Blackberry Picking: A Seamus Heaney Poem with Candor, Virtue, and Reality
"Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills We trekked and picked until the cans were full, Until the tinkling bottom had been covered With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. But when the bath was filled we found a fur, A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour. I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot. Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
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.
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