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.