Study Guide

Blackberry-Picking Quotes

  • Mortality

    the blackberries would ripen.
    At first just one, a glossy purple clot (lines 3-4)

    Where there is a beginning, there will be an end. The poem opens with the start of the berry's life, giving us our first hint that the berry will later have a death. And not to get too graphic here, but think of a newborn baby covered with afterbirth. Resemble anything in the berry's description here?

    summer's blood was in it (line 6)

    If we didn't want to compare the berry to a human thing at the beginning, it's sure getting harder now. Instead of juice, we have blood, which makes it seem more human. And we all know that part of being human is our mortality.

    big dark blobs burned
    Like a plate of eyes. (lines 14-15)

    The comparison of the berries to humans will not be ignored! Heaney is trying to humanize the berries as much as possible to make the message of mortality that much more powerful. Because, honestly, who cares if a few berries rot? But relating it to our own fate makes it much more important to us.

    the sweet flesh would turn sour. (line 21)

    He may as well be talking about his aging lover. Sweet flesh turning sour, or young flesh getting wrinkly, is the reason so many cosmetic companies are in business! Humans are constantly trying to preserve themselves and slow the effects of aging. But we all know there's no stopping it.

    Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. (line 24)

    Bummer. This is the age-old desire to stay young and alive. This is why so many fairy tales and myths have some version of the quest for the fountain of youth. Death is not the easiest thing for humans to reconcile. Regardless of how often we're told we're going to die, we try best we can to stretch out life.

  • Disappointment

    But when the bath was filled we found a fur, (line 18)

    Here's the first blotch on their otherwise successful berry hunt. The boys are probably as proud as peacocks that they've picked enough berries to fill a whole tub and now they're finding out that the beautiful fruit's about to spoil. Just around the corner of the height of satisfaction is disappointment.

    A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache. (line 19)

    You can almost hear the anger in his voice. It's not a cloud-gray fungus, it's "rat-grey." Rats just about never mean anything good or positive (unless you're a hungry snake). The rat seems to be robbing these boys of something, ushering in their disappointment.

    The juice was stinking too. (line 20)

    So, the berries are spoiled and there isn't even a consolation in the juice; that's spoiled too. "Stinking" works like "rat" does in the previous line. It's used as an insult in our everyday language – "stinking liar," "stinking jerk," "I hate eating stinking Corn Flakes every morning." The speaker feels disappointed and hurt, and the language of the poem reflects that.

    I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair (line 22)

    Well this one's pretty self-explanatory. He's so disappointed about the rotting berries that he wants to cry. And it's not fair, is it? Why can't any of the good stuff ever last?

  • Lust

    You ate the first one and its flesh was sweet (line 5)

    Any time you have sweet flesh and the mouth all in one thought, it's pretty easy to tie that to sex. There's also the excitement of the "the first one." It makes the experience new and special, and it sparks a fierce desire in the speaker.

    Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for (line 7)

    No hiding it now! Heaney spells it out. Look how he cleverly drops "for picking" on to the next line (line 8), letting us question for just a minute what it is he's lusting after. It's a tricky little move to get us thinking in both directions.

    our palms sticky as Bluebeard's. (line 16)

    The tale of Bluebeard is a dark one of lust. Check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for the details. Bluebeard had several wives, and we might assume he's so consumed by lust that it makes him totally homicidally crazy.

  • Greed

    that hunger
    Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots (lines 8-9)

    Holy containers! If someone told you money was growing on trees, you'd grab anything that would hold the treasure too – garbage bags, laundry sacks, and so on; These boys are out to get as much as they possibly can.

    We trekked and picked until the cans were full, (line 12)

    Their greed is tireless. They won't stop until the moment they can't hold anymore. If they were stronger, you get the sense they'd carry boatloads of berries.

    We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre. (line 17)

    The verb "hoarded" gives away the greed theme big time. Heaney easily could have said "stored" but this is a type of storage that's specific to greed. The byre also gives a sense of secrecy; that they're keeping their berries away from everyone else. No sharing going on there!

    glutting on our cache. (line 19)

    "Cache" means something that's hidden or inaccessible to anyone else. Those boys meant to keep the berries private; their own secret treasure trove.

  • Religion

    Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
    Leaving stains upon our tongue (lines 6-7)

    These lines recall the Eucharist (which represents the Last Supper), and the process of taking communion (on the tongue) during Catholic Mass. Heaney is connecting the earthly activity of eating berries to being in communion with Christ. See our discussion in "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for more details.

    Our hands were peppered
    With thorn pricks, (lines 15-16)

    Thorns in the palms = crucifixion symbol. Check out our discussion in "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" for more details.

    Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. (line 24)

    Religion is built on hope. Even thought he's disappointed, the speaker's hope never fades or changes. "Each year," he says. Now that's some serious faith. It's the other half of the line that complicates the Christian idea of faith: the knowledge that no amount of faith will ever stave off disappointment. Heaney seems to be posing the question: If hope only brings a letdown, then what's the point?