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.
‘Blackberry-Picking’ by Seamus Heaney is a beautiful poem about the speaker’s childhood and the times he spent picking blackberries.
In this poem, which you can read in full here, the speaker recalls 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.
You can read the full poem here.
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.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Heaney’s diction is also important to note. Instead of calling the blackberry 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.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
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 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.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
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.
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
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.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
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, but 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.
Throughout this piece, Heaney engages with themes of youth and nature. The poet brings these two themes together as he describes and emphasizes moments from his youth. He recalls what it was like when the blackberries would ripen, and he’d spend time outside picking them. There is a great deal of nostalgia in this poem for lost youth. It also alludes to the unstoppable progression of time. The blackberries can’t stay forever, just as one’s youth will always end.
Structure and Form
Depending on the edition, ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is either in one long stanza that contains twenty-four lines or in two stanzas. When structured in stanzas, the first stanza contains sixteen lines, and the second contains only eight, making it an octave. 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.
Throughout ‘Blackberry-Picking’, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “blobs burned” and “first” and “flesh.”
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger” and “I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines three and four.
Seamus 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.
The tone is contemplative and nostalgic. The speaker is spending time reminiscing on memories that mean a great deal to him and readers will likely find themselves connecting to his powerful experiences.
The purpose is to explore the powerful memories of childhood, especially as they relate to nature and change. Although the poet is engaged with specific experiences, he’s alluding to something broader and far more universal–the progression of time and the inevitability of change.
The meaning is that youth and joy are fleeting. The poet uses the image of himself picking blackberries as a way of alluding to this fact. He feels nostalgic for the past but is also well aware that there is no way to return to it.
There are a few similes in ‘Blackberry-Picking.’ These include comparisons like “flesh was sweet / Like thickened wine,” “dark blobs burned / Like a plate of eyes,” and “our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.”
Readers who enjoyed ‘Blackberry-Picking’ should also consider reading some other Seamus Heaney poems. For example:
- ‘The Other Side‘ – is a depiction of the sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics in the 70s by looking back to the poet’s youth.
- ‘Out of the Bag‘ – a complex, touching poem that speaks on the pains and joys of birth, life, sickness, and death.
- ‘Exposure‘ – discusses the poet’s role in a society that is tearing itself apart and how he might contribute helpfully to the discourse of the time.