Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Here is an analysis of Blackberry-Picking, a poem by Seamus Heaney. Heaney, a prolific poet from Northern Ireland, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetry in 1995. Heaney published his first book of poetry in the 1960s, and it was the start of a very productive and successful writing career.  In addition to his writing, Heaney was also an accomplished professor and speaker, often traveling the globe to give talks about life and literature. His poems often included glimpses into rural life, and Blackberry Picking is one of his finest examples of this. Heaney died in 2013.

 

Summary of Blackberry-Picking

In this poem, which you can read in full here, the speaker is recalling a recurring scene from his youth: each August, he would pick blackberries and relish in their sweet taste. The week would start with just one ripe blackberry, but soon, all of the other berries would be ripe for the picking. Blackberry picking was a fleeting activity, however; the fruits would only last about a week before they turned sour and died. Every year, the speaker confesses, he would hope that they would stay longer, even though he always knew that they would not.

 

Analysis of Blackberry-Picking

Depending on the edition, the poem is either one long stanza that contains twenty-four lines, or it can also be read in two stanzas, the first stanza containing sixteen lines and the second containing only eight. Heaney wrote the poem in iambic pentameter, which means each line contains five feet with two syllables each. The syllables are unstressed followed by a stressed one. Blackberry-Picking follows a set rhyme scheme of aa bb cc, etc. The speaker of the poem is taking a nostalgic look back at the summers of his childhood, when each August, depending on the weather, he and his friends or family members would spend one week picking blackberries and delighting in their beautiful colors and delicious taste.

The speaker wastes no time setting up the scene for the reader. Heaney writes,

Late August, given heavy rain and sun

For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.

From these first two lines, the reader can glean that Blackberry-Picking takes place in late summer, probably in the countryside, since blackberries do not normally grow in a city setting. The speaker also informs the reader that conditions had to be just so in order for this to happen. If the summer brought heavy rain and sun, the blackberries would ripen. The experience would not happen if the conditions were not just so. Additionally, the reader can also assume this event takes place in the past with the verb phrase “would ripen.” The passage of time has not tempered the images the speaker remembers, and the rest of the poem is full of beautiful pictures of the natural world. The speaker then informs the reader that the process started out slowly each year.

Heaney’s diction is also important to note. Instead of calling the blackberry a fruit or berry, he uses the metaphor of a clot, which not only discloses the color of the berry, but also the texture and feel of it. What does a clot do when pressure is applied? It bursts, much like the first blackberry of the season would. In lines five through seven, the speaker draws the reader into the memory. Heaney uses personification here. While summer does not actually have blood, the blackberry’s juice represents the vitality of the season. The speaker’s experience with eating the first blackberry of the season is almost sexual: it leaves him lusting for more.

Not long after the first ripened blackberry, the others would need picking, and it would send the speaker and his friends to pick as many as possible:

Then red ones inked up and that hunge

Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

The speaker and his friends would endure the scratches of briars and the discomfort of wet boots in order to make their way to the blackberry patches, but it did not bother them. They were not discerning when it came to the type of container they would take with them; so long as the containers could fit a fair share of blackberries, they would carry it with them. The speaker discloses that the blackberry patches are out of the way, and the task of picking could be laborious. Heaney uses a simile to describe how the blackberries looked in the speaker’s pails. He writes,

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.

Line fourteen also contains alliteration; Heaney repeats the letter b in neighboring words, emphasizing the image of the blackberries that looked like eyes in a bucket. Heaney was known for his use of literary devices, and this poem is no exception. The next line of Blackberry-Picking contains an allusion to one of the most famous and deadliest pirates in history: Bluebeard. Heaney extends the metaphor of summer’s blood into this line. After the speaker and his friends have picked the blackberries in the patch, they have the blood of the fruit on their hands, much like Bluebeard after one of his famous battles. This pirate image continues into the next line. The speaker says,

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

Just as a pirate would hoard his treasure, the speaker hoards his, too.

Lines eighteen through twenty-four juxtapose the first seventeen lines of the poem. The first half of the work is filled with life; however, the last section details the inevitable: the fruits cannot stay ripe forever. This change in tone is interpreted in one single word: but. After picking as many berries as possible, the berries would begin to rot and ferment. The speaker and his friends could not only see the fruit turn bad, they could also smell it: “The juice was stinking too.” Heaney ends the poem on a particular melancholy note. Nature is cyclical, as these final lines show. While the speaker always had hope that the berries would not go so quickly, he knew that every year would be the same as the previous.

 

Historical Background

Heaney filled his poetry with images of the natural world, and this poem is no exception. One can even assume that the speaker in this poem is Heaney, himself. The son of farmers, Heaney spent much of his time roaming the fields and pastures on his family’s land.

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  • Avatar Penelope Maclachlan says:

    Thank you. I’m glad I’m right about Bluebeard, wife killer.

  • Avatar Pearl says:

    The allusion made in the poem was not Bluebeard, not Blackbeard. Bluebeard was a wealthy man who commonly murdered his wives, thus “our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s” as a hint to the stickiness of blood. Furthermore to note, Bluebeard was based on a French knight named Gilles de Rais–who infamously kidnapped and tortured young boys.

    • Emma Baldwin Emma Baldwin says:

      You’re quite right! Thank you, Pearl.

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