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Unseen Criticism on “Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney

“Blackberry Picking” by Seamus Heaney is a descriptive poem in which the speaker recollects his childhood experience in picking blackberries during a late summer. The recollection, however, yields greater implications other than the apparent loss of a harvest.

The two stanzas in “Blackberry Picking” separate the poem into two parts. The first stanza illustrates how the speaker picks blackberries, while the second stanza depicts the outcome of the picking.

The speaker adopts a nostalgic tone in the first stanza. The poem starts off with the phrase ‘Late August’, showing how the speaker reminisces and tries to recall the situation. The speaker also adopts a conversational tone in describing the event. Iambic pentameter is used to set the rhythm of the poem, “You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet”, however, the poet’s use of enjambment in disrupting the rhythmic pattern, “Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it”, contributes to mimicking the sentence structure of everyday speech. The melodic and lyrical flow of the poem is retained through the use of perfect rhymes, half-rhymes and internal rhymes throughout the poem. The conversational tone adopted avoids monotony and allows readers to be engaged in the poet’s description, at the same time, the tone conveys simplicity and also allows ordinary readers to identify with the speaker directly.

The action of blackberry picking depicted in the first stanza suggests the loss of innocence as one enters the stage of adolescence. The ripening of the blackberries suggests the growing maturity of a youth. The pleasures experienced as a youth are presented by the tasting of the blackberries. The indulgence of a youth in pleasures is emphasized through the seductive quality of the blackberries, “You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet like thickened wine”. The hunger or greed towards temptations is presented through the speaker and his friends’ desperate collection of the blackberries – the vigorous actions involved is shown through the poet’s use of short phrases, “that hunger sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots”, and the use of onomatopoeic words to emphasize how their active pursuit of the blackberries caused briars to “scratch” and wet grass to “bleach”, that even the dirty and muddy environment could hardly deter these youths. The alliteration of sibilants /s/ in “round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills’ and the use of glottal words in the line “we trekked and picked until the cans were full” also show the quick action, enthusiasm and excitement of the speaker and his friends in obtaining the berries.

The idea of indulging in pleasures may include indulging in sexual pleasures, as suggested by the use of the word “lust” in the line “Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for picking”. The picking of blackberries also seems to be a symbol for temptation. The act of picking correlates with Eve’s act of picking an apple after yielding to the evil serpent’s rhetoric; the religious imagery, such as “flesh”, “thickened wine”, “summer’s blood” seems to be a reference to Christ’s flesh and blood. The literary allusion to the story of Bluebeard, a pirate who killed his wives; “Our hands were peppered with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s”, also suggests the gruesome and bloody consequences of yielding to temptations. The allusion may foreshadow the future punishment of the youths for their indulgence in temptations – the rotting of the blackberries as they picked them “until the cans were full”. The foreshadowing echoes with the simile – “and on top big dark blobs burned like a plate of eyes”, as “a plate of eyes” might suggest that the children were being watched, they were scrutinized and they would be condemned for yielding to their temptations, just as how God has an eye on everything and when He sees how Adam and Eve are ashamed by their nakedness because of their loss of innocence, He punishes them by exiling them from the Garden of Eden.

The ecstatic mood and the imaginative quality of the blackberry picking are also depicted with a variety of sensuous and evocative imagery and with the vivid portrayal of colours. The use of simile and tactile words in “hard as a knot”, “like thickened wine”, “our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s”, the poet plays with readers’ senses in allowing them to be able to feel the texture of the blackberries and their juice. There is also a frequent association with colours, “a glossy purple clot”, “Then red ones inked up”, “big dark blobs”, the colourful representation shows the blissful state of berry picking, and thus the ecstatic quality of indulging in pleasures. And yet, the suggestion of a darker side to these pleasures is suggested through the frequent references to blood.

The second stanza presents the grim consequences of the picking. There is a change in mood in the second stanza. The mood changes from the blissful and perhaps slightly disturbing atmosphere in the first stanza to that of gloom in the second stanza. The colour contrast between the second and first stanza contributes to the aspect of the change in mood. The only colour reference in the second stanza is that to the colour grey. The language used in the second stanza is also more technical and direct, with limited use of imagery, “the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour”, perhaps denoting the idea of disillusionment in comparison to the wildly imaginative use of imagery and the evocative language in the first stanza.

The gloom in the stanza is also emphasized by the choice of words “rat-grey”, “stinking” underscoring the disgusting state and unpleasantness of the rotten berries. The decay of the blackberries seems to bring out the moral in the poem, it implies that pleasures die away with age, thus physical pleasures are not long-lasting and that anything in excess, such as “hoard[ing] the fresh berries in the byre”, will soon degenerate, and the illusory ecstasy brought about by pleasurable activities in one’s youth will also die away with ageing. Unlike the previous descriptive narration of the speaker, the last three lines of the stanza seem to depict the speaker’s personal confession, the change of pronouns from “we” to “I” gives these three lines a great level of intimacy, as if readers are peering into the thoughts of the speaker.

The tone of the speaker changes from disappointment to guilt in the last three lines, “It wasn’t fair that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot”. It was perhaps the guilt of being sinful in yielding to temptations. The last line “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not” emphasizes the inevitable loss in submitting to greed. To conclude, “Blackberry Picking” is a poem that not only illustrates the picking of blackberries and how the speaker laments their loss when the blackberries rot, but there may be moral implications regarding the loss of innocence and the temptations faced in one’s adolescence and the guilt one might experience after indulging in youthful pleasures.

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086c30 comment on the critical essay 0 Nov 18 2008, 5:02 AM EST by 086c30
Thread started: Nov 18 2008, 5:02 AM EST  Watch
this is a really well-structured and insightful essay ; )
you analyzed the poem very thoroughly, and provided as many ideas as you could! you also made use of a wide range of vocabulary to make your essay descriptive.
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086B25 Comment 0 Nov 15 2008, 3:49 PM EST by 086B25
Thread started: Nov 15 2008, 3:49 PM EST  Watch
very insightful observations
and clearly presented too!
I have so much to learn from you!

p.s. your mention of the religious imagery helped me understand the poem better : )
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SamanthaTang comment 0 Nov 13 2008, 11:29 PM EST by SamanthaTang
Thread started: Nov 13 2008, 11:29 PM EST  Watch
real impressive analysis
well organised & precise & real deep observation
which we could learn a lot from : )
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