Late August, 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.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. 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
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.
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.
The adult poet recalls a pleasure event from childhood, the enjoyment of a family activity that appealed to all the senses. Heaney show-cases his talent for transposing close observation and associated emotion into words.
Optimum growing conditions of moisture and warmth would guarantee late-Summer blackberries. The front-runner, just one, a glossy purple clot,/… its flesh…sweet/ Like thickened wine was sufficient to whet the lust/ For picking. References to blood ensure the idea of a ‘living’ fruit,
Ripening was betrayed by a deepening shade of colour: the red ones inked up. His family’s appetite for blackberries (hunger) sharpened sufficiently to send them forth around the farm, carrying whatever containers were to hand.
There were drawbacks: briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. The aim of their painstaking task: We trekked and picked until the cans were full/ Until the tinkling bottom (upon which the hard unripe blackberries bounced) had been covered; the bounty of their picking was evident from the big dark blobs that burned/ Like a plate of eyes.
Hands, peppered/ With thorn pricks, bore witness to the challenge and palms were as ‘bloodstained’ and sticky as Bluebeard’s (from the fairy-tale known to the boy).
The fruit was a treasure to be hoarded in a cache even though its freshness was desperately fleeting, soon overtaken by a fur/ A rat-grey fungus that fed voraciously on it like revolting rats glutting and produced a foul smell.
Whilst the man might rationalise the inevitable biological process, the ‘child-mode’ voice Heaney adopts reveals his emotional responses of the time: I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair/ That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
He accepts he had to learn quickly: Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
- dedicated to Philip Hobsbaum; Heaney responded to a letter from a Philip Hobsbaum who as a lecturer new to Queen’s University had encountered some of his poetry; this was an important step. Hobsbaum had set up a poetry group. By attending it and sharing his poems Heaney experienced early the responses of sharp poetic minds;
- Bluebeard, from a fairy tale in French author Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère of 1697, was a man with blood on his hands. Having murdered several wives Bluebeard was killed when about to behead the wife who had discovered evidence of his grisly past.
- 24 10-syllable lines arranged 16/8: frequent full-stops and commas provide a staccato effect;
- there is a recognisable rhyme scheme sometimes tight, sometimes approximate;
- the blood metaphor is never far away: purple clot/ thickened wine/ stains/ dark blobs;
- Heaney chooses to associate it with the gory tale of the villain Bluebeardt’s (blood-) lust;
- Vocabulary of non-sharing covetousness: lust for Picking/ hoarded/ cache/ glutting;
- 2 simple similes using like;
- alliteration based on velar plosive [k]: trekked/ picked/ cans/ tinkling/ covered; bilabial plosive [b]: big blobs/ burned/ berries in the byre;
- sonic echoes: [ʌ]sun/ ripen ; sun/ just/ one; [ɒ] glossy clot; [ʌ] summer/ blood; lust/ hunger and so on;
- consonant and vowel sounds in tandem: fur/ fungus/ glutting;
- the musical phrasing of the piece is helped by enjambed lines and mid-line full-stops;
- use of enjambed lines enhances the lip-smacking sensuality of blackberry consumption;
- the rich choice of vocabulary involves many of the senses;
- Heaney’s touch for close observation (recalling took it all in of An Advancement of Learning) is evident again in his references to the stained tongue and the effect of wet ground on leather.
- partly to do with desire and disappointment (Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poetp.35)
- MP refers to the poem’s cheery greed ( ibid p.34);
- a fall from innocence into experience (ibid p.65)
- early intimations of mortality (ibid p.67);
- like a child, for sensual delight, relishing in nature for its sights … sounds … tastes … and touch; use of you form; a sacramental significance … looking forward to the fusion of religious and sexual imagery (ibid p.67)
- a child’s unhappy recognition of the laws of mutability (ibid);