Meaning Blackberry Picking Analysis Essay

Blackberry Picking – A Seemingly Unimportant Event

In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry Picking” he vividly recreates a seemingly unimportant event in which he goes blackberry picking. However by the end of the poem this experience acquires increased significance. Throughout Heaney’s description of this event we are made aware of the theme, Heaney’s childish hopes and dreams in contrast to the harsh realities of life. This theme is effectively conveyed through the mood of excitement and anticipation in the first stanza while picking the berries which transforms into an atmosphere of disappointment and regret in the second stanza as the children’s berries have rotted. Heaney is able to develop this supposed insignificant event using techniques such as word-choice, sentence structure, imagery, contrast and tone.

In the first stanza Heaney conveys picking berries as an unimportant summer experience. The blackberries represent the life and excitement that summer is:“summer’s blood was in it” This interesting use of imagery suggests that the berries somehow come alive because of the life and excitement of the summer months. This metaphor also gives connotations of the fertility and birth of the berries which shows the excitement of the children when these new berries arrive. However, Heaney immediately sets the scene, “late August...” which shows that the blackberries are an annual thing which conveys that they aren’t that important as they grow each year. The reader can understand the mood of excitement at this point which gives us a clearer understanding of the poems theme, Heaney’s childish hopes and dreams in contrast to the harsh realities of life which are recognized later in the poem yet we are aware at this point that blackberry picking is not a major event.

This seemingly unimportant event encourages the children’s excitement. After tasting the berries a hunger for more grows inside Heaney and his friend’s which creates a “lust for picking”. The word-choice of “lust” gives connotations of the children’s uncontrollable desire to pick as many berries as they possibly could. Whilst simultaneously conveying the children’s desperation and eagerness to satisfy their taste buds. It is clear that the children’s hunger for berries conveys the mood of anticipation. However, the blackberries came with their disadvantages as they were “Leaving stains”. This image represents a sign of sin as if the berries are forbidden fruit but the children have such a craving for them they cannot resist the berries. Also this negative use of word-choice suggests that disappointment is yet to come. Heaney’s interesting development of his experience gives the reader a clear understanding of his childish hopes and dreams.

The children’s lack of organisation suggests that picking the berries is less important to them. In the rush to get out and pick the berries various containers are used:“... milk cans, pea tins, jam pots...” Heaney’s use of sentence structure conveys the disorganisation and hurry of the children to go and pick the blackberries. This list also suggests a childish nature as the children are not properly prepared for the arrival of the berries. This technique also suggests that many different containers were used to collect the berries. The reader can understand how picking the berries seem insignificant at this point as the children are not ready for the arrival of the berries.

However, in the second stanza disappointment overcomes the children causing Heaney’s experience to become more significant. After a while the blackberries begin to rot: “we found a fur, a rat grey fungus, glutting on our cache” The word-choice of “fur” and “fungus” gives connotations of disease and vermin. This also contrasts to the “glossy purple” berries collected in the first stanza which effectively conveys the theme of childish hopes in contrast to the harsh realities of life. At this point disappointment has set in among the children making this experience more important to Heaney. Looking back now Heaney may see this as a life lesson, learning as a child that things don’t always work out the way you want them too. At this key point in Heaney’s experience the mood of regret helps us to understand the theme when the harsh realities of life affect Heaney’s childhood memories.

Towards the end of the poem we are made aware of how significant this memory is to Heaney. Heaney conveys an emotional reaction when the berries rot:“I always felt like crying” Heaney’s tone at this point sums up the importance of the blackberries as their new appearance affects Heaney emotionally. The word-choice of “always” suggests that this great excitement followed by disappointment is an annual thing for Heaney and his friends. Heaney develops his experience in such a way that the reader is able to identify the mood of disappointment leading to a better understanding of the theme, when Heaney realises that the reality of life can be cruel.

In the final line of the poem Heaney’s character conveys the significance of his childhood experience picking blackberries. He introduces an air of naivety along with a sense or maturity: “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” Heaney uses a paradox here to highlight his sense of naivety as he continuously hopes for a miracle to make the berries last each year. However, he also conveys a level of maturity as he knows that the berries won’t keep. At this point in the poem we are able to recognise that many of the children will know that the berries won’t keep but they all quietly want to believe they could. Heaney’s disappointed tone in the final line of the poem is key in helping us to understand the theme of the harsh realities of life in contrast with Heaney’s childish hopes.

In conclusion, Heaney’s effective use of techniques such as word-choice, sentence structure, imagery, contrast and tone help to develop his childhood memory in which he goes blackberry picking. By developing this seemingly insignificant experience fully the reader is clearly able to understand the theme, Heaney’s childish hopes and dreams in contrast to the harsh realities of life. During the poem Heaney and his friend’s experience great excitement while picking the berries however this doesn’t last and transforms into disappointment and regret when the berries rot because of this the reader is compelled to feel sorry for Heaney and his friends.

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.

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