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The main theme of many of the poems in this volume is growing up.
Growing up is about reconciling ourselves, with our hopes and expectations, to the realities of the world, and ‘Blackberry-Picking’ addresses this theme.
Tasting the blackberries – juicy, voluptuous, sweet – is a sensual experience, much like our first kiss or our first sexual experience. One of the masterly things about ‘Blackberry-Picking’ as a poem, in fact, is the way in which Heaney hints at the deeper significance of the act without, as it were, laying it on with a trowel.
Late August – the last gasps of summer before autumn and that ‘back to school’ feeling returns at the end of the summer holidays – is an apt time to begin experiencing a sense of disillusionment with life, but it is a fact that this is when blackberries are ripe to be picked.
Similarly, the fruit-picking calls to mind the biblical story from the Book of Genesis, that loss of paradise brought on when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree: they gained worldly knowledge, but in doing so lost their innocence.
But Heaney doesn’t choose to overstress this, any more than the fact that the berries – placed in a bath in a shed – are associated with the infant Jesus lying in his manger in the stable, that setting of a million nativity plays (and Jesus’ time on earth, of course, culminated in his self-sacrifice that was made necessary by Adam and Eve’s fruity temptation and subsequent Fall).
It’s a rite of passage that we all go through, though it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when disillusionment begins to cloud our clear and sunny skies of hope.
The clichéd example is when we discover there’s no Santa Claus, but in ‘Blackberry-Picking’ the speaker’s realisation does not come all of a sudden: note how in the poem’s second stanza he says he ‘ I hoped they’d keep’.
For more of Heaney’s classic early poetry, see our discussion of ‘Digging’ here.
For more meaningful poetry about fruit, see our analysis of Blake’s poem about resentment and anger, ‘A Poison Tree’.