Heaney’s poetry is quite agnate, in that it often reflects on his personal memories of childhood and the nostalgia he feels as he looks back. In “Blackberry Picking” and “Death of a Naturalist” he describes a childhood experience that precipitates a change in the boy from the receptive and protected innocence of childhood to the fear and uncertainty of adolescence. Both poems open with an evocation of a summer landscape and Heaney utilises the senses in order to maximise the effect of such a fresh and delightful atmosphere.
In “Blackberry Picking” Heaney utilises the berries to personify his memories throughout the poem, the sense of lust and desire which the reader would connote with blackberries. Perhaps, these infer his lust for life, the way he would relish every living moment like it was his last. Furthermore, in “Death of a Naturalist” Heaney applies the frogspawn as a symbol of the dismal changes undergone when a boy becomes a man and in the same way as “blackberry Picking” wishes to enforce a stark contrast between old and new.
Mid-term break, however, is different in that it explored raw emotion and an indescribable event – the loss of a child. Unlike “Blackberry Picking” and “Death of a Naturalist” the poem demonstrates that Heaney’s childhood was not all pleasurable and that he spent a period, in particular, feeling mournful and dispirited. Interestingly, he chooses to limit the linguistic devices, almost until they were almost none existent. This adds weight to the poem and is effective in a different way, as though something is missing.
This sense of absence is prevalent throughout the poem and developed through the lack of description, similes, metaphors and consistent stanza structure which his other pieces of work are peppered with. This clearly reflects the way the loss of his brother left him and his family incomplete, as though there was something missing. Moreover, this ineffability, as Heaney seems incapable of comprehending or communicating his feelings, suggests a degree of respect – as though such a tragedy should not ever be attempted to be translated into spoken words, as they could never do it justice.
By stripping away from the poetic devices the poet leaves the poem revealed and vulnerable – reflecting a poignant and tragic side to Seamus Heaney. Similarly, “At a Potato Digging” is quite intriguing in that it is structured completely differently to other Seamus Heaney poetry. It deals, once more, with tenses, but the future and present as well as the past. The concepts of depression and reliance are encapsulated within the historical significance of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845. Heaney demonstrates that his poetry doesn’t entirely focus on his memory, by broadening the scope to a far wider group, the entire farming population. The poem deals with the dependency the farmers have on the earth and how if Mother Nature turns against them, their livelihoods become destroyed. The antitheses which ring true are that of prosperity and depression, fear and hope.
Furthermore, the poems make use imagery and the development of a semantic field to mirror the emotions and themes the poem represents. ‘Death of a Naturalist’ links language to meaning as well, the vivid imagery of the second stanza creating a marked contrast with the simple, childlike wording of lines fifteen to twenty-one. There is a wealth of description here and we can sympathise with the child’s disgust of the creatures that evolved from his precious jars of frogspawn. In “Blackberry Picking” Heaney reflects on spending time in the fields picking blackberries and generates a rural image through vivid descriptions and by intense manifests of memories he holds.
The first sixteen lines in the poem encapsulate the beauty and sensuality of nature. However, the poem’s take a dark turn in the second stanzas. The world is now a threatening place, full of ugliness and menace. Arguably, it is not the world that has changed so much as the boy’s perception of it. There is still a strong emphasis on decay and putrefaction, but now it is not balanced by images suggesting the profusion of life. The sounds are no longer delicate but are “coarse”, “bass” and “farting”. The onomatopoeic “slap” and “plop” slow down the pace here and the full stop gives emphasis to the feeling of threat. In both poems there is a deterioration of Heaney’s poetry, as though he’s been killed and the happiness which once processed him has died.
The semantic field evokes a sense of incompletion, as though part of him has died and that his life will never be the same again. Heaney suggests that in fact our lives are split in two, as a child and as a child masked by adulthood and disappointment. In “Blackberry Picking”, he applies lexis such as “fungus” which is unwanted and grows over natural plants and wood imply that his inner-child still exists, but has been suppressed as he has grown older. It also adds to the generally bleak and negative semantic field which the poet creates. Heaney addresses all the senses with his imagery and hints here and there among his initial admiration and enjoyment that things are perhaps not all they seem. The innocence of childhood and the wonders of nature are transient, and disappointment has to be confronted.
Moreover, “At a potato Digging” reflects the harsh, unpredictable nature of farming in the fields to earn a living. The poem addresses some overlapping themes with “Death of a Naturalist” and “Blackberry Picking”, however, reflects the past, present and future. It also paints a far less rosy image of life on a farm. The heavy reliance farmers have of Mother Nature and the earth is signified through the sense of strain which is developed in the opening section of the poem. In line 15 Heaney writes about “crumbing”, “muscles” and “tougher” which all infer the pressure of the earth that the farmers placed. He suggests that something had to give, if you will, before the strain between the farmers dependence and the earth became too much.
There is an underlying sense of fear as well, even in the opening section, juxtaposed with the prosperity which is more explicitly referenced, evoking a sense of anticipation. The onomatopoeic images of “Higgledy” and “ragged” imply there was an awkwardness even before the potato famine has even occurred in the poem. This immediately suggests that the prosperity and happiness masked an ominous fear of what was to come. This awkwardness is referenced through the strong alliterative effects, “grubbing” and “grafted” or “pits” and “pus”. This Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, which is often monosyllabic, makes use of technical or dialect words. The harshness of such phrases enforces the extent of the damage the famine has caused and how hard the work was that they once did.
The flatness of the words also implies great monotony and displeasure at farming. Furthermore, in section three, the reference to macabre lexis develops the image of transgression, as the farmers seem to have been reduced by the deep famine in the country. The reference to “live skulls”, which is an oxymoron signifies the incompletition of the farmers, as though they are alive, yet ‘dead’ – perhaps suggesting without their potatoes, they have no livelihood and therefore, no life. In addition, those who survived were famished – Heaney likens this to the sharp beaks of birds snipping at people’s guts. Heaney personifies them with animalistic qualities, as though they have been physically and mentally reduced to viscous acts by the famine.
The people are shown as desperate and demoralized – “hungering from birth” – and cursing the ground, by describing it as “the bitch earth”. This makes clear they believe the earth has betrayed them and that Mother Nature is to blame. As this section moves back in time at the start, so it ends by returning to the present, where the “potato diggers are” and “you still smell the running sore” – as if the blight opened a wound that has never healed. Despite the fact that the famine has been and gone is irrelevant, as the people still feel the effects and memory of the event, even years on. The word “still” assures the reader of this.
Whereas, in “Mid-Term Break” the description is far more restrained and confined to an occasional subtle phrase or proleptic marker. There are particular lexis which signifies the depressing and yet seemingly humane death of Heaney’s younger brother. Furthermore, implicitly, there is a dark undertone, which much like other Heaney poetry, runs throughout the poem. This is supported by the creation of an unnatural and awkward feeling as the reader studies the poem. The reference to his “father crying” is a proleptic marker, as it allows the reader to comprehend the extent of damage the event caused. To see one’s father, who carries connotations of reliability and supernormal qualities, physically breakdown into tears is an unnatural occurrence. This, along with the unusual choice of puns Heaney utilises, such as “mourning” and “morning”, enforce the awkward and unnatural nature of such a horrific tragedy. In addition, the final two stanzas are representative of the conflicting emotions; the semantic field generated through the natural images is particularly effective.
While, in line 16 the “snowdrops” indicate the purity and innocence of such a young child, the “poppy” in the final stanza contrasts drawing connotations of vibrancy and passion. These reveal different aspects of the poem, should we be saddened by the loss of an innocent or heartened by the fact he will lie peaceful forever? Furthermore, the poppy signifies the respect and the way the child has been gently put to sleep. The fact that his brother is “wearing” the bruise humanises the dead and fragile body, as though he dressed for an occasion. Heaney seems to be suggesting that the family preparing him for death, to be finally rested in peace.
Similarly, the two poems follow a closely linked structure, in that they both contain one opening longer stanza, followed by a shorter one. The poem is a sonnet, which inherently celebrates something; in this case Heaney seems to celebrate life. However, this happiness is squandered in the second stanza by reality and adulthood. This is the way in which “Blackberry Picking” deals with death, by representing the death of vulnerability. He allows his emotions to take him over, his writing becomes unrestrained and out of control. Moreover, in the first stanza the use of polysyndeton, followed by a burst of punctuation gives the opening half increasing pace.
The inconsistency in line length gives the poem an excitable, joyful nature. The poem is far more unpredictable. The second stanzas contain more consistent line lengths and the pace is generally slowed down through more conventional punctuation. This mirrors Heaney’s growing up, the way he becomes far more reasoned and constrained – his once joyful personality has been killed by the disappointment of reality.
Furthermore, “At a potato Digging” is structured quite differently, it is divided into four parts and these are signified far more explicitly. The first and last sections have a loose iambic metre (a mix of tetrameters and pentameters) and a clear ABAB rhyme scheme – which breaks down only in the poem’s final line. Heaney evokes a sense of prosperity, supported by the stable stanza lengths – as the weather and land allow the Irish farmers to earn a living. The break, however, suddenly disrupts the continuity and the ability of the farmers to work. The change in syllables in each line, from ten syllables to seven and eight, between the first and third sections of the poem indicate the natural deterioration that occurs as it progresses. The fact that the final section is more bare, in terms of line lengths and syllables implies that the farmers have been reduced by the famine.
The second section has fewer rhymes in an irregular pattern, so the effect is not very obvious to the reader. But the third section uses rhyme in pairs: AABB and so on. Here the rhyme words are emphatic, an effect made stronger by the trochaic metre. (The stress usually falls on the first syllable of each pair.) Such a rhythm demonstrates the bitterness and the drive behind the diction and the anger the farmers feel when they wait helplessly for the weather to change. It gives what he says a more compelling and convincing nature, as though he is speaking with intent to the reader.
Finally, “Mid-Term Break” is the most simple of the four, in that it sustains a fairly consistent stanza structure. This seems surprising based on the overwhelming and devastating themes the poem carries. Perhaps, this infers that the family attempted to continue normal after the event. However, it is clear there are disturbances within the poem’s internal structure. Heaney uses enjambment to demonstrate the way, emotionally; he feels confused and struggles to contain the anger and bitterness associated with losing someone close to you.
The wildly fluctuating line lengths, juxtaposed with the strength maintained in the stanza lengths implies that Heaney’s emotions are inconsistent and confused. In a poignant act of respect, Heaney breaks the monotony by separating the final line from the main body of the poem. This isolates the phrase and infers the physical separation of his brother and how he feels emotionally lost and without hope. The last line is very final, as though he is signing off his brother’s life.
To conclude, the four poems deal with the positives and negatives, individually, offering an insight into Heaney’s past and heritage. They are very different, in that they structurally and linguistically have different aims. The linguistic devices in “Death of a Naturalist” and “Blackberry Picking” are beautiful and sensuous reflecting the happy memories which Heaney holds in his childhood. This juxtaposes with the issues of depression and uncertainty in “At a Potato Digging” and to a lesser extent, “Mid-Term Break”. While, “At a Potato Digging” makes full use of description and a vast array of adjectives and metaphors, “Mid-Term Break” plays on the simplicity to be most effective to the reader.