, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
Like thickened wine: summer's blood
was in it 5
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots
Where briars scratched
and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills 10
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus
, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented
, the sweet flesh would turn sour. 20
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year i hoped they'd keep, knew they would not
All poetry aims to communicate an experience; a body of memory, sensation, or wisdom that contributes significant meaning to the life of a poet and of all human beings. It is the mystery of literature that one may speak of a single, physical incident, yet draw deep universal conclusions from it. Like the Christian dogma of the Word made Flesh, the Christ both fully mortal and fully divine, the best of poetry dwells paradoxically in the realms of both literal and figurative. Seamus Heaney's poem, "Blackberry-picking," exhibits precise, elegant poetic technique that permits such a simultaneous existence. He makes use of intense, metaphorical imagery and sharply contrasting diction to extend a vivid description of picking blackberries to the general experience of lust and greed.
Heaney's powerful diction, drawing harsh contrasts throughout the poem, lends an epic nature to the work that overwhelms the literal experience of picking blackberries and rushes outward into a deeper understanding of the consequences of insatiable desire. The poem begins immediately with uncompromisingly intense adjectives. "Heavy" rain (1), a "full" week (2), "glossy" fruit (3). All of these terms set a tone of abundance, bringing to mind a sensational cornucopia. Eating the berries evokes more sharply descriptive diction. "Flesh was sweet... leaving stains upon the tongue" (5-7). The notion of sweet flesh extends the image of fruit to meat, perhaps carnal desire, reinforced by the terms "stains" (7) and "blood" (6). The berry pickers are possessed with a "lust" (7) that drives them to snatch up the fruits compulsively, their insatiable hunger driving them onward. Such language seems overdramatic for mere berry picking, and sets the reader up for an even harsher sensational schism.
The turning point of the second stanza presents entirely unpleasant diction. A rat like a "fungus" (19) gluts disgustingly on the berries much as the pickers had hoped to, throwing their conduct into a starkly negative light. Words such as "stinking" (20), "fermented" (21), "sour" (21), and "rot" (23), all bring to mind the image of decay and poverty sharply dividing the second stanza from the first's notions of bounteous plenty. The overwhelming experience of lust is run headlong into the consequences of rot and longing, expressing a general observation about the feelings of any physical obsession. The plaintive observations of the final line, augmented by words such as "crying" (21), expresses a weaker, more helpless tone in dissonance with the power and vigor of the poem's beginning. As memories of the summer fade, the realization of stasis and impotence without true satisfaction set in amid the decay of pleasure. By use of violently contrasting diction, Heaney frames greed for the berries as a model for the more general experience of greed.
The intense metaphorical imagery of "Blackberry-picking" lends a moral air to the notion of greed, generalized from the specific summer experience. Heaney frames the berries in initial description with a Biblical parallel, "its flesh was sweet / Like thickened wine" (5-6) reflecting the body and blood of the Last Supper. The berries may be interpreted as a sacrifice, summoning a moral question as to the greed of the pickers. The reference to "lust" (7) further reinforces the moral imagery, as lust is one of the seven deadly sins and aptly describes the pickers' behavior. There is another Christian metaphor of "With thorn pricks" (16), recalling the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the cross and suggesting immense suffering for the sake of greed. This is followed close at hand by a comparison to Bluebeard, a murderer, metaphorically suggesting that the suffering is also inflicted on the victims of greed, a double-edged sword striking bearer and receiver. With metaphorical imagery, Heaney broadens his description of blackberry picking with a moral observation, casting relentless greed as a sin that strikes both victims and victimizers.
Metaphorical imagery evoking moral observations coupled with sharply contrasting diction forcing an epic interpretation makes it clear that Heaney's poem is more than just a literal description of picking blackberries, but a deeper expression of the experience of lust and greed. His observations make a statement to the mind and heart, suggesting the need for restraint and moderation. Leaving the unneeded blackberries on the bush, keeping hands clean, can prevent suffering whether that is the mere rot of fruit or the more serious rot of the psyche.