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In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry Picking’ the poet vividly recreates a seemingly unimportant event in which he goes blackberry picking as a child. However by the end of the poem this experience acquires increased significance. Throughout Heaney’s description of this event we are made aware of the theme, Heaney’s childhood hopes and dreams in contrast to the harsh realities of life. This theme is effectively conveyed through the tone of excitement and anticipation in the first stanza while picking the berries, which transforms into an atmosphere of disappointment and regret in the second stanza as the berries have rotted.
Heaney is able to develop this supposed insignificant event using techniques such as language, sentence structure, imagery, contrast and tone in order to create sympathy within the reader and allow them to reflect upon the transient nature of childhood ideals.
During the first half of the poem Heaney makes no attempt to sentimentalise the event that is Blackberry picking, as we can tell when he writes, ‘Our hands were peppered with thorn pricks,” the recurring plosive ‘p’ sound in this sentence allows us to hear the skin of his hands being punctured yet still we can tell that young Heaney was enthralled by Blackberry Picking.
The first stanza of the poem also has numerous examples of youthful imagery. The boy anxiously awaits the first ‘glossy purple clot,’ almost jewel like, conveying how significant and majestic these berries were to the young Heaney. He uses this metaphor in order to compare the blackberries to blood, a live-giving force that is full of goodness.
Some of the blackberries are ‘green, hard as a knot’ and this image portrays the boy himself, young and innocent, not yet mature himself. The blood imagery continues throughout the poem with ‘summer’s blood’ illustrating a dominance of the colour red throughout. The reader associates these images of vibrant red with vitality and life, as is Heaney’s intention, to accurately portray to the reader the sheer excitement of childhood, in stark contrast with the reality to come in the second stanza.
The second half of the poem describes how the blackberries rot and there is a noticeable change in tone from youthful exuberance to frustration and disappointment. The image of the boy finding the rotting blackberries is described using alliteration; ‘we found a fur’ ‘a rat-grey fungus,’ the harsh fricative ‘f’ sound illustrates the tone of frustration and disappointment within Heaney which is also transferred to the reader through this shocking visual image which everyone can identify with. The fungus is likened to the fur of a grey rat, an image that is not appealing and directly contrasts with the previous descriptions of ‘thickened wine’ where ‘the flesh was sweet’. Heaney uses visual imagery such as this in order to immerse the reader in a sensual experience so that they almost feel as if they are there in the moment with Heaney and will thus be subject to feeling the same disappointment Heaney feels in the last stanza.
Towards the end of the poem we are made aware of how significant this memory is to Heaney. Heaney conveys an emotional reaction when the berries rot: “I always felt like crying,” Heaney’s tone at this point shows his absolute devastation as it is such a simple sentence, made emphatic by the fact it has been put at the start of the line. This line is also the first time Heaney has used ‘I’ which personalises the statement, making the reader feel closer to the author, as if he is confiding in us. Using the word “always” suggests that this great excitement followed by disappointment is an annual occurrence for Heaney and so the reader must also feel disappointment when presented with the idea that this disappointment is part of a cycle.
In the final line of the poem Heaney’s character conveys the significance of his childhood experience picking blackberries. He introduces an air of naivety when he says, “Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” Heaney uses a paradox here to highlight his sense of naivety as he continuously hopes for a way to make the berries last each year, through this line we can tell that, although aware the poem was an elegy throughout, “knew they would not,” allows the reader to understand that this is not a traditional Christian elegy in that there is no consolation for Heaney, he is aware that as an adult he cannot recapture his halcyon days, but he cannot accept it, which is evident through the abrupt finality of his last statement.
In conclusion, it is evident that Heaney uses a variety of contrasting ideas, imagery and sentence structure in order to his feelings of disappointment to the reader in this poem. Through the contrast between the ripe and rotting blackberries and the youthful enthusiasm transformed into bitter disappointment, Heaney manages to convey the reader, the idea of the transience of the halcyon days during childhood which are never seen with the same excitement through an adult’s eyes and although we are led to acknowledge this disappointment, we are not encouraged by the author to accept it, thus the final tone and lasting impression of the poem is one of disappointment that the ideals of childhood cannot be reclaimed and that with age, comes an unwanted but realistic perspective.
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