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Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry-Picking” was first published in the collection Death of a Naturalist in 1966. A seemingly simple childhood recollection of picking blackberries in August is depicted in the poem. The poem, which is written from an adult’s perspective, utilizes the experience of harvesting blackberries and seeing them decay as an extended metaphor for the difficult process of maturing and losing innocence.
About the poet
Seamus Heaney, a prolific Northern Irish poet, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for his poems. In the 1960s, Heaney released his first collection of poems, which marked the beginning of a very successful and prolific literary career. Heaney was an exceptional educator and speaker in addition to being a writer, frequently traveling the world to deliver lectures on literature and life. ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is one of his best poems, and it frequently depicts country life. Heaney died in 2013.
for Philip Hobsbaum 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.
The speaker talks about gathering blackberries in late August after lots of rain and sunshine had matured the fruit. The poem opens with the beginning of ripening blackberries, indicating the hope of a fruitful harvest. The speaker watches the blackberries, noting their different colors, including one that is a “glossy purple clot” among others that are red and green and as firm as knots.
The poem is set in late August, a season of ripeness and abundance. The tone of the poem switches to disillusionment when the speaker refers to the blackberries as a glossy purple clot, implying that some are ripe and ready to be harvested, but others are still unripe and too firm. The idea of disillusionment and decay that will be explored later in the poem is suggested by this contrast. The initial lines of the poem show the thrill of picking blackberries, but as the poem goes on, the tone changes to one of disappointment. As a metaphor for the brief nature of pleasure and the human desire for never-ending fulfillment, the stanzas explore how the berries immediately deteriorate after being harvested. Similar to blackberries, the pursuit of pleasure can result in disillusionment and deterioration.
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.
The speaker recounts the feeling of eating the first ripe blackberry, which felt sweet and rich like “thickened wine.” The juiciness and sweetness of the fruit capture the spirit of summer, leaving the speaker wanting to pick more. The speaker and others go out to harvest the blackberries as they transition from purple to red while carrying containers like milk cans, pea tins, and jam pots. But while picking the blackberries, they come across briars that itch and moist grass that stains their boots.
Sensual and vivid language is used to describe the first taste of a ripe blackberry, comparing the fruit’s flesh to “thickened wine” and “summer’s blood.” This description perfectly captures the flavor of the blackberry and the intensity of the summer season. The expression “lust for picking” refers to the desire to pick more blackberries after eating the first one. This desire encourages the speaker and others to collect more blackberries that are ripe using milk cans, pea tins, and jam pots as containers. Images of briars scratching and wet grass-whitening boots are used to describe the scene, highlighting the challenges and hardships associated with the activity. Thorns and wetness serve as a constant reminder of the limitations and challenges that come along with seeking pleasure and satisfaction. In conclusion, the poem uses vivid and sensory descriptions to express the essence of the blackberry-picking experience and deeper insights into human nature.
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.
The speaker and others continue their blackberry picking journey through numerous fields, including hayfields, cornfields, and potato drills. Blackberries are picked till the cans are full, and green berries are found in the bottom of the cans. The bigger, darker berries, or “big dark blobs,” stand out clearly from the smaller, greener berries. Picking blackberries, however, has a price because their hands are now covered in thorn pricks and their palms have turned sticky, resembling the hands of Bluebeard, a literary character known for his atrocities.
The word “trekked” implies dedication and effort as pickers navigate through fields looking for the tastiest blackberries. The word “until” being used repeatedly draws attention to how persistent and ongoing their picking activity was. The vivid imagery of blackberry cans and the description of ripe ones as “big dark blobs burned” give a feeling of plenty and richness. The word “burned” intensifies the illustration and creates a visual and sensory contrast between the unripe and ripe blackberries. The connection of sticky hands to Bluebeard, a dark and sinister character from folklore, serves multiple roles. The sticky palms may represent shame or the adverse effects of indulgence, implying that there are consequences to the pursuit of pleasure. The mention of thorn pricks on the pickers’ hands emphasizes the physical pain and sacrifices made throughout the picking process. These components contrast with the first pleasure of juicy blackberries and create reality.
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.
The speaker and others put the newly picked blackberries in the byre, planning to eat them later. When they return to the stored berries, they discover that a rat-grey fungus has infected their cache, eating and destroying the fruit. The juice from the formerly delicious and luscious berries has gone bad due to fermentation. The speaker’s emotional response is filled with sadness and a sense of loss as they grieve the missed chance to relish the blackberries and accept their inevitable decay.
From the initial joy of picking blackberries to the disappointment and realization of impermanence that follow, the poem changes its tone and mood. The idea that the berries are being “hoarded” conveys a desire to conserve and savor them, reflecting the desire of humans to hang on to enjoyable experiences. This intention is nevertheless disrupted by the finding of the rat-grey fungus and the smell of fermenting juice, emphasizing the fleeting nature of pleasure and abundance. A dramatic and ominous image of the rat-grey fungus “glutting on our cache” is painted, signifying deterioration, waste, and the invasion of undesired things. The contrast between the initial thrill of “hoarding” the fresh berries and the ultimate disappointment when they go bad illustrates the briefness of pleasure and the temporary nature of happiness. The line, “I always felt like crying,” which expresses the speaker’s emotional reaction, evokes a sense of melancholy and loss. Because of the bittersweet character of human experiences, the sadness of damaged blackberries is used as a metaphor for the disappointments and frustrations that life may offer. The lines, “It wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelled of rot” express the need for justice and the disappointment felt when expectations are not met. This feeling is prevalent in human experiences since people frequently struggle with life’s imperfections and unpredictability.