Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking: A Retrospective on Life

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“Blackberry picking” by Seamus Heaney is a poem about time, greed, the limitation and struggles of life and the disappointments that follow. The poem is written retrospectively about an individual's life. Although seemingly written in first person, Heaney is referring to life’s different struggles and disappointments experienced by almost everyone in the pursuit of happiness. Happiness is not something you seek, but that which you become. In the first stanza, the poet uses intense imagery and meaningful metaphors as well as alliteration. The poem begins with “Late August”, a time of the year known for harvesting. As seen in the line: “For a full week, the blackberries would ripen”, the poet uses the short timeframe of a week to metaphorically convey the shortness of life and the ever evasive time.

“At first just one a glossy purple clot …...; its flesh was sweet like thickened wine”, the language used in these lines appeals to a combination of senses. Heaney uses berries and their attractive color and taste as metaphor for life’s many superficial attractions. Things at surface may look beautiful and may be fun and therefore make a person just madly focus towards achieving them hoping that they will give immense pleasure and happiness. The lines “You ate just one and its flesh was sweet…… leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for picking”. On the surface level, Heaney may seem to be referring to the blackberries and their sweet taste which would linger on the tongue compelling a person to have more. These lines on a deeper analysis can be seen as an analogy to life’s many attractions such as money, fame or love. These attractions may have an intoxicating effect on people and turns them almost like addicts who feel almost compelled to keep going back to them again and again.

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Heaney goes on to say how these berries make you a slave of desire as the speaker expresses “Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam pots; where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boot.” This desire to have more is so strong that it can have a controlling effect on person. The variety of containers mentioned to pick berries is an analogy to the mad drive of a desire that can make a person use any means to achieve it. The imagery used in the second line makes the reader almost see the scratched hands and the discolored boots in the pursuit of getting berries. Again this is a metaphor that when an individual has some worldly desire he will go to any lengths to fulfill it no matter how it may harm him. The ambitions of a person may pressure him to forget all risks and go for what he craves. Heaney uses onomatopoeia: “tinkling bottom” to almost make the reader hear the odd containers being filled with blackberries. The sound of berries filling the containers are a source of joy for the picker. Although that may not be true for the berries. The use of personification “like a plate of eyes” makes the reader imagine the blackberries glaring back at the picker wondering why were they picked. This disappointment of the berries upon getting picked maybe translated as what a person may so madly desire may not be the best for him.

“Our hands peppered with fond pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard” in this extract Heaney uses imagery coupled with allusion and similes. The hands of the picker are bruised with thorns and are sticky with the blood of the berries like the Bluebeard’s. Bluebeard is a character from tales who murdered his wives with his bare hands and hence they were sticky with blood. This is a reference to how a person may use inappropriate means to achieve his ambitions. In the last stanza, by use of imagery, Heaney brings forth the air disappointment that follows upon fulfillment of desires.“But when the bath was filled we found a fur ; A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache; The juice was stinking too.” Heaney has used sensory and visual imagery here. Once the container was full the picker could see fungus eating on the berries and they would start rotting and smelling. This is also in the case of fame, wealth or love and it is largely due to Hedonic Adaptation, which is really just the fact that human beings get used to what happens to them. Once a person gets what he once madly pursued he adapts to it and then craves for something else. He realizes that thing is not giving him the continuous happiness he perceived to derive from it. And all the time and effort put into achieving it might seem worthless.

“I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair ; That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.” The use of juxtaposition “lovely canfuls” and “smelt of rot” highlights the sharp contrast between the two states the berries were in as they have transformed from an object of desire into something repulsive. And this unfairness of the situation makes one cry like a child. This metaphorically features the disillusionment one may experience after achieving ones hedonistic desires as they may not provide the perceived happiness.

“Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.” Heaney uses antithesis in this last line accentuating the futility of hoping the berries will not decay. He speaks here from an adults perspective who recognizes and looks back at the futility of his aspiration and ambitions. And yet year after year he desires and drives towards achieving something new hoping it would make him happy.

In conclusion, Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” is more than just berry picking. It is a great piece of poetry which has come to live by the effective use of metaphors, similes, alliteration and imagery by the poet. Heaney’s poem has a deep lesson to be learnt. It is linked with the madness of desires, the struggles of life and the disappointments that follow. The lesson to be learnt is, if you want to be happy, you need to stop chasing happiness. Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and thankfulness.

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