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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.