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"Awen yn codi o'r cudd ac yn cydio'r cwbl"
- Waldo Williams
(Awen arising from hiding and everything binding)

Devil's Blackberries

The idea that blackberries are not to be eaten after Michaelmas Day (29th September) is linked in legend to the story that the Archangel Michael cast Satan out of heaven on that day and he landed in some brambles and so cursed the berries which ever since have been regarded as not to be eaten after this date. The alternative date of 11th October is explained by the fact that this was Michaelmas Day in the old calendar.

The legend was put, obliquely, to very effective use by the poet Jean Earle who entitled one of her poems ‘Devil’s Blackberries’:

Late pickers – cut off from sunset
In a ditch of brambles –
From earthed heels let fly
Their lengthening shadows

That shoot up the hill behind,
To a view of the sea.

Far from their source,
These poles-with-pinheads
Stripe the glowing slope
All their own. Pity they have no eyes,
Since they are here, to watch
The passionate tide blooding the coast.

The sun goes down, the gatherers creep
Out from the thorns,
Their shadows come to heel.

No one has put the sunset
To any use. Over the hill
The group bedraggles home
Shadows that go before them,
Berries. And worms.

These ‘late pickers’ inhabit the darkness while their shadows, elongated to the top of the slope, could if they had eyes, watch the sunset. Only when the sun has set do they emerge from the ditch, their shadows coming to heel to lead them now home with their wormy berries.

I find this ingenious. The striking imagery conveys a strong visual sense of the scene and the rather spooky dominance of the shadows. An ironic subtext lies behind the simplicity of the surface presentation: the pickers as lost souls inhabiting the darkness, their shadows guarding them against the ‘passionate tide’ created by the sunset (but with ‘blooded’ and ‘passionate’ suggesting further layers of reference) and leading them home with their wormy pickings cursed by the Devil, forbidden fruit indeed! Michael’s role as guardian against the darkness is subverted here and, as often in Jean Earles’ poetry, the dark and the light are construed ambiguously as contrary influences which we live with constantly and of which our unconscious daily activities usually make us unaware.

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