Blackberry Picking

Recalling himself as a boy enjoying a family activity that appealed to his nature and all his senses Heaney show-cases his talent for transposing close observation into words. From late summer blackberries would grow in profusion around the family home at Mossbawn.

Every year optimum growing conditions of moisture and warmth (heavy rain and sun) would guarantee a crop of blackberries. Reference to summer’s blood ensures the idea of a ‘living’ fruit. Each bramble would carry blackberries at different stage of maturity and edibility: red, green, hard as a knot.  

The front-runner (just one, a glossy purple clot) savoured for its flesh…sweet/ Like thickened wine was sufficient to whet the desire to savour (lust or picking).  As increasing numbers ripened so their colouring would indicate maturity (the red ones inked up). Once sharpened the family’s hunger sent them forth around the farm bearing whatever containers they could lay hands on.

Pitfalls (briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots) did not get in the way of their painstaking mission (We trekked and picked until the cans were full). Containers were filled with hard unripe blackberries that resounded Until the tinkling bottom had been covered overlaid with ripe ones (big dark blobs) that seemed to answer his gaze: burned/ Like a plate of eyes.

Their hands stung (peppered/ With thorn pricks) and palms were juice-stained: sticky as Bluebeard’s (a fairy-tale about a man with human blood on his hands). 

The fruit was a stored treasure, hoarded in byre … bath … secret cache where its desperately fleeting freshness was quickly invaded by a fur/ A rat-grey fungus that fed voraciously on it like revolting rodents glutting and producing a nasty smell.

Whilst the poet eventually came to terms with the inevitable biological process from sweet to sour, his child-mode pouting voice reveals his emotional responses at the time: I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair/ That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot

Late August, heavy rain and sun … he now acknowledges the childish irony: Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Bluebeard from a fairy tale in Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère of 1697; a man with blood on his hands. Having murdered several wives Bluebeard was killed when about to behead the wife who had discovered evidence of his grisly past.

  • full week: seven whole days;
  • glossy: shiny and smooth;
  • clot: thick coagulated mass (e.g. blood);
  • knot: hard mass where a branch meets the tree trunk;
  • stain: discolouration not easy to remove;
  • lust: passionate desire;
  • ink: strong, coloured fluid once used with pens for writing;
  • milk-cans: small milk containers with a very familiar shape;
  • pea-tins: tinplate container once airtight to preserve the food inside;
  • briar: prickly shrub e.g. blackberry;
  • bleach: remove the colour from;
  • hay: grass mown and dried to feed cattle; corn: grass grown to produce grain for flour;
  • drill: rows prepared for planting seed;
  • trek: an arduous journey on foot;
  • tinkling: describing the clear ringing sound of unripe fruit hitting the floor of the container;
  • blob: drop of thick liquid;
  • pepper: literally sprinkle with pepper; idea of small scattered grains;
  • thorn pricks: tiny punctures left by the sharp pointed projections on a briar;
  • palm: inner surface of the hand;
  • hoard: keep, store;
  • byre: cowshed;
  • fur: substance resembling the short, fine hair of some animal skins;
  • cache: hidden collection;
  • glutting: eating greedily;
  • ferment: begin to break down chemically;
  • sour: with an acid taste;
  • rot: decompose;
  • dedicated to Philip Hobsbaum; Heaney responded to a letter from a Philip Hobsbaum (a lecturer new to Queen’s University, Belfast who had encountered some of his poetry) inviting him to join a poetry group he had set up. This was an important step for the poet: by attending meetings and sharing his poems Heaney experienced early the responses of sharp poetic minds;
  • ‘partly to do with desire and disappointment’ (MP35);
  • MP refers to the poem’s ‘cheery greed’ ( ibid34); ‘a fall from innocence into experience’ (ibid 65);
  • ‘early intimations of mortality’ (ibid 67);like a child, for sensual delight, relishing in nature for its sights … sounds … tastes … and touch; use of you form; a sacramental significance … looking forward to the fusion of religious and sexual imagery’ (ibid 67);
  • ‘a child’s unhappy recognition of the laws of mutability’ (ibid); ‘knowledge born of fermentation’(ibid);
  • 24 decasyllabic lines arranged 16/8; full-stops are more frequent in the shorter section offering a greater staccato effect;
  • there is a definite rhyme scheme sometimes tight, sometimes loose;
  • the blood metaphor is never far away: purple clot/ thickened wine/ stains/ dark blobs;
  • Heaney chooses to associate it with the gory tale of the villain Bluebeard’s (blood-) lust;
  • vocabulary of non-sharing greed: lust for Picking/ hoarded/ cache/ glutting;
  • 2 simple similes using like;
  • alliteration based on velar plosive [k]: trekked/ picked/ cans/ tinkling/ covered; bilabial plosive [b]: big blobs/ burned/ berries in the byre;
  • sonic echoes: [ʌ] sun/ ripen ; sun/ just/ one; [ɒ] glossy clot; [ʌ]  summer/ blood; lust/ hunger/ fungus/ glutting;
  • use of enjambed lines enhances the sensual description of blackberry consumption
  • the rich choice of vocabulary involves many of the senses;
  • the musical phrasing of the piece is helped by enjambed lines and mid-line full-stop; Heaney’s close observation (recalling took it all in of An Advancement of Learning) is evident again in his references to the stained tongue and the effect of wet ground on leather;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first sentence, for example, weaves together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasal [n];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

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