"Blackberry-Picking" Summary

Blackberry-Picking” is a 1966 poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney about the childhood experience of harvesting blackberries.

  • In late August, the speaker and other children would roam the countryside with an assortment of containers, greedily gathering as many ripe blackberries as they could carry.
  • When they returned home, the blackberry-pickers would put the berries into a bath, only to discover that the fruit was already beginning to ferment and decay.
  • Every year the speaker hoped the blackberries wouldn’t rot, even though he knew he would inevitably be disappointed.

Summary

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

Introduction 

"Blackberry-Picking" is a relatively early poem by the Nobel Prize–winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney was honored by the Nobel Committee for his "works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past," and this 1966 poem is an excellent example of this ability of Heaney's to transform childhood experiences, and experiences of rural life, into profound poetry. In it, he describes a memory of blackberry picking as a child, and compares the process of harvesting the blackberries and then watching them rot to the process of coming of age and reaching adulthood.

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Summary

In the first stanza, the speaker, who is possibly Heaney himself, recalls how in late August, if there had been sufficient heavy rain and sunshine for at least a week, blackberries would begin to turn ripe. First, one blackberry would emerge as a "glossy purple clot" among others which were not yet ripe but were still red or green and too hard to be picked. "You," possibly the generic "you," or possibly a specific person being addressed, would eat the first one and note that it tasted sweet like wine which had begun to thicken.

The speaker compares the juice of the fruit to "summer's blood," noting that it stained the eater's tongue and mouth and inspired in them a further desire to pick more blackberries. Soon, the red blackberries would turn dark, becoming "inked," and the desire to pick more fruit would send "us" out armed with whatever containers could be found, on a quest to pick more blackberries. Heaney lists "Milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots," a motley assortment of containers which underscores the point that anything would do, provided that it would hold blackberries.

The group, Heaney describes, would then trek through "wet grass" and clinging briars, through cornfields, hayfields, and "potato-drills," putting blackberries into their containers until they had filled them all. The green berries would be placed first, at the bottoms of the containers, and on the top, the dark "blobs" of the ripest berries would sit. Heaney compares these to a "plate of eyes" and describes how the hands of the blackberry pickers would be filled with thorns and "sticky as Bluebeard's." Bluebeard is a notorious fictional murderer from folk and fairy tales, so his name connects to the idea of the fruit of the blackberry resembling blood.

The second, shorter stanza of the poem describes the process of "hoard[ing]" the harvested blackberries. The group of pickers would put the berries in a bath, but inevitably, a "rat-grey fungus" would soon be found feeding on the fruit. The juice would begin to smell putrid: as soon as the blackberries had been pulled from the bush, their flesh would begin to sour as the fruit rotted. The speaker describes how unjust this always seemed to him. It made him want to cry; he hoped every year that the beautiful containers full of fresh berries would not spoil. However, he knew that this was a false hope and that the fruit would always rot.

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