Study Guide

Blackberry-Picking Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Seamus Heaney

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.

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