In this essay I will endeavour to explore all various phrases, words, metaphors and diction that contribute towards the portrayal of images regarding family and country life. I shall analyse two of Heaney’s poems to gather these images, the two poems being ‘Mid – Term Break’, taken from ‘Death of a naturalist’ (Heaney’s first collection), and ‘Blackberry Picking’. I chose these two poems as I felt that ‘Mid – Term Break’ portrays family life excellently, whereas ‘Blackberry Picking’ is just as effective in portraying country life.
This essay will also give the reader insight into the mind of Heaney as a young child, as both of the poems are written in first person narrative, his views and thoughts gathered from his childhood, yet written by Heaney as an adult looking back at his youth. I shall first focus on ‘Mid – Term Break’. The title immediately suggests that something is wrong or unusual, as it is irregular to have a break during mid -term. The title because of its obscurity brings about two possible emotions.
The first, curiosity, releasing the inquisition of, what’s wrong? This inquiry is often found being asked by a young child to his/her mother, perhaps driven by their own sense of curiosity frequently found in young children. The second emotion evoked by the title being happiness and relief at the thought of a break from school perhaps. This however is very ironic, as the rest of the poem is related to death. The words ‘mid – term’, like the first mentioned emotion of curiosity, are again associated with children, as it relates to school times.
Consequently of these associations suggested by the title, my understanding of the title is that it is related to a child who is having a break from school for some unknown reason. I think the poet chose this title perhaps to confuse the reader as to whether the poem is going to be filled with happiness and joy at the thought of a break from school, or a tragedy forcing the child to be summoned from school. After reading the poem through, I am inclined to believe that the poem is written in past tense, from the 1950’s, about a boy who has been taken out of school during the mid – term, due to the tragic death of his younger brother.
Heaney’s emotions are very confused throughout the poem and he doesn’t know how to accept the dire circumstances. This poem is more so related to family life than to that of country life, as there are not many aspects of this poem which relate specifically to the country, whereas there is an abundance of use of words and phrases with relevance to family life. It is written in first person narrative, with three lines to each of it’s seven stanzas. One line is separated from the others at the very end of the poem I sat all morning in the college sick bay counting bells ringing knelling classes to a close’.
This first line of the poem sets the tone of the poem almost immediately. It depicts the similitude of the setting to a funeral, there is a tense atmosphere. The assonance of the sound ‘ell’ in the words ‘bells’ and ‘knelling’ seem to make the sentence drone on even more, making the wait seem even more prolonged. Second line of the first stanza ‘At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home’ represents passing of time, resembling the passing of his brother’s life.
Although the connotations of this stanza are linked with the funeral and seem to give thought to them, Heaney does not yet describe how he himself feels at this point. The first line of the second stanza is a question, this question of ‘In the porch I met my father crying? ‘ emphasises the confusion and naivety Heaney faces at the harsh reality. He does not understand why his father, his role model is crying. A second question is used in the second line of this stanza, the question being ‘He had always taken funerals in his stride? He still does not comprehend the finality of his brother’s death.
These two questions portray the first of Heaney’s own emotions in the poem. The third line of this stanza holds a double meaning. This is when ‘Big Jim Evans’ says that ‘it was a hard blow’. These words are representative of the emotional blow the family are experiencing, and of the impact between the car and Christopher (Heaney’s deceased brother). This stanza starts to evoke sympathy towards Heaney and his family, as the images that we receive make us very empathetic and sorrowful.
We now are experiencing Heaney’s personal distraught as well as his family’s. The third stanza bears relevance to the emotions of two members of Heaney’s family. Heaney and his baby brother. Both of their naivety is demonstrated in their actions. For example, the baby ‘cooed and laughed and rocked the pram’. This contrasts completely to the atmosphere created by the second stanza. The baby is obviously oblivious to the now depressing atmosphere. Heaney the goes on to say ‘I was embarrassed by old men standing up to shake my hand’.
This shows that he does not know how to accept, and refuses to accept the sympathy being thrust towards him. He does not know how to accept, and refuses to accept the emotions brought with the atrocity. The level of sympathy and empathy shown by people is demonstrated when Heaney says the ‘old men stand up to shake my hand’. This shows to the reader how grave the atmosphere at this time was, as it is usually the child who should stand up to shake an adult’s hand. Enjambement is used to join the final line of the third stanza to the first of the fourth stanza.
The use of direct speech in this line now says that the old men tell Heaney that they were ‘”sorry for my trouble”‘, addressing the tragedy that he is still refusing to accept. The line ‘Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest, away at school,’ gives us a little back-round image of Heaney’s family. By using the image of Heaney’s mother holding his hand in the words ‘as my mother held my hand’, Heaney suggests to the reader that he was close to his mother, and that maybe she was relying on him for emotional support at her time of need. The fifth stanza is incredibly sad, again using enjambement to set the mood.
The use of enjambement creates the line ‘… as my mother held my hand in hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs’. This contributes enormously to the poet’s aim of evoking the reader’s emotions. The line shows the stress, anger and sorrow of the mother, her cough acting like an illness she can’t get rid of, except it is not an illness, but a death she cannot forget. The repetition of assonance this time in the short letter sound ‘a’ – ‘At’, ‘ambulance’, ‘arrived’ ‘stanched’ ‘and’ ‘bandaged’, emphasises the short, quick stopping of his brother’s life.
Heaney then refers to his brother’s body as ‘the corpse’, this shows his detachment from the scenario, and again depicts how he doesn’t understand the finality of death. He still sees a corpse, a corpse that could be anyone’s, not as his brother’s body. We are greeted with a clean and pure image in the sixth stanza. The selection of ‘snowdrops’, ‘candles’ and ‘soothed’ create the feeling that the tension has been lifted from Heaney. We learn that he has not seen his brother for six weeks from the line ‘I saw him for the first time in six weeks’.
This shows the long periods of time that Heaney had stayed away from home for. The word ‘him’ finally shows his realisation of his brother’s death. In this final stanza we are now beginning to understand Heaney’s sorrow. We know that he now is accepting the body as his brother’s and grieving. He goes on to say that his brother ‘lay in the four foot box as in his cot’. This displays the peace and calmness that Heaney now feels having addressed the situation, and after coming to terms with the harsh truth. Heaney uses one simple line at the end of the poem.
It has deliberately been withheld to arouse shock within the reader. This poignant, skilful line really reflects the terrible waste of life, and we can now empathise fully and understand the family’s shock and grief. This final line that Heaney uses is ‘A four foot box, a foot for every year’. This makes the reader exceptionally mournful and remorseful to learn how tragic the accident was for Heaney’s family. In conclusion to reading the poem, and writing about it, I feel that with relevance to the title of my essay, that this analysis of the poem contributes more towards Heaney’s family life than to country life.
I am therefor going to analyse ‘Blackberry Picking’ thoroughly in order to extract various words, phrases and poetic techniques that will assist with the portrayal of country life in this essay. The title of the poem ‘Blackberry Picking’ immediately complies with the search for portrayal of country life. The word ‘Blackberry’ is in itself associated with the country, but when placed with the word ‘Picking’, it creates the whole feeling of outdoor pursuit, you could even call it ‘typical country life’. My understanding of ‘Blackberry Picking’, is that it is about young Heaney and his comrades going out in August to pick blackberries.
It describes how he and his friends made it somewhat like a mission to fill their pots with blackberries! It then goes on to describe how they hoarded the berries, but were to sorrowful to find that their precious berries had fermented. The poem is written in first person narrative. It has no set rhythm or structure. The first stanza is full of words that almost illustrate the country in the reader’s mind. For example Heaney says that the blackberries would ‘ripen’. Instantaneously I had the image of purple, ripening blackberries in my head, along with the big green bush that they grow on.
He then describes how the different colours of the blackberries, and the different textures in these two lines, ‘… a glossy purple clot among others red, green, hard as a knot’ Immediately the scene is set, and a range of colourful blackberries are depicted. The fact that some berries were still red and green when others were purple captures Heaney’s hope of them turning into the glossy purple blackberries he adores. He describes the blackberries as being ‘sweet’. This contributes to the poet’s aim of not only texture and visual imagery, but also describing the taste aswell.
Heaney conveys to the reader how he and his friends went out to collect blackberries ‘where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots’. Again not only visual imagery is provoked, but the descriptions of the briars scratching and the wetness of the grass reveal even more knowledge of country life to the reader. The words ‘lust for picking’ contribute to expose the way he felt towards the actual event as opposed to the actual blackberries. Four words in the very first line of the second stanza have a large augmentation to the build up of portrayal of country life.
These words are ‘hayfields’, ‘cornfields’ and ‘potato drills’. These words suggest to me that Heaney lived on a farm, which would ultimately propose that Heaney lived a ‘country life’. The word ‘trekked’ in the second line gives us the idea that Heaney and his friends saw their outdoor pursuit of blackberries as a mission perhaps, like a childish daydream. He then goes on to say that their hands were ‘peppered with thorn pricks, our palms as sticky as Bluebeard’s’. The ‘thorn pricks’ indicate their eagerness to obtain their berries, almost as though they were their treasure, and they would do anything to regain it.
He relates to ‘Bluebeard’, the pirate, perhaps as another addition to his childhood daydreams? We learn that in the final stanza, that they ‘hoarded the berries in the byre’. The word ‘byre’ meaning ‘cow house’ again bears great relevance to the country life theme. The word ‘hoarded’ again conveys a childish selfishness, as though they wished to keep them to themselves. Heaney describes the fermentation of the blackberries as ‘a fur, a rat – grey fungus, glutting on our cache’. I think the description shows his detest of the inevitable rotting of the berries.
He describes how the ‘sweet flesh turned sour’, this depicts the change again in the berries. Heaney’s personal response and emotions towards the demise of his fruit is shown in the last three lines. He says ‘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. ‘ This shows an utterly childlike perception of life. When Heaney says ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not’, it reflects the hope he first felt at the beginning of the poem when he could see them changing to a purple colour.
He does not want to accept the rotting of the fruit, but subconsciously knows he will have to. I believe that after analysing this poem that the emotional effects on the reader are not as prominent as in ‘Mid – Term Break’. However, both of the poems have different aims towards the reader. I feel that ‘Mid – Term Break’ was written to evoke deep emotions from the reader, whereas I feel that ‘Blackberry Picking’ was written to create wonderful colourful images of the country. Although I say these two things, I do not wish to say that they do not contain any of each other’s qualities at all.
For example, although ‘Mid – Term Break’ evokes emotion, imagery is used in the words ‘snowdrops’ and ‘poppy bruise’. Similarly in ‘Blackberry Picking’, imagery is it’s prominent feature but emotions are evoked when Heaney says ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not’. Finally, in conclusion to reading and analysing both poems I feel that Heaney has succeeded in portraying family and country life. I also feel that he has succeeded in evoking much thought from the reader in ‘Mid – Term Break’.
I feel this because of the range of emotions he depicts throughout this poem. Heaney again has succeeded in making the imagery in ‘Blackberry Picking’ very eminent, and protrusive. I do not feel that there is a striking similarity in between these two poems at all, although the main similarity in my view is the naivety and confusion felt by Heaney in both circumstances. Of the two poems, I preferred ‘Mid – Term Break’ because I enjoy a poem which is thought and emotion provoking, and I did not feel that ‘Blackberry Picking’ provoked much emotion from me at all.