart,
For you are here with me.
That frame was but the promise of
The thing that was to be –

“A tuning of the choir
Ere the harmonies begin;
And yet it is the image
Of the subtle thing within.

“There’s not a trick of body,
There’s not a trait of mind,
But you bring it over with you,
Ethereal, refined,

“But still the same; for surely
If we alter as we die,
You would be you no longer,
And I would not be I.

“I might be an angel,
But not the girl you knew;
You might be immaculate,
But that would not be you.

“And now I see you smiling,
So, darling, take my hand;
And I will lead you outward
To a sweet and pleasant land,

“Where thought is clear and nimble,
Where life is pure and fresh,
Where the soul comes back rejoicing
From the mud-bath of the flesh.

“But still that soul is human,
With human ways, and so
I love my love in spirit,
As I loved him long ago.”

So with hands together
And fingers twining tight,
The two dead lovers drifted
In the golden morning light.

But a grey-haired man was lying
Beneath them on a bed,
With a silver-mounted pistol
Still clotted to his head.


At first glance, this poem reads as an account of one man’s suicide driven by hallucinations of his dead past lover. The gothic genre, which is frequently associated with death, is one typically associated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is best known today for authoring the wildly successful detective stories of Sherlock Holmes. Yet the inspiration behind Doyle’s dark writing is something less well known about the writer; Doyle was a fervent believer in Spiritualism and the supernatural.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

His dedication to the study of supernatural phenomenon led him to serve as the President of the London Spiritualist Alliance and President of the British College of Psychic Science. He also published a book called The History of Spiritualism, which outlines the complete history of modern Spiritualism and describes specifics of the unexplained, such as the afterlife, spirits, ectoplasm, mediums, etc. It is his belief in the supernatural that reveals the deeper meaning of “The Passage.”

Doyle exhibits in his writing a fascination with the connection between the living and the dead. His book names the first modern medium to be Emanuel Swedenborg, whose description of his communications with the dead almost exactly match the one between the suicidal man and the spirit of his dead lover in this poem. Doyle writes of Swedenborg’s reports saying, “Death was made easy by the presence of celestial beings who helped the new-comer into his fresh existence,” (19) which aligns with the lover’s statements such as, “You said that you would come / You promised not to stay; / And I have waited here, / To help you on the way.” The lover, or spirit of the lover, encourages the man through his suicide; “She soothed him as a mother / May soothe a frightened child.”

The poem also deals with a spirit’s physical appearance after death. Doyle explains in his book, “We did not change in any way at death. Man lost nothing by death, but was still a man in all respects, though more perfect than when in the body,” (19) explaining the lover’s youthful appearance preserved in death just the way the man remembers her. In the poem, the man’s earthly body is described as “the worn-out garment / In which you tore a rent; / You tossed it down, and carelessly / Upon your way you went.” This correlates with the notion that the man is still a man, but more perfect than his physical body, “Ethereal, refined, / But still the same; for surely / If we alter as we die, / You would be you no longer, / And I would not be I.”

Just as appearance is preserved through death, so is love. Doyle quotes Swedenborg in his book as saying, “Two real loves are not separated by the death of one, since the spirit of the deceased dwells with the spirit of the survivor, and even to the death of the latter, when they meet again and are reunited, and love each other more tenderly than before,” (20) a statement that exactly matches the purpose of the poem. The lover states, “I love my love in spirit, / As I loved him long ago” just before the poem paints an image of the spirits of the two lovers ascending to the afterworld by saying, “So with hands together / And fingers twining tight, / The two dead lovers drifted / In the golden morning light.”

The poem is, without doubt, directly based off of Doyle’s obsession with the supernatural. Knowing about Doyle’s beliefs exposes a much deeper significance of “The Passage.”

posted by Camille Hunt

Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir. “Chapter 1.” The History of Spiritualism. Vol. 1. N.p.: Arno, n.d. 19-20.


“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.



robert frost      Robert Frost, one of America’s most well known poets, was born in San Francisco in 1874. He moved to New England ten years later, after his father’s death, and started his career as a poet early in his life – in fact, he graduated from Lawrence High School as “class poet” and was published shortly after. Frost, best known for his regional style, often writes about life in New England, drawing upon his adopted home as inspiration for his work. In this poem, however, he sidesteps his trademark regionalism in favor of a witty, restrained inquiry into the nature of the end of days.

In “Fire and Ice,” Frost sticks to a colloquial, iambic structure, but this poem is purposefully ambiguous, its rhyme scheme untraditional. I find this poem to be incredibly witty – smug, even – which is what first drew me to it, but it’s also fairly complicated; Frost says so much in so few lines, and it takes several readings to crack the surface of his purposefully cryptic language and form. Though he writes “Fire and Ice” in a vernacular way, with monosyllabic words far outnumbering more complicated ones, the brevity of the poem invites the reader to seek meaning from it. There’s certainly more than meets the eye.

Some scholars claim this poem was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, as “Fire and Ice” draws many interesting parallels to the work. It contains nine lines corresponding to Dante’s nine-leveled configuration of hell, and its rhyme scheme mimics the terza rima pattern Dante invented for his Divine Comedy as well. The form of the poem, which begins with the longest line and more or less works its way down to the shortest, resembles the funnel-shaped structure of Dante’s hell. Though we often associate hell with imagery of fire and heat, Dante turns our preconception on its head by sentencing the Inferno’s worst offenders to an eternity in a frozen wasteland.

However, professor and astronomer Harlow Shapley claims a conversation he had with Frost, who was writer-in-residence at Harvard at the time, was the inspiration for this poem. A year or two before the publication of “Fire and Ice,” Shapley claims Frost asked him, “Now, Professor Shapley. You know all about astronomy. Tell me, how is the world going to end?” Shapley gave his scientific opinion – that the world would be incinerated, or that a permanent ice age would work to wipe out all life – as his answer, and “Fire and Ice” serendipitously appeared a year or two later.

As with all famous works, though, the interpretations of “Fire and Ice” stretch far beyond the scope of these two anecdotes. I think Frost is saying else entirely, though still profound: fire and ice, two elements we commonly conceive as fundamental opposites, have equal powers of destruction – we should stay cautious, as they might not be so different after all.

“Fire and Ice” was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1920 and also appears in Frost’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1923 book New Hampshire.

To read more about the various interpretations of “Fire and Ice,” visit this link: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/fireice.htm

posted by Caroline Todd