Study Guide

Blackberry-Picking Themes

  • Mortality

    In "Blackberry-Picking," Heaney tackles an age-old poetic idea: we're all going to die eventually. But he does it in a pretty relatable way. By showing us the rotting berries (and the desire to keep them from rotting), he reminds us of how we cling to life in spite of our knowledge of death. It's pretty moving. We all want to keep what won't stay; the fact that these blackberries are impermanent or temporary is what makes them so precious. So the berries, because they're perishable, are something to treasure in the speaker's eyes.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Of all the childhood memories, why do you think Heaney uses blackberry picking to illustrate human mortality?
    2. Do you think the boys in the poem made the connection (of the spoiling berries to mortality) at the time? Or do you think the speaker only realizes the connection later in life? Why?
    3. How effective do you think the connection between the spoiling berries and mortality is? How convinced are you by this connection? What examples help support your opinion?

    Chew on This

    The desire to collect all of the fresh berries is an attempt to take in the most of life and, in turn, is an effort to keep death away.

  • Disappointment

    "Blackberry-Picking" really does show us the downside of expectation: disappointment. In the space of the poem, Heaney shows what it's like to wait for something, to grow excited about it, to work for it, and then to watch it all fall away. What a bummer!

    Questions About Disappointment

    1. At what point in the poem did you start to realize this might not turn out well for the speaker? When you reread the poem, do you notice it sooner?
    2. What connection can you make between the time of year and the boy's disappointment?
    3. If he's disappointed year after year, why doesn't he ever learn?

    Chew on This

    Considering the ending of the poem, Heaney's saying that the only reason we're ever disappointed is because we have our hopes set too high. Expectation only creates a feeling of loss and letdown.

  • Lust

    The boy in "Blackberry-Picking" is just about that age when sex (or at least ideas about sex) is starting to become part of life. The desire to gather and eat the berries represents the desire to, well, you know, do something like that but with women in place of berries. Ever heard of the forbidden fruit?

    Questions About Lust

    1. What about the timing of this poem makes lust such a factor? Does age have anything to do with it? The season?
    2. Why bring creepy old Bluebeard into this idea of lust?
    3. Why did Heaney use blackberries to talk about lust? Why didn't he just talk about a youthful romance? What options does the metaphor give for the poem?

    Chew on This

    The blackberries in the poem could have been replaced by any fruit and had the same effect.

  • Greed

    Well, the kid can't eat just one! He wants tons and tons of berries, a whole secret stash just for himself. He's obsessed with searching for them. He carries berries in anything that will hold them. He stores them in a bath (now that's a lot of berries). "Blackberry-Picking" shows us the determined energy behind greed and its negative consequences.

    Questions About Greed

    1. At what point do you realize it's not just moderate desire but greed that drives these boys to pick the berries?
    2. Do you think if they weren't so greedy, the results would have been different (their berries wouldn't have spoiled)?
    3. Do you think there's a conclusive moral to this poem? Is Heaney trying to say that greed is a punishable sin? What makes you think that?

    Chew on This

    Though Heaney shows the boys' greed, the poem's tone isn't a punishing one. He sees greed as something inherent to their age.

  • Religion

    Heaney's main message in "Blackberry-Picking" is, "nothing's permanent, and we never get used to it," and that's what's important to remember. But Jesus Christ also plays a big role in this poem, complicating that message a little. If you think about it, it's the Christian belief to be all right with the death of everything on earth because there is Heaven to look forward to. From the Eucharist to the crucifixion, Jesus really dominates the symbolism. But keep in mind that although religion and religious imagery are big in this poem, that doesn't mean the poem is really "about" that. We wouldn't call this a Christian poem. It's much more universal than that. The Christianity just seems to be there because it was a big part of the speaker's youth.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Consider the other themes. How does Christianity enhance, weaken, or change them?
    2. Do you think the speaker considers Christianity to be something negative, positive, or something more complicated? What lines or phrases support your idea?
    3. Of all of the ceremonies and images relating to Christianity, why do you think Heaney chose the ones he did?
    4. What reward does faith give the speaker, if any?

    Chew on This

    The poem is about punishment issued by the Christian God for the speaker's sins of lust and greed.