The activity described in the poem is very familiar to most people. It is a childhood memory of picking blackberries. Heaney moves from a description of the activity to a reflection upon the manner in which the reality of disappointment is something that has to be dealt with as we grow up. Heaney addresses the transience of beauty and the manner in which our relationship with the world becomes less naïve and more complicated as we mature.
There is a recurrence of blood imagery in the poem and this operates in a symbolically complex manner. On the one hand, blood is obviously associated with the life force. The first ripe blackberry is described as “a glossy purple clot”. Heaney concentrates upon the sensual experience of eating new fruit, employing a simile to capture the taste of the berry’s “flesh” that “was sweet / Like thickened wine” (lines 5-6). Heaney’s use of the second person (“You ate that first one”) invites the reader to identify with the experience described which also has the effect of leaving that reader implicated in some sense, too. Certainly, there is a movement from simple enthusiasm to something of rapaciousness. The idea that “summer’s blood” was in the flesh of this first blackberry of the season is immediately followed by the reporting of the effects of picking it. The pickers’ tongues have “stains” (line 7) upon them, and we are immediately reminded of bloodstains. The word “lust” in the same line clearly conveys the manner in which those engaged in picking the blackberries are somehow possessed by a desire to strip the entire bush. Heaney is exploring both childish enthusiasm and the awakening eroticism in what appears to be a pre-adolescent persona. Once the hunt is on, “lust” is “replaced by “hunger” and the people depicted in the poem, presumably a group of siblings, set out to gather fruit. The sense that any container that came to hand was quickly taken form the family kitchen by the enthusiastic group is convincingly captured as we are told that “milk-cans, pea-tins and jam-pits” are taken out on the expedition through the “briar2” and “wet grass” that “bleached” the pickers’ boots. This is all finely observed detail. We are easily able to identify with the rushed grabbing of a container once we have it our minds to go in search of blackberries, just as we have seen the white tide mark that water from wet grass leaves on leather boots. There is a perfectly iambic rhythm in line 10 that sets u a curious tension between the agreeableness of the task in hand and the difficulty that has to be overcome in order to achieve it. There is physical pain and endurance required of the blackberry picker; the bush does not yield up its fruit without scarifying those who have “lust for / Picking…” (lines 7-8).
As is the case in several of Heaney’s poems focussing upon childhood, a dual perspective emerges in that we are given simultaneous insights into the adult and child in the personae presented. In common with ‘Death of a Naturalist’, this poem reflects upon the transience of innocence and the realities of bitter experience. There is a clear debt to William Wordsworth’s famous poem. ‘The Prelude’ in which there is a sense of retributive justice meted out by nature for crimes the guilty child believes her has committed. In Wordsworth’s case, he recalls being aware of “low breathings” following him after stealing a boat and these were, he records, “a trouble to my dreams”.
The poem, in common with ‘Death of a Naturalist’ has a bipartite structure. The first verse paragraph is largely descriptive of what seems to be a carefree experience but there is a subtle build up towards a sense of guilt that is associated with both sexuality and murder. Heaney describes “palms as sticky as Bluebeard’s, an infamous pirate in a story who killed several of his wives. The blackberries “burned / Like a plate of eyes” indicating that the speaker felt guilty about the “cache” (line 19) of berries. There is, too, a sense of initiation. The second verse paragraph explores the implications and results of picking the berries: what was once sweet turns sour. In some measure, this is a straightforward reflection upon the transition from innocence to experience but there is also a rather disturbing sense that nature is not uncomplicated, it exacts a kind of nemesis. This is certainly explicit in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ where the child “knew” that if he dipped his hand that “the spawn would clutch it”. The “rat-grey fungus that grows on the berries as they ferment in the byre is sinister and associated with fear. The fact that Heaney present is “glutting on our cache” presents a resentful response that is developed in the foot stamping outburst in the second verse paragraph where the growing child erupts with, “I felt it wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.” (lines 22-3). The “fresh berries” have turned from “sweet” to “sour”. It is a truism that life is not all sweet but it is one that we all have to learn as individuals. The earlier promise of “thickened wine” becomes “stinking juice”, and that which was once so attractive becomes repellent, as the reality of the situation has to be dealt with.
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.