Exploring Blackberry Picking: Heaney. An essay.

Blackberry Picking is a poem rich in imagery and symbolism -from the macabre linking of the fruit to a ‘plate of eyes’ capable of staring at the young Heaney and intensifying his sense of guilt, to the link between this apparently innocent fruit picking and the altogether more guilt-ridden picking of forbidden fruit in Eden and subsequent punishment through the perpetual torment described in the closing line – ‘each year I hoped… knew they would not’. Here Heaney uses the trochaic substitution of the 4th foot to drive home the sense of despair as his hopes are dashed annually.




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.


I have reproduced the poem published in the Faber Edition of Death of a Naturalist, the anthology which made Heaney’s name and which suggests the thread linking many of the poems – the ending of Innocence and the moment from which the joys of youth will never be recaptured. In some cases, such as An Advancement of Learning, this is a good thing – part of the aging process allowing one to quash childhood fears, but here it is different. Heaney is sorrowing for an innocence lost partly due to his ‘lust’ and ‘hunger’ for fruit – such nouns suggesting an ill-controlled desire bordering on sin. Heaney accentuates this by references in the poem to the fruit being more than fruit – ‘the flesh was sweet’ places eating the fruit clearly in the element of illicit sexual activity. The placing of ‘sweet’ at the end of the line followed by the fractional pause of the enjambment leading to the simile ‘like thickened wine’ making another clear link to the intoxication of pleasure which will lead to indelible ‘stains’ marking the tongue in the sense that once tried such activity can never be forgotten and the image of ‘summer’s blood was in’ the berry, suggesting the euphemistic expression for sexual arousal – ‘his blood was up’.

The Poem is set in ‘Late August’ a time of change and loss when the harvest is in and the season moves towards winter -a time familiar to all children as the end of the holidays and the return to the drudgery of ‘real’ life in school. In this season Heaney explores the emergence of the berry – ‘a glossy purple clot’- as a thing of beauty, power (purple as a signifier of power and status) and also of life and threat to life – clots are indeed full of pumping blood, but they will cause great damage over time. Perhaps this clot will bring about the death of his innocence. As the berries ripen and move from green and red (youth and passion) to fulfilment, the desire to possess them grows in Heaney and his friend Hobsbaum, the dedicatee. The pair are prepared for a difficult quest to find these ‘big dark blobs’, fighting through briar and bramble and ‘trekking’ over the whole landscape in a parody of the Knight Errant of courtly love. As they quest, the berries lose their jewel-like status and become no more than ‘blobs’ before staring at them, as though into their souls. By the end of the collection the symbolism is clearly emerging into a mixture of ‘thorn pricks’ recalling both the crown of thorns and by their location, the stigmata of the cross and also the murderous lust of latter-day Bluebeards. Transgression is clear in the greed felt by the pair and this continues after the stanza break – a Volta, although not in a sonnet – a device used regularly in this collection to assist the poet in establishing a recognition of the change which has occurred.

As we reach the Volta the warning signs are there in the symbolism linked closely to the Fall as outlined above, yet the poet is still caught out and the fateful ‘but’ appears in the second line of this stanza. Before this he has continued to develop the idea of greed through the verb ‘hoarded’ which will become linked to a semantic filed of such transgressional greed in the rest of the poem: ‘glutting’ and ‘cache’ now suggest an illicit haul, hidden from prying eyes and stored in a bath tub, at once contaminating a vessel which should be used for purification.

Heaney uses an image which returns throughout the collection in the idea that the mould is ‘rat-grey’. The compound here encapsulates colour and character as well as fear when taken in companion with the way rats appear in An Advancement of Learning and Personal Helicon. Here the fungus is now a thing of greed itself and the juice of the glossy fruit – its blood, the image carried through from stanza 1 –  is now ‘stinking’.  Once picked, the fruit turns impure – fermenting to alcohol and Heaney recalls the idea of the flesh, so ‘sweet’ in line 5, which has now become ‘sour’.

As he ends the poem, the final tercet allows the reader into Heaney’s grief. He ‘always felt like crying’ as he hoped for change ‘each year’. It seems that the lesson learned from Hobsbaum’s (Eve’s) picking of the fruit, carefully outlined in line 5 by the foregrounding of the 2nd person pronoun was not learned swiftly. He breaks line 22 with the full caesura of a full stop to emphasise his grief, and the emotion of ‘it wasn’t fair…’ suggests a childish response to the set back. Yet he knows within himself that life is not fair. In the last line he is clear – the iambic tread broken after the caesura with the firm trochee on ‘knew’ which establishes a deeper knowledge, gained from experience.

The poem is written in an iambic form -pentameters – which struggle to remain constant and are varied in rhythm by the frequent use of enjambment and caesura, giving the whole a highly conversational lilt. Other variations assist, such as in line 2 which opens with a pyrrhic which (2 unstressed syllables reflecting natural speech) followed by a spondee (2 stressed syllables, perhaps emphasising both the length of the week and its importance) before resuming the run of iambs bouncing us to the blockage of the ‘clot’ which alliteratively brings the line to a close, yet even here the enjambment continues as the excited boy notices yet more berries about to ripen. Only then does the couplet resolve in the abrupt rhyme of ‘knot’. For the rest of the poem the couplets are pararhyming – half rhymes possibly suggesting a lack of purity in the message, until the end when the clarity of the message re-asserts itself in the same rhyme as above: ‘rot’ and ‘not’ which close of any hope of an undeserved rediscovery of Innocence.

Heaney places himself at the centre of this collection in many poems, often opening with the first-person pronoun to accentuate the personal nature of the exploration (Purges, Mid-Term Break, Advancement, Poem and Storm – though here the pluralisation turns this into an exploration of Irishness) yet in this poem he saves the pronoun for the final tercet. Instead he places the poem around the ‘you’ in line 5, directed at the dedicatee and linking him with the role of Eve in the garden- ‘the first one’- the original sinner. Whilst he is implicated, the key character is the seductive blackberry itself – the forbidden fruit which leads the boys on to discover the reality behind the youthful lust-driven emotions. Nothing wonderful lasts and there will never be a chance to recapture that first taste or first kiss – a thing of wonder and a thing of suffering intertwined.