by Michael Woods
The activity described in the poem is very familiar to most people. It is a childhood memory of picking blackberries. Heaney moves from a description of the activity to a reflection upon the manner in which the reality of disappointment is something that has to be dealt with as we grow up. Heaney addresses the transience of beauty and the manner in which our relationship with the world becomes less naïve and more complicated as we mature.
There is a recurrence of blood imagery in the poem and this operates in a symbolically complex manner. On the one hand, blood is obviously associated with the life force. The first ripe blackberry is described as “a glossy purple clot”. Heaney concentrates upon the sensual experience of eating new fruit, employing a simile to capture the taste of the berry’s “flesh” that “was sweet / Like thickened wine” (lines 5-6). Heaney’s use of the second person (“You ate that first one”) invites the reader to identify with the experience described which also has the effect of leaving that reader implicated in some sense, too. Certainly, there is a movement from simple enthusiasm to something of rapaciousness. The idea that “summer’s blood” was in the flesh of this first blackberry of the season is immediately followed by the reporting of the effects of picking it. The pickers’ tongues have “stains” (line 7) upon them, and we are immediately reminded of bloodstains. The word “lust” in the same line clearly conveys the manner in which those engaged in picking the blackberries are somehow possessed by a desire to strip the entire bush. Heaney is exploring both childish enthusiasm and the awakening eroticism in what appears to be a pre-adolescent persona. Once the hunt is on, “lust” is “replaced by “hunger” and the people depicted in the poem, presumably a group of siblings, set out to gather fruit. The sense that any container that came to hand was quickly taken form the family kitchen by the enthusiastic group is convincingly captured as we are told that “milk-cans, pea-tins and jam-pits” are taken out on the expedition through the “briar2” and “wet grass” that “bleached” the pickers’ boots. This is all finely observed detail. We are easily able to identify with the rushed grabbing of a container once we have it our minds to go in search of blackberries, just as we have seen the white tide mark that water from wet grass leaves on leather boots. There is a perfectly iambic rhythm in line 10 that sets u a curious tension between the agreeableness of the task in hand and the difficulty that has to be overcome in order to achieve it. There is physical pain and endurance required of the blackberry picker; the bush does not yield up its fruit without scarifying those who have “lust for / Picking…” (lines 7-8).
As is the case in several of Heaney’s poems focussing upon childhood, a dual perspective emerges in that we are given simultaneous insights into the adult and child in the personae presented. In common with ‘Death of a Naturalist’, this poem reflects upon the transience of innocence and the realities of bitter experience. There is a clear debt to William Wordsworth’s famous poem. ‘The Prelude’ in which there is a sense of retributive justice meted out by nature for crimes the guilty child believes her has committed. In Wordsworth’s case, he recalls being aware of “low breathings” following him after stealing a boat and these were, he records, “a trouble to my dreams”.
The poem, in common with ‘Death of a Naturalist’ has a bipartite structure. The first verse paragraph is largely descriptive of what seems to be a carefree experience but there is a subtle build up towards a sense of guilt that is associated with both sexuality and murder. Heaney describes “palms as sticky as Bluebeard’s, an infamous pirate in a story who killed several of his wives. The blackberries “burned / Like a plate of eyes” indicating that the speaker felt guilty about the “cache” (line 19) of berries. There is, too, a sense of initiation. The second verse paragraph explores the implications and results of picking the berries: what was once sweet turns sour. In some measure, this is a straightforward reflection upon the transition from innocence to experience but there is also a rather disturbing sense that nature is not uncomplicated, it exacts a kind of nemesis. This is certainly explicit in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ where the child “knew” that if he dipped his hand that “the spawn would clutch it”. The “rat-grey fungus that grows on the berries as they ferment in the byre is sinister and associated with fear. The fact that Heaney present is “glutting on our cache” presents a resentful response that is developed in the foot stamping outburst in the second verse paragraph where the growing child erupts with, “I felt it wasn’t fair / That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.” (lines 22-3). The “fresh berries” have turned from “sweet” to “sour”. It is a truism that life is not all sweet but it is one that we all have to learn as individuals. The earlier promise of “thickened wine” becomes “stinking juice”, and that which was once so attractive becomes repellent, as the reality of the situation has to be dealt with.