Task: Choose a poem that deals with an aspect of ordinary living. Analyse the poem showing how it… .
Pleasures are like poppies spread You seize the flower, its bloom is shed Bums Seamus Heaney’s sensual and disturbing poem ‘Blackberry -Picking’ explores aspects of ordinary living and enables us to see clearly the truth about a core element of human nature. This engaging piece of verse, written early in the Nobel laureate’s career, exposes humans’ perpetual desire for pleasure and the seemingly inescapable negative consequences attached to this pursuit. The poem is produced in a style readers familiar with Heaney will recognise: the deeper meaning is heavily cloaked in metaphor, and is therefore made clearer and more emphatic once understood. Upon reflection of these underlying themes about ordinary life, the reader experiences the clarity of vision usually associated with seeing something for the first time; this is a quality Heaney has claimed is essential to poetry.
The poem is, on the surface, about a boy’s experiences at berry-picking time in the countryside. The anticipation and participation in this apparently very pleasant practice is conveyed for most of the first stanza of this two stanza piece. The poet describes an insatiable appetite (that verges upon greed) for indulging in the activity. In the latter part of this first stanza, however, a far less hedonistic mood can be detected by a very noticeable change in lexical choice and imagery; indeed, guilt and perhaps even remorse are evident here. In the second stanza the picked fruit becomes grotesque as it decays and the inevitable destructive forces of time take effect: Primarily, it is necessary to detail the larger metaphor which is relevant from the very beginning of the poem – the title: ‘Blackberry-Picking’. The concept of picking fruit has irreducible associations with the Biblical story of Genesis – an explanation of creation and mankind’s fall from a state of innocence to one of sin and guilt.
In this book Adam and Eve are templed by Satan to pick the forbidden fruit, resulting in their expulsion from Paradise. From this we can infer that the berries of Heaney’s poem symbolise temptation, and that this temptation will lead to a loss of innocence and the incursion of guilt and sin into the world of the poem. In addition to this, the idea that the propensity for giving in to temptation is central to human nature, as it is of such ancient origin, is strongly suggested. • The time of year when these symbolic berries are picked, ‘Late August’, is given in the first line, and the sultry, humid, sensual atmosphere of this time of year is evoked by the following zeugma: “given heavy rain and sun”. This sensual atmosphere is developed in the first nine lines of the poem, and it clearly contains allusions to sex in lines 5-7: 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.
Here the idea of the irresistible allure of the berries is emphasised, and the allusions to sexual pleasure through the lexical choice of ‘that first one’, ‘its flesh was sweet’, ‘Leaving stains upon the tongue’, and the direct reference to ‘lust’, heighten the mood of sensual temptation. This is reinforced and strengthened by the suggestion of intoxication in line 6 when the ‘flesh’ of the berries is described in a simile as being ‘Like thickened wine’. Summer is subsequently personified and this reference to ‘Summer’s blood’ thickens the languid, warm, impassioned atmosphere. In this section of the poem, then, very ordinary aspects of life – sensuousness, sexuality, desire, temptation – are conveyed cleverly and clearly through the metaphor of blackberry picking. This metaphor enables us to see these things as extraordinary driving forces behind our actions, and this is a disturbing realisation. The boy experiencing this burgeoning, bountiful time of the rural calendar cannot, as has been shown above, get enough of the fruit he picks. He and others set out between lines 9-12 to gather as many berries as they can.
After they have indulged in this harvest, however, a contrasting mood is introduced: ….. on top big dark blobs burned Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s. Here the poetry is loaded with imagery and cultural associations. Initially the monosyllabic alliteration of the plosive ‘b’ in ‘big dark blobs burned’ strikes the reader as ponderous and menacing. This reaction is reinforced by the connotations of pain in the verb ‘burned’. The effect of this is aided by the gruesome and macabre simile that follows. The berries are described as being ‘Like a plate of eyes’. The very different mood engendered by this imagery is developed by the subsequent allusion to the crucifixion of Christ in ‘hands … in thorn pricks’ and the simile incorporating the legendary character Bluebeard (a pirate who murdered many wives). This section of the poem, then, gives three consecutive images that evoke . connotations of guilt: the mutilation of the berries’ natural environment, the indirect reference to Christ (crucified by mankind), and the comparison between the berry pickers’ hands and the bloody hands of a serial murderer.
In stanza two the mood of the poem deteriorates further as the harvested berries decay. In the first line the word ‘hoarded’, used to describe the volume of berries stored, reminds us of the insatiable appetite and self-indulgence depicted in the first stanza. The berries are now rotting, however, and this is conveyed effectively through word choice. They are described with the verbs ‘stinking’ and ‘fermented’. Furthermore, a disease is spreading through the hoard. This is described as ‘A ratgrey fungus, glutting on our cache’.
The connotations of disgust, revulsion and disappointment evident here are developed in lines 20-21: ‘Once off the bush/I … the sweet flesh would turn sour’. What we can also perceive here is the notion of the inevitable and regularly experienced fate of all pleasure – it cannot last and becomes satiety and guilt. The anguish at the fate of the berries, and therefore the fate of all indulgence is emphasised by the tone of the third last line: ‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair’. The boy of the poem is clearly still becoming accustomed to the irresistible forces of time. In the last line, however, we learn that the boy experiences this annually: That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not
Perpetual hope and the following inevitable disappointment is emphasised here, and the reader can directly engage with this as we all experience such sequences in ordinary life. By the process of reflecting upon, and understanding, the blackberry picking metaphor, the reader sees the driving forces behind human behaviour afresh, and they become extraordinary and disturbing. ‘Blackberry-Picking’ is a sensual and evocative poem which entices the reader with rich and opulent images. In stanza one we are drawn into the pleasure of the activities depicted by the poet. The ideas of guilt, disgust, and disappointment are then introduced as the greed of the pickers and the decay of the berries are illustrated.
The extension of this cycle to others areas of life is performed by the use of sexual and cultural allusions, symbolism and metaphor. Through these techniques we are given a startlingly clear picture of a common and ordinary reality we may never before have considered: that our lives are driven by perpetually disappointed hope and desire and that pleasure cannot last. The disturbing nature of this realisation is compounded by the religious symbolism of the berries – this state of affairs may have been with us from the very beginning, and there is no reason why it should not be with us to the end.