What is the purpose (theme) in the poem "Blackberry Picking" written by Seamus Heaney?

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michael-niagara's profile pic

Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

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The purpose (theme) in the poem "Blackberry-Picking" written by the poet Seamus Heaney is embracing all that is bountiful, fresh, wonderful, and beautiful in life and enjoying it with exuberance. The poem is a metaphor on living life to the fullest and not wanting anything of beauty and wonder in life to fade away. The theme of the poem is "tasting the richness of life", just as one tastes the richness of a fully-ripened blackberry.

The poem indicates:

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

This is akin to us taking hold of life and hording all the great experiences that we can.We seek to enjoy and be productive and creative in life - and then to have the memories - hoarded in our mind - of all these great and significant times.

However, the poet indicates that life does not always leave us with great memories or experiences. Sometimes, what we treasure is lost, or decays in some way, and is not as beautiful to us as it once first was. This is indicated in this line concerning the plump blackberries that were picked:


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

Sources:
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teachersage | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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The theme of Heaney's poem is that life in all its fullness, as represented by the blackberries, is transitory and can only be grasped for a fleeting moment; afterwards it rots. In the first stanza, the narrator revels in the "full week" of blackberry picking, when the blackberries ripen. He addresses his friend:

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet 
Like thickened wine
The ripened berries fill the narrator and his friend with a 
lust for 
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger 
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots 
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots. 
But even at the height of picking, the poetry's imagery foreshadows death: the stanza ends with "our palms sticky as Bluebeard's." Since Bluebeard's hands were sticky with blood from murder, the implication is that the blackberry pickers are murdering the berries, especially as earlier the narrator states that "summer's blood" was in the berries, an ambiguous image indicating that the berries represent both life and death.
 
In the second stanza, the narrator laments that the berries "hoarded" in buckets begin to ferment or go bad, developing a "rat-grey fungus," turning "sour," and smelling of "rot." Because the narrator ends the poem by saying that each year he hoped "they'd keep" but knew they wouldn't, we know this is a repeated pattern.
 
The poem suggests that the blackberries function as a symbol of relationship: it is dedicated to a specific person, and the words "flesh," "lust," "tongue," and "hunger" suggest sexuality. Just like the blackberries, the first freshness of a relationship, when the "flesh was sweet," will inevitably "sour." The narrator says this "wasn't fair" but nevertheless keeps returning to blackberry picking or relationships. 
 
The way nature's bounty rots when "hoarded" also conjures what happened to the Israelites when they tried to hoard the manna from heaven God dropped on them as they crossed the wilderness. This reinforces the theme of transitoriness: nothing keeps and everything must be enjoyed in its moment, before it goes bad.