A critical reading of a classic Heaney poem
Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is one of the great twentieth-century poems about disappointment, or, more specifically, about that moment in our youth when we realise that things will never live up to our high expectations. Heaney uses the specific act of picking blackberries to explore this theme. You can read ‘Blackberry-Picking’ here; below we offer a brief analysis of Heaney’s poem in terms of its language, meaning, and principal themes.
In summary, ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is divided into two stanzas: the first focuses on the picking of the blackberries and the speaker’s memories of the experience of picking them, eating them, and taking them home. The second stanza then reflects on what happened once the blackberries had been hoarded in a bath placed in a ‘byre’ or shed. The speaker recalls the sense of disappointment he and his fellow blackberry-pickers felt when they discovered that the berries had fermented and a fungus was growing on the fruit. He says that this made him sad, and he came to realise that this would always happen: soon after the berries had been picked, they would go rotten.
But of course ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is not just about the literal experience of picking blackberries. The poem appeared in Seamus Heaney’s first volume of poems, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966, when Heaney was in his mid-twenties. The main theme of many of the poems in this volume is growing up. Growing up is about reconciling ourselves, with our hopes and expectations, to the realities of the world, and ‘Blackberry-Picking’ addresses this theme. It’s a rite of passage that we all go through, though it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when disillusionment begins to cloud our clear and sunny skies of hope. The clichéd example is when we discover there’s no Santa Claus, but in ‘Blackberry-Picking’ the speaker’s realisation does not come all of a sudden: note how in the poem’s second stanza he says he ‘always felt like crying’ when he discovered the mould among the rotting blackberries, and how ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep’. The speaker kept alive the spirit of optimism even in the face of life’s bitter realities.
But ‘Blackberry-Picking’ suggests that youth’s hopeful optimism is about ‘tasting’ life more generally, just as the speaker literally tastes the blackberries. Note that when he does, he describes the ‘flesh’ of the blackberries and how ‘sweet’ it was. Of course, fruit does have ‘flesh’ and blackberries are sweet, but the word, especially given the speaker’s talk of ‘lust’ in the next line, also calls to mind a sexual awakening. Tasting the blackberries – juicy, voluptuous, sweet – is a sensual experience, much like our first kiss or our first sexual experience. After that first thrill, there is no other.
One of the masterly things about ‘Blackberry-Picking’ as a poem, in fact, is the way in which Heaney hints at the deeper significance of the act without, as it were, laying it on with a trowel. Late August – the last gasps of summer before autumn and that ‘back to school’ feeling returns at the end of the summer holidays – is an apt time to begin experiencing a sense of disillusionment with life, but it is a fact that this is when blackberries are ripe to be picked. Similarly, the fruit-picking calls to mind the biblical story from the Book of Genesis, that loss of paradise brought on when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree: they gained worldly knowledge, but in doing so lost their innocence. But Heaney doesn’t choose to overstress this, any more than the fact that the berries – placed in a bath in a shed – are associated with the infant Jesus lying in his manger in the stable, that setting of a million nativity plays (and Jesus’ time on earth, of course, culminated in his self-sacrifice that was made necessary by Adam and Eve’s fruity temptation and subsequent Fall). These things are roughly at the back of our minds when we read Heaney’s poem, perhaps, but he does not insist that we understand or analyse ‘Blackberry-Picking’ in terms of such possible biblical resonances. The only explicit comparison made with other literature is to the notorious figure from French folk tales, Bluebeard, who had a habit of murdering his wives; the sticky deep red juice of the blackberries on the speaker’s hands is like the blood on Bluebeard’s hands. (There might even be a faint recollection of Angus’ description of another murderer, Macbeth: ‘Now does he feel / His secret murders sticking on his hands’.) Life and death, sex and murder, procreation and destruction, are thus bound up in Heaney’s description of the blackberry-picking.
The disillusionment is also subtly conveyed through Heaney’s use of rhyming couplets – or rather, couplets that don’t quite rhyme. Most of them are instead off-rhymes or pararhymes at best: sun/ripen, sweet/it, byre/fur, cache/bush, and so on. As in Wilfred Owen’s war poems, the pararhyme suggests that something is not quite right, and rhyme seems too neat and glib a way of rendering such an unsettling and disillusioning experience. With one exception (clots/knots early on in the poem), we have to wait until the final couplet until we get a full rhyme: rot/not. And this is because by now the speaker has come to terms with his disillusionment and can face it squarely in the face, especially now he’s a bit older.
‘Blackberry-Picking’ helped to make Seamus Heaney a success almost overnight, along with the other poems in his first volume. We hope this analysis has offered some suggestion of why it is such a triumph of a poem, such a satisfying portrayal of disappointment.
For more of Heaney’s classic early poetry, see our discussion of ‘Digging’ here. For more meaningful poetry about fruit, see our analysis of Blake’s poem about resentment and anger, ‘A Poison Tree’. We’ve also offered some advice for writing better English Literature essays here.
Image: Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson. Painted in 2013. Via Frankenthalerj on Wikimedia Commons.
In Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,” the rhythmic, memorable experience of picking blackberries is recounted in a way which illumines not only the importance of a childhood memory, but also a certain reckoning with reality that one acquires through growing older. The title “Blackberry Picking” is deceptively simple—it suggests a mere retelling of a childhood memory picking blackberries. And throughout the first and longer stanza, just such information is given. But in the shorter closing stanza, Heaney reflects on the experience from the perspective of adulthood. Here he reveals the poem’s overarching theme: our hope to retain all which we hold dear in life against the natural, inevitable reality of loss and change.
The opening line places the setting in “late August,” the time of harvest but also a time in which we have our own strong memories of falling in love, family vacations, swimming with friends, and starting school. Heaney’s memory is here too—for a “full week” given “heavy rain and sun” when the blackberries would ripen. The colorful diction describing the blackberries lights up the rural landscape of his early days: “glossy purple clot / Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.”
In line five, he employs the second person, “You ate that first one and its flesh…” which brings the blackberries as close to our mouths as to his, and the word flesh amalgamates the blackberry with his own being. The union between Heaney’s humanity and the blackberries is further supported by the next line where the berries become like “thickened wine,” the drink which humans have drunk for centuries in intimate settings of bonding and transformation—weddings and holy communion in church. Too, in the same line, the “summer’s blood” which is in the berries--suggests a mixing of Heaney’s blood with the blackberries and with summer. Do the berries now have his blood as the summer has them both?
Of course the berries leave “stains on his tongue” and a “lust for picking.” Blackberry picking is more than just a routine for Heaney, it involves the core passions of life, of childhood. The prepositional phrase “with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots” contains the rhythm of the berries hitting the pail. We hear the memory as well as he does. But nothing of value comes without hard work, the mini-theme of the next six lines: “where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.” After all, Heaney must introduce some pain here as a set-up for his thematic reflection of grave reality which encompasses the whole poem. “We trekked and picked” and “Our hands were peppered / With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s." Life can be a sticky mess—it isn’t easy, and it can be as ugly and downright immoral as Bluebeard.
The opening line of the second stanza, “We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre,” reveals the first of Heaney’s desperate attempts to hold on to what must inevitably change. The strong verb hoarded shows just how desperate he is to hold on—just how desperate all of us are. The berries are “fresh” going in—but that’s just it, the freshness cannot last, a frightening fact he was aware of subconsciously as a child, but only fully as an adult.
The transition word “but” in the next line signals the necessary alarm—can we not simply have a nice memory of picking blackberries as a child? Not here, where reality is the great leveler, a fundamental that Heaney is compelled to reveal. The “rat-grey fungus” shows up not long after they fill the byre “glutting” on his cache. And, he says, “the juice was stinking too,” the “fruit fermented,” and the “sweet flesh would turn sour." The repetition of the harshness of time, loss, and decomposition emphasizes just how intense this natural reality of the world is for Heaney. It is something to cry over. We cannot hold on, we cannot retain. Thus, he says, “I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair." I could not concur more—life isn’t fair. All the best we have passes and only death awaits—a fact which bring tears to our eyes, too.
He closes the poem by saying of the blackberries that each year he “hoped they’d keep, knew they would not." The painful theme of love and loss, life and death flashed before his eyes as a youth, but more intensely as an adult. But even with this, I feel there may be something more—a glimmer of light which rises, minimally but mystically, from the poem: Heaney’s poetic recounting of such an experience assuages him, even provides him a respite to deal with the implacability of time and death. By expressing his deepest concerns in this rich poem, he mixes the beauty of memory with the salve of writing, giving us a context for hope.