Seamus Heaney and blackberry picking

The award of the Irish Times' Poetry Now prize to Seamus Heaney led me to catch up some of the work of one of the few great poets who are still living.

I was familiar with Two Lorries, a pastoral tale that becomes embroiled in the tragedy of Northern Ireland. But I hadn't read much else of Heaney's work.

Blackberry-Picking, for instance, reminds me of those half remembered childhood days when we would be dragged into the Gloucestershire countryside, plastic bucket in hand, to grapple with unyielding briars.

There was something rewarding about toiling for a couple of hours on those autumn evenings, as twlight settled on the soft contours of the Gloucestershire hills, the lonely and lovely escarpments and dells turning russet from drifting leaves in the fall evening.

And, in the words of the poet, is was usually a place where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots and a day when gentle gray clouds flirted with the prospect of rain.

Of course there was always the competition, for me to pick more blackberries than my sister. There were those muddy, dizzy and uncertain moments when we would reach too far to get the biggest blackberry in the hedgerow, that was always too high and out of reach.

Which is probably true of life. We'll only achieve the succulent rewards if we reach for the highest blackberry. And blackberries were a simpler concept in those days. They didn't entail downloading about 30 applications. Unfortunately there's no app. for downloading those blackberry picking experiences. I have to instead rely on those faltering memories.

And while I'm all for reaching for the stars but it's a difficult concept when it's a wet Sunday and there's rather a large cache of wine and beer that's ripe for being demolished downstairs in the kitchen. See this post or a variation of it at Rhyme and Reason.

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and 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.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.


  1. I love going on hikes in our area and stumbling across some wild blackberry or raspberry bushes. Nothing beats the taste of a fresh-picked berry, warm from the sun.

  2. Beautiful words to start a Sunday morning. I love your painted picture, "as twlight settled on the soft contours of the Gloucestershire hills, the lonely and lovely escarpments and dells turning russet from drifting leaves in the fall evening."

    Thanks for sharing Heaney's work too. I had not heard of him before and am the better now for knowing.

    Julie Magers Soulen Photography

  3. Flashes of my childhood also danced before me when I read this poem. I love how vivid it is and the emotions it evokes. I bet picking blackberries in the Gloucestershire countryside is a lot more glamorous than picking them on a farm in Nebraska though. Which is where this poem took place for me. Ha! ;)

    I hope you're having a good weekend...

  4. Such a beautiful poem that also reminds me of trips to pick blackberries as a child but also of the first understanding and realisation that not everything can go the way we want it to and that nothing can last forever.

  5. A expressive poem and you want me to grace your poetry blog with my drivel...
    See blackberries are never out of fashion...they just vary in looks now and then...but the apples do give them stiff competition all through time...
    I wish I had such memories, concrete jungle and all...the only thing close was picking violets in my uncle's garden in summer.


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