Study Guide

Blackberry-Picking Analysis

  • Sound Check

    In the "Form and Meter" portion we talked a bit about how the rhythm of the poem is established by even iambic pentameter, and how the consistent rhyme scheme expertly tied everything together. But, this is Heaney we're talking about here, so every element of sound matters in his poetry.

    Consonance: consonant sounds close together in line make for a real earful. Check out line 9, "Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots." All those italicized letters make for really rich sounds in the mouth.

    Similarly, Heaney likes to use alliteration, which is the close repetition of the same letter at the beginning of a word. Line 10 has three b words. In fact b sounds pop up a lot all throughout this poem. He's also really fond of ck sounds. Count how many you can find. We count 24! So instead of airy, light language, Heaney prefers the physicality of harder, harsher sounds, perhaps to reflect the physicality in the poem itself.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Don't panic, the hyphen in the title means nothing. Well it does let us know (if we didn't already) that our author is British (Irish, to be specific). Though we all speak the same language, there are sometimes little quirks that separate British and American spelling and punctuation. But it's all the same in the end.

    This is not a hide-and-seek title. In other words, we don't have to wrack our brains trying to figure out what relation it has to the poem, because right away we see it's indeed about blackberry picking (at least on one level). However, it also shows restraint on Heaney's part. The title doesn't give any hint of what the deeper meaning of the poem is, and instead lets us slowly unveil the possibilities as we read through it.

  • Setting

    The setting of "Blackberry-Picking" is mostly outdoors, in a pretty rural place. The boys move from blackberry patch to blackberry patch, trekking through cornfields, briars, and hayfields. They start early and pick all day. It's summer – late August, to be exact – and it seems as though the poem could span a few days. The byre, or cowshed, has its cameo appearance too. It's where the berries are stored.

    It seems the poem takes place long ago, so now it's a place in the speaker's memory, though that doesn't take away from the vividness of the scenery. We're given all sorts of colors, smells, and tastes. So even if it happened long ago, it's still crystal clear.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of this poem is a man looking back on his days of youth spent in the countryside. He's recalling a memory and how it made him feel and what it meant to him. Though the speaker has all the knowledge and insight that years of experience will give a person, he still honors the naïve hope, excitement, and disappointment of the young man. Never does he look back and say, "Man I was such a dumb kid then, I'm so much wiser now." It's a pretty non-judgmental and nostalgic look back at an important event from the past.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The terrain is navigable, but don't forget your compass or you might end up a little lost. OK, so what's on the surface of "Blackberry-Picking" is completely straightforward, but check out all those layers! It's true that you can enjoy the poem for what it is after the first read, but we recommend a little deep digging to uncover the all those juicy symbols and metaphors, not to mention how the sound of the poem affects everything.

  • Calling Card

    Mr. Nature. Sure, Heaney's not the first to do it (the natural world was huge for centuries before this Irishman came along), but for poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, he's certainly spearheading the campaign to keep dirt, mold, and all things earthy alive and well in our poetry. And boy does he do it well! Heaney's really big on making sure we experience the earth with all of our senses. In this poem, instead of only telling us that the berries are growing a little mold fuzz, he also includes the rank smell of the juice.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhymed Lines in Iambic Pentameter

    Meter

    The poem is two uneven stanzas, one that consists of sixteen lines and one of eight lines. It's written in a regular, measured pattern called iambic pentameter. This means each line has five ("penta") metrical feet (two syllables to a foot, so ten syllables in all), which are iambic (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). Iambic pentameter is a really common meter in English-language poetry. It sounds like this: ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. Here's an example of what it looks like in "Blackberry-Picking," with the stressed syllables in bold and italics:

    At first, | just one, | a gloss|y pur|ple clot.

    Got that?

    Though it's written in regular iambic pentameter, there are a few variations. All the lines are ten syllables, but the iambic pattern bends a bit sometimes. This is all right, though (well within the formal rules). These variations from the iambic foot include:

    • The trochee: a metrical foot in which the first syllable is stressed, and the second is unstressed, like "night-ly." It makes the sound DUM-da. This makes it the opposite of the iamb, which, as you'll recall, has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (da-DUM).
    • The anapest: two soft syllables (where, if you were reading them out loud, you wouldn't put a lot of emphasis on them) followed by one strong syllable (the syllable where you would put stress). It makes the sound da-da-DUM. So an anapest foot, say at the beginning of a line, looks like this: "In the dark." Even though there are three syllables, the first two are so soft that the poet decides to count them as this special thing called an anapest, and can keep the iambic pentameter going.
    • The dactyl: one strong syllable followed by two soft syllables (DUM-da-da), all considered part of the same foot. A dactyl looks like this: "mark-ed-ly."
    • The spondee: two hard syllables in the same foot, like "tin foil."
    • The pyrrhic: two unstressed/soft syllables in the same foot. This one is less common, but might be something like, "it is" at the end or beginning of an iambic line.
    Where do you notice any of these variations in the poem?

    Rhyme

    The lines are also rhymed. Just as an FYI, Heaney is a master at formal verse – poetry that makes use of meter, rhyme, or any of the fixed forms, like the sonnet. This usually seems effortless, though, so the reader is never bugged by forced rhymes or awkward rhythm. He's super smooth.

    The rhyme in "Blackberry-Picking" is pretty slick. It's AABBCCDDEEFF and so on and so forth until the end of the poem. So the first line ends with "sun," which rhymes with the end word of the second line, "ripen" (just pronounce it "ripe-un"). The third line ends with "clot" which rhymes with the end word of the fourth line, "knot." The pattern continues throughout the entire poem.

    The reason we're not annoyed by the rhyme is because most of the rhymes are half or slant rhymes. Half rhymes are just what they sound like: words with usually a consonant sound in common, but nothing else. They're words that sound an awful lot alike, but not such perfect matches as "cat" and "hat." Heaney has some lovely half rhymes, like "drills" with "full," and "byre" with "fur."

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    The Fresh Blackberries

    The fresh blackberries are the ones in the first stanza and we're going to look at them separately from the harvested, rotting berries because they mean something different in the poem. They're doing some serious symbolic work here, and in fact they mean different things at different times. At one point, these fresh berries represent the speaker's lust, and at another, his bounty. They also symbolize youth and hope. We'll get you started with some examples so you see what we mean.

    • Lines 3-4: Hope, Expectation, and Youth. Here the speaker gets a glimpse of what's to come – more ripe and beautiful berries once those hard green ones get a little more time and warmth! He's excited and, having waited for a year (they only come out this time in the summer), his expectations are high. So here the fresh berry represents a first glimmer of hope.
    • But they also represent youth. Ever heard someone say "he's a little green" when they mean to say that he's young or inexperienced in something? Well, here the green berries are just like that – young, inexperienced, and new to the world. Just plain not ready. The first purple one, though, symbolizes the berry in its prime. So, not a green baby, but something in the shining hours of its youth.
    • Lines 7-8: Here the berries symbolize what the speaker lusts after. You can fill in anything here – women, money, etc.; anything that he strongly desires and can't seem to get his fill of. We tend to think of lust as strongest in younger, livelier people. So you see, both youth and lust wind around each other in this poem.
    • Lines 10-14: These lines show how far the speaker's willing to go to fulfill his hopes and desires. He goes to great lengths and with the greedy perseverance of, say, a man who's all smitten with a woman. Ain't no mountain high enough!
    • Line 18: OK, so this isn't the first stanza, but it's the beginning of the poem's turn. The berry stash symbolizes his gluttony and greed, but also his almost naïve hope to keep what's young and beautiful, well, young and beautiful forever. If we think of the lust after the berries as a metaphor for the speaker's lust after a beautiful young woman, we can assume that she's not going to be young and beautiful forever either. Eventually her hair is going to turn gray and her skin will wrinkle. But the speaker doesn't want to think about that; he wants to hope he can keep them fresh and perfect forever.

    The Harvested Berries

    Here comes the dramatic turn. The second stanza berries are pretty much the metaphoric fall-out of the first stanza berries. Everything that was hopeful, young, and lusty is now just the opposite. The berries are doomed to rot and die, just like humans. They're no longer that lust-worthy glossy purple – they're furry and gross. This is what time will do, Heaney reminds us; and regardless of how much we want to keep something in its prime, it's impossible.

    • Line 18: Yep, the beauty is starting to fade. Already there are signs of nastiness and rot. Notice how it's "when the bath was filled," so presumably when the speaker finally is starting to feel satisfied, his hopes are dashed. So the rotting berries symbolize what here? Aging? Mortality? The transience of the things? We'd say all of the above!
    • Line 19: Funny Heaney should use the word "glutting" here. In the first part of the poem he was the glutton, but now things have turned around and a fungus is eating away at his precious riches.
    • Lines 20-21: OK now we're getting to the point. The "nothing lasts" message Heaney has been dancing around. If we are thinking metaphorically about humans, "once off the bush/ […] the sweet flesh would turn sour" could mean, once out of the womb, we begin our dying process.
    • Line 24: Just in case you missed it, here is the "have hope despite the facts of life" message. So the speaker's desire to keep the fresh berries fresh is a metaphor for the human desire to keep what's good in life from leaving or dying. To make all those wonderful temporary things permanent somehow – to keep summer from turning into chilly fall, to keep kittens from becoming cats, to keep our parents' hair from turning gray, and so on.

    Wine and Blood

    Here's where a little of the author's bio is helpful. Though Heaney is no longer a practicing Catholic, he sure did grow up that way. He was raised going to church and to Catholic school, and while he might not associate himself with the strict laws of the religion now, it still affects the way he looks at the world. So a lot of Biblical imagery will pop up in Heaney's poetry, often with confused or complicated thoughts attached to it. Let's pick it apart in this poem and see what we can come up with.

    • Lines 5-7: These lines, with the flesh, wine, blood, and tongue symbolize the Eucharist, a Christian ceremony. During the Eucharist, bread (put on the tongue) represents the flesh of Christ, and the wine represents Christ's blood. So this is not the most subtle set of symbols that Heaney's ever laid out. But our job is to figure out why he would incorporate this symbol into blackberry picking. What do you think?
    • Lines 16-17: Again, we're back to Christ. Thorns are closely associated with the crucifixion of Jesus because the New Testament says that he had a crown of thorns forced on him. Thorn pricks on the hands (from the berries) are also awfully similar to nails driven through Jesus' hands during the crucifixion. So Heaney is showing us a symbol of crucifixion. This is tying the blackberry picking in very closely with sacrifice, tradition, and belief.

    Flesh

    Flesh has religious significance too. We've already talked a little about the role it plays in the Eucharist, but it has other religious ties as well. Flesh is often associated with physical desires (such as sexual desire), which in Christianity are commonly thought to lead people astray. The use of "flesh" and the excitement surrounding it in this poem definitely has some of that taboo sexual desire feel to it.

    • Lines 5 and 7: So he eats the first one (giving into temptation, perhaps?), and eating the berry makes him lust for more. So maybe it's like how a good first kiss leaves you wanting another.
    • Line 22: The sour flesh could be a Christian-infused metaphor for the bad ending that lusting after flesh always yields and/or it could be a more universal metaphor for aging and impermanence.

    Bluebeard

    This is a creepy, old fairy tale about a wealthy guy with a blue beard (who knows why) who has been killing his wives and hiding their bodies in a locked room. His murderous tendencies remain a big secret until one of his later wives finally opens the locked room and blood pours from it. Awful, we know. So what does this have to do with the poem?

    • Line 17: Well, first of all, it's just a simile. So Heaney isn't trying to say, like a metaphor would, that the boys are Bluebeard, but simply that one aspect of them (their hands) are sticky like Bluebeard's. In the case of the poem, the boys' hands are sticky with the juice of the berries, whereas Bluebeard's are presumably sticky with his wives' blood. Why draw this connection? Probably to show that the boys are guilty of something – greed, lust, foolish hope. We've explored a lot of these possibilities already.
    • Sex Rating

      PG-13

      There's a lot about longing in this poem. Even though flesh is on the metaphorical level here, with a little imagination this poem can get steamy.