16 pages 32 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Blackberry Picking

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide


“Blackberry Picking” is a poem by Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney and originally published in his debut collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. The poem, typically read as autobiographical, explores imagery of the natural world and the speaker’s childhood alongside themes of growing up, natural and imposed order, and the passage of time. Heaney dedicated this poem to one of his teachers at Queen’s University Belfast, Philip Hobsbaum.

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) is a celebrated Irish poet. Though originally from Northern Ireland, he lived his later years in the Republic of Ireland and has become a cornerstone of the Irish literary tradition. Enjoyed and studied across the world, his work has been embraced for its accessibility as well as its historical and literary value. During his studies, Heaney was inspired by other poets whose work drew from their home landscapes; much of Heaney’s own work focuses on the natural world and his childhood growing up in an Ireland split apart by the violent border conflict between the north and south.

Heaney’s poetry has won him numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement in 2004, the Irish PEN Award for Literature in 2005, the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2006, and several others. Heaney studied at Queen’s University Belfast before going on to train as a teacher, and he later returned to Queen’s University to take on a role of lecturer in English. His teaching career also took him to America, where he became visiting professor at the University of California, and then to Carysfort College in Dublin. He also served as a visiting professor at Harvard and as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He split his time predominantly between America and Ireland.

During his travels he wrote and published several poetry collections, beginning with Death of a Naturalist in 1966 and including many others, such as Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and The Spirit Level (1996). In 1997, Heaney was introduced to the ranks of Saoi of Aosdána, the highest possible honor in the Irish arts council. His work in translation—involving Irish dialects, Old English, and Modern English—also helped bring ancient literature to the forefront of contemporary literary studies.

Heaney passed away in Blackrock, County Dublin, in 2013. His literary legacy is celebrated with a permanent exhibit in Dublin as well as the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast.

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Blackberry Picking.” 1966. Poetry Foundation.


The speaker, now an adult, recounts childhood memories of late August days when, if the weather was on their side, blackberries would be ready to pick. They’d ripen one at a time, a single dark purple berry surrounded by underripe red and green ones. The berry pickers—to whom to speaker alternately refers as “you,” “I,” and “we”—would eat the ripe blackberry and it would leave behind dark stains on their tongues, making them wish there were more.

As the underripe ones darkened and became ready to eat, the speaker would go out with his friends and whatever household receptacles they could find to gather the berries. The thorns would scratch the children as they trod through the damp grass. They would go all around the fields collecting as many blackberries as they could find, making sure to layer hard green berries at the bottom of their vessels. By the end, their hands would be scratched by thorns and covered in berry juice.

The speaker and his friends would keep the harvested berries inside the cowshed. However, as they added more and more, they would discover the berries were molding, the juice leaking out and beginning to rot. By this point, all the berries would be ruined. The speaker was always devastated and felt the injustice that all their beautiful fruit had been wasted. Every year, he hoped somehow the berries would last, while knowing deep down that they never would.