It's late August which means it's primo blackberry conditions – tons of rain and sun, and the blackberries are slowly starting to ripen. At first, a lot of them are still green and hard, but some are red (getting there) and a few are perfectly ripe and purple.
After the first ripe berry is eaten, it's so sweet that the blackberry-pickers have to have more. They get a bunch of buckets and whatever else will hold the berries, and set off to pick as many as they can.
They hunt everywhere – through hayfields, cornfields, and briars – staining and scratching their hands as they search. They fill the buckets first with the greener, less ripe berries, and then top them off with the ripest ones.
These blackberry-pickers store their stash in a cowshed, yet always, despite their best efforts at preservation, the berries start to rot. The juice starts smelling sour and some of the oldest berries grow furry mold. It's always disappointing for the speaker, who always hopes that all the berries will keep, even though he knows they will rot.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
- A pretty straightforward start: it's late August and the conditions are perfect (rain and sun) for the blackberries to ripen.
- Heaney gives us a foothold in time. We know right away that it's late summer.
- We can also guess, given the title and the mention of blackberries in the first two lines, that the poem will probably focus on none other than blackberries.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
- When the berries start to ripen, there's just one ripe, purple one among all the green (completely unripe) and red (just starting to ripen) berries.
- "Clot" is an interesting word choice. Usually we use "clot" when we're talking about blood or other coagulated liquid. Here, the speaker is perhaps trying to get us to think about the image – sticky juice, maybe?
- This is the first time (though it won't be the last) that Heaney describes the scene using more than just the visual. Here, he describes the texture of the berries – clotted (so, probably soft) and the green ones "hard as a knot."
- So far he's used two of the five senses: sight and touch.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
- This is the first introduction of a pronoun – "you." So we know the poem will either be addressed to this "you" in an "I" and "you" relationship; or the "you" will become part of a "we."
- "Flesh" isn't a completely strange or disgusting way to describe fruit, but it does make us think of actual animal flesh. Especially coming right after "clot" in line 3. Are you thinking what we're thinking – flesh and blood?
- And we're introduced to a third sense, taste.
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
- Again, we're reminded of the texture. This berry's juice is thick.
- And again, we've got a reference (especially direct this time) to blood. But now we see that it's not going to get too gross because we're just talking about the figurative – not actual – blood of summer.
- In the first six lines we have flesh, blood, and wine. Heaney was raised Catholic and we're seeing a little of the Eucharist here! The Eucharist is a Christian ceremony where bread and wine, representing Jesus Christ's blood and body, are consumed to commemorate the Last Supper, which was held the night before Jesus was killed.
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
- The berry juice stains the tongue when eaten.
- It's getting sexy in here – tongue and lust. Where the line is broken, we're left wondering: lust for what?
- Again, we're indirectly reminded of taste. So far Heaney's made use of three out of our five senses.
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
- The lust question gets answered pretty quickly. They're only after the berries.
- The "you" mentioned near the beginning has now turned into "us."
- Line 8 means that seeing the very nearly ripe ones gets them psyched to go picking because they know the time is right and that these berries will be ripe soon.
- They go out with any container that will hold the berries – way to recycle!
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
- They're going off the beaten path for these berries, even hunting around thorn bushes.
- The wet grass might be from the rain we learned about in the first line or perhaps it's dewy and early in the morning. Either way, their boots are getting a little wet.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
- They searched and picked all over until the cans they brought back were filled to the brim.
- These lines give a good sense of where they are, too. It's definitely a rural place, probably farmland.
- You get a sense that they were working pretty hard, and covering a lot of ground.
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
- Sense number four! "Tinkling" refers to the sound the pail makes when the harder green berries hit the bottom.
- The blackberry-pickers seem to arrange them like this: green ones on the bottom, redder ones in the middle, and "the big dark blobs" are the purple – the ripest – ones on top.
- "Burned" is a weird way to end the line, wouldn't you say? It makes us want to jump down to the next line to figure out what he's talking about.
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
- Back to the bodily stuff again. Heaney's describing the ripe ones on top like a plate of staring eyeballs. Gross, right?
- Their hands are all cut up from the thorns.
- "Bluebeard" refers to a British fairy tale about a freaky guy with a blue beard who kills his wives (he had like seven of them), then hides their bodies in a room, where their blood trail is discovered by his last wife. Creepy. So this poem is taking a dark turn. No doubt he uses Bluebeard because of their blue-stained palms, but are they being compared to killers of berries here? Heaney did describe the blackberries as human a few times.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
- They stored their stash of berries in a washtub of some kind in a cowshed ("byre"), but by the time they finally got it all the way full, the berries began to get moldy.
- Using "hoard" gives more value to the berries. We hoard money and other valuable things. If he simply used "stored," the effect wouldn't be the same. You can tell that these blackberries are important.
- Using "fur" to describe the mold makes us think of the blood/flesh stuff he was using earlier in the poem. We know berries are living things, but it seems he's elevating them beyond plant status, to animal or human status.
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
- The fungus is growing on the rotting berries. He describes the gray (he uses the British spelling, "grey") fuzz like a rat stuffing himself on their stash.
- A cache is a collection of items stored away. So, again, we're reminded that this is their secret stash.
- Heaney sure isn't afraid of the gross. Though the real image is berries in a tub that are a little moldy, he compares it with an image of a rat stuffing himself with the berries. The two images are mixed in our heads while we read, for a more exaggerated effect.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
- The juice of these berries smelled. Then he tells us that once the berries are picked, there's no way of keeping them – they immediately start to rot.
- He uses "fermented" to describe how the berries sour, which is accurate. It's also the natural process that juice undergoes to make wine. This is not the first mention of wine in this poem! Remember the Eucharist reference?
- Also, he uses "flesh" again.
- He seems to be bummed about doing all this work, picking as many berries as possible, only to have them spoil.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
- Yep, he's officially bummed.
- Sense number five! He's used all five senses in this poem: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.
- We also get the hint that maybe he was pretty young to get so upset about rotten fruit.
- This is also the first time the berries are described outright at "lovely." So our suspicion that these were important to the speaker is confirmed.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
- Every year he hoped the berries wouldn't spoil like this, but knew that of course they would.
- The very end sets up this conflict between a wish and "knowing better." He knows the facts of rotting, but hopes they'll stay perfectly ripe anyway.
- The "each year" reminds us that this is a tradition for the speaker. That gives it a little more importance, right? That it wasn't just a one-time thing.