Analysis of Poem Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Updated on July 29, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and Blackberry-Picking

Blackberry-Picking is a poem that contrasts childhood with adulthood and explores the disappointments and the tension that ensue. In two short stanzas the reader is taken into the exciting, idealistic world of the blackberry picker, and the harsh reality of time as perceived by the hardened adult..

  • This poem is much more than a straight description of harvesting blackberries. It raises the questions of hope in, and the innocence of, good things in childhood and answers them with the harsh realities of time and adulthood.

Once ripe berries decay, childhood memories are fleeting and it becomes impossible to keep things fresh all the time.

So the actual picking becomes a metaphor for childhood energy and the innocent, sweet, fruitful life.

The mature reflection in the second stanza is poignant - the summer blood eventually cools, ripe berries go off, the natural cycles cannot be denied.

Seamus Heaney's tone is conversational and intimate, and always there's the rich, wholesome texture of his language, with alliteration and other devices to further enhance the lines.

Some have noted the influence of Keats, Roethke and Frost in this early poem which was first published in 1966 in the book Death of a Naturalist.

Blackberry-Picking

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.
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.
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.

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.

Analysis of Blackberry-Picking

Blackberry-Picking is a poem that relies heavily on the contrast between the first and second stanza for its main theme, that of childhood ideals being undermined by the harsh reality of time and adulthood.

  • The act of picking blackberries becomes a metaphor for this changing world, from the endless sweetness and hope of the young person into the decay and grim reality of the more mature.

The speaker is initially immersed in this enthusiastic world of late summer, a time of ripening berries full of juice 'like thickened wine' the whole scene sparked by a single berry ate by the speaker's friend (Philip Hobsbaum?) which led to full scale picking.

  • The poet's use of literary devices such as alliteration and assonance enhance the already textured measured syntax. Iambic pentameter rules the day, astute placing of punctuation altering the rhythm here and there, causing the reader to pause at important points as the poem progresses.

The first stanza is all about this build up of goodness, this childhood energy and zest for the ripe berries, as seen through memory.

And always with Heaney there is the idea of working hard for reward - being scratched, peppered with pricks, having to trek through fields with cans.

  • Note the visceral language - glossy purple clot/flesh was sweet/summer's blood/stains upon the tongue and lust/Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky - relating the flesh of the fruit with that of the human.

The transition to the second stanza is a gentle one, the memory continuing in the past tense, the alliteration and strong guttural words combining to produce that rich textured sound synonymous with Heaney.

The change comes in line 18, when the child in the gang of berry-pickers becomes aware of the rat-grey fungus on the blackberries, a sure sign of rot and decay, hallmarks of passing time.

The juices turned sour, and life with it. The speaker expresses sadness when this inevitable rot sets in, the irreversible effects of maturation are hard to take. All the hard work ended up a waste and the fact that the speaker thought it not fair implies that some great injustice had been perpetrated.

There is a definite tension created in these last few lines, the idealistic hope of the child being stretched to the limit by the processes in nature and the passage of time. That hope persisted despite everything, but the self-deceit couldn't last - reality turned out to be the winner.

The last four lines of the poem reflect this stretching and apparent deceit - note the extra syllable in lines 21 and 22:

The fruit / fermen / ted, the / sweet flesh / would turn sour.

I al / ways felt / like cry / ing. It was / n't fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

The iambic pentameter pattern is altered in the twenty first line, the central pyrrhic, spondee and anapaest reflecting the fermentation and rot. The next line is also altered slightly, an anapaest embracing part of both clauses. Line 23 reverts back to the steady iambic beat, whilst the final line employs a trochee (an inverted iamb) to emphasise the fact that the child knew the berries would not keep.

Internal Rhyme, Assonance and Alliteration

Blackberry-Picking is a carefully arranged poem with musicality and texture of sound, brought about by use of internal rhyme, consonance and alliteration.

Alliteration

When words starting with consonants are close together they are said to alliterate. Look at these examples occurring throughout the poem:

For a full week/first one and its flesh/pea tins, jam-pots/bleached our boots/big dark blobs/pricks, our palms/But when the bath was filled we found a fur/fruit fermented/

Assonance

When vowels in words are similar sounding and close together they produce an echo and reinforce certain sounds. For example:

glossy/clot....Like thickened wine....top big dark blobs....thorn pricks, our palms sticky...fungus, glutting

Internal Rhyme

Alongside both alliteration and assonance is the rhyming that takes place within the poem, creating resonance and echo that binds lines together with certain sounds. For example:

week/green/sweet/Leaving/pea/bleached/been/green/sweet/keep.

August/full/Among/summer's blood/lust/hunger/until/full/Until/fungus, glutting/bush/canfuls/

Rhyme Scheme and Metre

Blackberry-Picking is a rhyming poem of 24 lines, split into two stanzas, 16 and 8 lines long respectively.

It has a basic iambic pentameter beat which is tempered by Heaney's characteristic carefully placed punctuation, and altered by occasional trochee and spondee, which shift the emphasis of the stresses. Enjambment adds to the mix by allowing a line to continue on into the next without pause.

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme is a continuous aabbccddeeffgg and so on to the end. Essentially this poem is built up of slant rhyming couplets, double lines, the majority of which end with slant or near rhymes, which suggests a relationship that's not quite in harmony. For example:

sun/ripen....sweet/it....for/hunger....byre/fur....sour/fair

The only full end rhymes are clot/knot and rot/not

Metre (meter in American English)

There is a dominant iambic beat to the poem, as in the opening line:

Late Aug / ust, giv / en hea / vy rain / and sun

This is iambic pentameter, with five equal feet. You could argue for a stress on the first word Late but still the line's beat is iambic - daDUM daDUM and so on.

The second line changes a little:

For a / full week, / the black / berries would / ripen

This line contains a pyrrhic, a spondee, an iamb, a pyrrhic and a trochee - quite a mouthful of different feet, so to speak! The word blackberries in the above line is held to be only two syllables, pronounced blackbris - with a stress on the first syllable.

But, if pronounced as three syllables - blackberries - then the line would scan:

For a / full week, / the black / berries / would ripen

Creating a pyrrhic, a spondee, two iambs and an amphibrach (or three iambs and an extra beat).

Throughout the poem there are lines that differ from pure iambic pentameter and should be read with care, taking into consideration the poet's astute use of punctuation and natural caesura.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Grateful for the visit. Blackberrying seems to get earlier each year but the pies always taste just as good.Hopefully Heaney tasted one or two in his lifetime.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      2 months ago from SW England

      I used to love blackberry picking as a child and now I do it with my grandchildren. There's always the promise of a pie or a blackberry and apple crumble. But yes, when they go off they're smelly and the dye just doesn't come off!

      Thanks for the analysis and the education, Andrew!

      Ann

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate the visit and comment. I see the analysis inspired you. Hope it was food for thought too.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      2 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Andrew, I never read an analysis of a poem before. It was very interesting. Reading this poem reminded me I have blueberries in the freezer and now I want to do something with them. Thanks! lol

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Blackberrying seems to be a popular topic for poets - Heaney, Plath, Kinnell to name but a few/

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      2 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Oh I love this poem. Funnily enough, I was reading this poem only a few days ago in my poetry group.

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