Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney + Divinity in Literature

I've already written about my favorite and second favorite poems on this blog; Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney is my third. In this post I'll explain why.

I grew up in church (African-American, Christian, Non-denominational) and have had fleeting spats of full devotion and engagement, but tend to feel a bit divorced from it all. I'm just as interested in the Bible as literature, apart from its larger religious implications, as I am in reading it as the literal WORD OF GOD (though I read it for guidance, instruction, and encouragement more than I do for verifying literary allusions).

Because of my exposure from such an early age, I tend to find (or do I seek?) the Biblical, the Divine in all I read. For an entire semester of high school AP LIT, I analyzed every assigned book, poem, essay, etc through a Biblical lens. All I could see in Beloved was Morrison's allusion to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse... and any passing reference to parable or scripture in any work became, to me, the author's overarching Biblical theme. This tendency was at first impressive (sometimes offensive!) to my teacher and peers, and quickly became pedantic and tiresome - but I was 17 at the time. I'm 22 now... much older, much wiser.
:\ (if only!)

Sometime during that (stained glass?) window, I read Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney. Rereading it now, I don't think my initial analysis was too off the mark, or clouded by the divine fog in which I then found myself.


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.

Seamus Heaney

The literary critic J.V. Cunningham noted "How difficult it is to write in praise!". Well, here's my taking a shot.

Heaney uses contrasting images of divinity - first allusions to Christ, communion, and the crucifixion associated with the action of picking the blackberries - then to the Biblically defined sins of gluttony, lust, and greed (peppered through the first stanza and dominating the second) - to illuminate the emotions associated with picking and eating blackberries, which are in turn used to parallel the human tendency to unwittingly self-destruct, to Fall from Grace - even when intentions are good.

The conscious lack of agents in lines 1 & 2 ("...given heavy rain and sun/ for a full week, the blackberries would ripen,") suggests the influence of a higher power. The blackberries do not ripen themselves and "would ripen" only "given heavy rain and sun" - but "GIVEN" by WHOM? Sacred diction in lines 5 & 6 elevate the speaker's experience of eating blackberries to the equivalent of taking communion - "it's flesh was sweet/like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it." In aligning the act of partaking of the body or "flesh" and blood of Christ to biting into the wine-producing blackberries, Heaney cements this act as a religious experience.

The word "lust" is slipped in the poem to appear as an afterthought in a sentence that progresses from concrete to abstract in lines 7-9. The sentence that includes "...leaving stains upon the tongue /and a lust for picking" establishes "stains" and "lust" as parallels - both are nouns, but a stain is tangible, can be physically perceived; lust is not, cannot. "Hunger" is made the agent of the verb "sent" in line 8 - labeling hunger a driving force, capable of inciting action. "Lust" and "hunger" as used here are in opposition to the tone of the first stanza, but serve to hint at darker events to come.

In lines 10-12 the speaker's trip to crate the berries is likened to a religious pilgrimage or Herculean task, one to be "round hayfields, cornfields, and potato-drills... trekked", one that would "bleach [their] boots" - recalling Biblically scarlet sins being "washed white as snow" - as is the mission of most pilgrimages. The trek was only complete once their "cans were full"; here the transition into the second stanza's theme of gluttony begins.

The speaker and his companion's hands being "peppered with thorn pricks" is a stark allusion to Crucifixion of Christ. That the blackberries with their "big dark blobs burned/ Like a plate of eyes" are watching the pickers as they red-handedly stock them to be hauled away is intentional - and prepares the reader for the guilty disappointment of the next lines.

The greed, hunger, and lust merely hinted at in the first stanza are consummated in lines 15-17. They "hoarded, were "glutting" and as a consequence, a punishment, the once "sweet flesh.. turned sour" - the forbidden fruit from "the bush... fermented"... all was tarnished - the imagery is nearly sacrilegious. As with Adam and Even in the Biblical Garden of Eden, the speaker's innocence was purged and replaced with an undesirable knowledge - that once off the bush, a parallel to the fruit picked from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the berries they greedily hoarded and "hoped would keep", they "knew would not". The evil existed in the speaker's gluttony, which caused the surplus to rot - the knowledge of which ruined the joy of picking blueberries "every year" - yet this greed persisted annually.

Thus is human nature - and the masterful ability of Seamus Heaney to describe that tragic nature so beautifully.

It's actually not at all difficult to write in praise when you've got a poem such as this for inspiration.

I will eventually get to writing about Gus von A (Death in Venice) as a fallen dandy (as defined by dandyism.net) and the conclusion of my first installment of Hip Hop as Literature - I'm just not sure when.