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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 and Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry-Picking Essay

Endeavor to confront Time’s scythe or surrender to fatalism? Compare and Contrast Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 and Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry-Picking By Sally, Kuok Si Nok, School of Translation and Interpreting, Beijing Language and Cultural University

Human in all ages races through lives in an everlasting fight against time. Men’s struggle against nature has been a timeless theme in the literary world. From the early 17th century Sonnet 12, Shakespeare’s “When I do count the clock that tells the time”, to Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry-picking”, written in late 20th century, both poems addresses the effect of “Time’s scythe” on the transience decayed in nature as a natural cycle of life; however, while Shakespeare adopts a positive attitude in suggesting “procreation to defeat time” as a temporary solution, Heaney reflects on the inevasible disappointment at the interference of natural law.

To address the theme of natural cycle, Shakespeare employs elaborated diction and juxtaposes contrasting ideas to measure the passage of time, nature and youth through life: In line 1 and 2, “brave day sunk in hideous night” reflects the daily passage of time, line 3 and 4 link nature to humankind, by first evokes a flower’s wilting stage to the image of black hair naturally aging an turning grey, line 5 to 7 discuss the progression of season from “canopy” to “barren of leave”, to “white and bristly beard”, indicating snow and winter. Since Heaney metaphorizes old man as “white beard” on the bier, it can be suggested that he also compares young maid to “violet prime” and young man to “lofty tree”. Thus, the implicit use of figurative language hints the universal law of nature on all creatures – throughout “Sonnet 12” – a number which symbolizes hour and month (passage of time).

With regard to Heaney’s techniques of expression, he visualizes the decaying process of blackberry by reminiscing a childhood activity in rural Northern Ireland. In the poem, the specific temporal markings like “late August”, “for a full week”, “At first, just one” and “every year” vividly demonstrates the time sequence of blackberry growing before ultimate rot; the employment of color and texture like “green”, “red”, “purple” “glossy” and “hard” serves not only to illustrate the ripening blackberries, but also impact on the reader’s taste and tactile sensation. Most importantly, the reminiscence itself, utilizes both the perspective of Heaney as a young child and an adult looking back, and the half-rhyming pattern suggesting imperfect memory, both symbolize the passage of time and ageing process. The last line “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” suggests a repetitive emotional behavior and disillusionment, highlighting the natural law of life.

Shakespeare and Heaney, though addressing the same theme, differ in the motivation and the attitude toward “Time’s scythe”. The former speaks of sterility of bachelorhood and recommends procreation as a means of immortality in the form of human race, whereas the latter blends autobiological account of disillusionment in rural life with the natural decay of blackberry, impacting the reader on the spiral of disappointment.

In “Sonnet 12”, Shakespeare displays a strident attitude to persuade: first, “brave day sunk into hideous night” – the antithetical choice of word establishes a stark contrast, not only between day and night, but above all, the courage and futility of battling against indefensible nature, for “brave” is meant to imply a visual brightness and gallantry. A man begins his live bravely, wanting to explore the world around him and learn as much as he can. Once he has reached his prime he begins to sink into his twilight years, and his beard begins to turn silver. The girls who once flocked to him have either been married or have lost interest. His beauty has waned, and been replaced by the wrinkles and gray hair that mark old age. His life continues thus until he dies; leaving the world with no one to keep his memory alive. Therefore, the repeated “brave” in the last line means to endure something without showing fear; in this case, that which much be endured is death, or time that will “take thee hence.”

Second, the progression of natural creature to human emphasizes the universally incessant movement of time, further frightening his bachelor friend and readers. Lastly, the third quatrain shifts in tone and the speaker begins to talk directly to the young man, warning the inescapable fate of his beauty being engulfed by decay and eventual death. The personification of flowers images the general obligation of all creatures – forsaking one’s “sweets” and “beauties” to nourish offspring. Together with muscular rhyme, the palindrome-like metaphor pushes the poem to a climax.

In “Blackberry-picking”, Heaney frames the the progression of pleasure to disappointment by two separated stanzas: he first describes his enthusiasm for picking blackberries, from tasting the first black berry of the season to the frenzy of excitement with the involvement of his peer friends; he then reflects on how his attitude towards the berries evolves into revulsion as the berries decay. Together with half-rhymes and abovementioned poetic structure, the elaborated diction and imagery associated with greed, lust, violence, sex and horror further highlight how the speaker laments the effect of time on joyful life and pleasure, both sharing a transitory nature.

In line 3 and 4, one of the two only full rhymes of “clot” and “knot” invites readers to compare them, reinforcing the stark contrast between hard, unripened and soft, ripe berry. Amongst, the metaphor of “a… clot” draws a comparison between the first berry of the season and a blood clot, first highlighting its soft juiciness and deep rich color of the berry and then associating it with flesh and blood. This introduces the sensual nature of berry-picking, which later violent and guilty association await. Words like “flesh”, “thickened wine” “summer’s blood”, “hunger” and “lust” are strong expression of human desires, usually pathological craving, which implies the intoxificating effect of the berries on the children and foreshadows of the loss of innocence in coming adulthood (Passage of time). The young ravenously gorge on the blackberries, tasting the “stains upon the tongue” and “lust for Picking”

The enjambment of “Picking” marks the start of the next section of the poem — the actual picking of blackberry, which can be perceived as the crime scene of human crippling nature. The children are “sent out” by hunger and desire, disregard of their “inked-up” hands and mouths, and randomly gather all possible containers like “milk can” and “jam-pots” in order to satisfy their bottom-less lust for berry. They frantically scour the “hayfields” and “potato-drills”, seemingly forbid any berry, ripe or not, to spare from their blood-stained mouth, oblivion to treasuring their spoils and throw them in until the “tinkling bottom has been covered with green ones”- fantasizing endless gratification. The last two lines in the first stanza push the crime, or the process of lust, to a climax, by juxtaposing the victims’ mutilated corpses staring like “a plate of eyes” and the assailants’ “sticky palms” like Bluebeard’s – an allusion of a black fairytale in which a lord married a succession of bosom girls before murdering them.

The second stanza’s choice of word is the antithesis of the first: “Rat-grey fungus”, “stinking”, “fruit fermented” and “sour” starkly contrast with the not-long-ago euphoria, as the berries start to rot and go moldy, marking the post-climax downward slope of emotion plunging to the bottom. Thus, it may hint that Heaney subtly associates the arch-like process of pleasure to that of a sexual intercourse, by both diction and alliteration. Starting from “first” and “flesh”, to “briar”, “bleached our boots” and “big blobs burned” in the middle, then followed by “pricks” and “palms, ending with “filled we found a fur” and “fruit fermented”, the deliberate use of alliteration pattern draws association to a complete process of copulation. Linguistically speaking, the labiodental /f/ hints the arousal and foreplay, then progress into bilabial /b/ implicating orgasm, finally ends with plosive /p/ and fricative /f/, indicating sudden stop of sensual pleasure along with frustrated insatiability. Therefore, when Heaney introduces the speaker “I” lamenting that “it wasn’t fair” and “always felt like crying”, he acts like a petulant child or a dissatisfied teenager.

“At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.

“That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.” “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.”

These full-rhyming couplets act as a framing device by introducing the first taste of blackberries and the excited frenzy of picking that stem from it, whereas the second couplet epilogue with Heaney’s disillusionment by using antithesis to express the futility of fighting against fleeting time, from the perspective of an adult as he recognizes and looks back to the fundamental contradiction in his idea.

Nevertheless, Heaney might sound less indulgent if he is alluding to a deeper significance metaphorizing blackberry and sensual pleasure as life itself. Hence, within this interpretive framework, Heaney can be understood as mirroring the same literary skill and message that Shakespeare conveys explicitly: using natural decay to intimate human’s own mortality. Yet, the difference lies in the strong contrast in attitude and motivation, in which Shakespeare confidently persuades his bachelor friend whereas Heaney helplessly laments on his overwhelming fatalism.


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