Seamus Heaney poetry comparison

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Laura Ford 10JB


In this essay I am going to be comparing the poems “Blackberry Picking,” “Mid-Term Break” and “Digging.” They all focus on the idea that childhood experiences effect, teach and develop us to be the people we are today.  I chose to compare these literary pieces because not only did they all link in with my overall aim of the essay, they also allowed me to search and “dig” into the observations Heaney had upon life, due to his childhood events.

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry, Ireland and was the eldest of nine children – this means he was the pioneer and that his experiences in life and as a child not only taught him, but also his younger siblings. Moreover, Heaney grew up in the countryside of Mossbawn on his father’s fifty acre farm; we can see that Heaney is a country child due to the content of his poems, “to scatter new potatoes that we picked.” Furthermore, traditional farming methods, which had been handed down for generations, were still used on his father’s farm. I think the guilt and pressure to follow the family tradition lead Heaney to write the poem “Digging,” for he says, “the squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.” The comparison of the pen resembling a gun suggests his desire to become a writer, destroyed the family tradition of becoming a farmer. Although he may have felt guilty that he never pursued the family tradition, Heaney went on, after studying English at Queen’s University in Belfast, to become a lecturer. As he became more successful, he travelled to lecture in several universities including Harvard in America. Lastly, Heaney achieved success in his poetry writing in 1966 when “Death of a Naturalist” was published, and again in 1995 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This award was made “for the works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth with exalt everyday miracles of the living past.” I believe Heaney deserved this award not only because he is an outstanding poet but also because he questions the reader with his use of words with an energy and passion. Moreover, he uses many of his poems to analyse his past experiences, in order to see how they have affected him as a person; this allows the reader to learn from his encounters and adapt it to their own lives.

We can learn from all three poems, “Blackberry Picking,” “Mid-term Break” and “Digging.” Ostensibly, in the poem “Blackberry Picking,” the reader would assume Heaney is recalling the annual experience of picking wild fruit in late summer, as in the line “picked until the cans were full.” However, the poem does not merely describe a child’s summer activity; he uses this activity in the form of a metaphor. Rather, it details a stronger motivation, ruled by a more primal urge, guised as a fanciful experience of childhood and its many lessons. The narrator is not really picking blackberries, but is instead picking memories. The blackberries represent the experiences of the narrator. As the blackberries start to ripen, they do so slowly, starting with “just one” and then progressing until there are hundreds, maybe thousands of them waiting to be picked. When the narrator “ate that first one,” a desire for more is brought about, “leaving stains upon the tongue.” This symbolizes that when one picks out memories, they always begin with their sweetest and happiest ones, “its flesh was sweet.” However, Heaney then presents the argument that bad memories will always leave their mark as well. Their “thorns” do indeed “prick” our fingers and leave palms sticky. The narrator includes a reference to Bluebeard, a fictional character who murdered his wives. In this way, the poem suggests that the red juice from the blackberries makes their hands as sticky as Bluebeard's hands, covered not with juice, but with blood – the poem makes it clear that memories of wrongdoing cannot be escaped or hidden. While the narrator was away from the hoard, the berries began to rot with a “rat-grey fungus”, just as memories decay and slowly fade. Additionally, once the berries had been plucked from the bush, they began to sour, just as even happy memories can reveal sadness once brought to mind.

In the second and last stanza of the poem we are reminded that he was but a child. The thought of losing the berries “always made him feel like crying,” with the thought of all that beauty gone sour in the aftermath of lust. The lack of wisdom in younger years is emphasized by the common childish retort of “it wasn’t fair.” He kept up the childish hope that this time would be different, that the berries would keep and that the lust, work, and pain might not have been in vain - that others would not “glut” upon what he desired. However, such are the hopes of childhood, naïve and ever optimistic.

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Contrastingly, the poem “Mid-term Break,” portrays the true event in which the narrator, who came back from boarding school at the tender age of 14 (part child, part adult), deals with the loss of his four year old brother, Christopher. In this poem, Heaney deals with several important issues; such as time, age, family, pain, love and most of all death. Death is an awkward subject that most want to avoid in life but it is also one that dominates people lives the most, particularly for children. Moreover, although death in itself is devastating and heartbreaking, a death in ...

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