‘Punishment’ is featured in North, a poetry collection published in 1975. North seeks images and symbols of the past to convey the violence and political conflicts of the end of the twentieth century. The collection has two main sections. The first part is more symbolic and talks about ancient matters, as Greek myths, bog bodies, and the Vikings, among others. The second part, on the other hand, describes life during The Troubles, a conflict in Northern Ireland that took place between 1968 and 1998.
‘Punishment’ was inspired by bog bodies. Bog Queen, The Grauballe Man, and Strange Fruit are other poems of the collection that were also inspired by bog bodies. ‘Punishment’, in particular, is written to Windeby I, a bog body found in Germany that was believed to be a girl. In the poem, the lyrical voice imagines the life of a girl charged with adultery. This ancient form of brutality relates to that of the end of the twentieth century and The Troubles in Ireland, relating past and present through an act of violence. ‘Punishment’ consists of 11 quatrains with no fixed rhyme scheme. Lines vary between two and eight syllables and there is a great use of enjambment lines.
Seamus Heaney indicated that this poem was based on personal experience. In an interview with the Paris Review he said about ‘Punishment’: “It’s a poem about standing by as the IRA tar and feather these young women in Ulster. But it’s also about standing by as the British torture people in barracks and interrogation centers in Belfast. It’s about standing between those two forms of affront”. You can read the full poem here.
I can feel the tug
on her naked front.
In this first quatrain, the lyrical voice imagines a girl. Throughout the poem, he/she will depict the stages leading to the execution of this young girl accused of adultery. The lyrical voice creates a vivid image, as he/she senses how she is brought to her death (“I can feel the tug/of the halter at the nape”). Notice the emphasis on the senses and how the lyrical voice feels the girl and “the wind/on her naked front.” The lyrical voice, thus, appears to be watching the girl from the outside as she is taken to the execution site.
It blows her nipples
of her ribs.
The second quatrain continues to describe the girl. The lyrical voice mentions her naked torso and how she walks towards the execution site. The girl is described as weak and fragile, as she stands in the wind and trembles. Notice how the effect of the wind in the girl’s body is depicted, by the color of her nipples (“amber beads”) and the trembling (“it shakes the frail rigging/of her ribs”). The lyrical voice pictures a vivid image of this girl in order to describe her suffering.
I can see her drowned
the floating rods and boughs.
The third quatrain furthers the description of the girl’s death. The stanza begins like the first one, emphasizing that the lyrical voice sees the girl in a certain situation (“I can see her drowned”). Now, the lyrical voice pictures the girl dying and depicts this by illustrating her body in a realistic way. The word “bog” is highly symbolic and the images that follow explain how she was drowned to death (by the “weighing stone” and “the floating rods and boughs” keeping her in place). There are a great number of vowel sounds in the stanza, which create a certain musicality that goes along with the images created.
Under which at first
The fourth quatrain continues with the scene of the girl’s death. The lyrical voice explains her punishments and the consequences of it. As in the previous stanza, the lyrical voice creates powerful images in order to illustrate the young girl’s terrible destiny in a very graphic and authentic way. The description of the girl as “barked sapling” emphasizes her youth and how she was “dug up”. “oak-bone” and “brain-firkin” function as compressed similes which further the description of the girl’s body and her bones after her death.
her shaved head
her noose a ring
The fifth quatrain focuses on how the girl’s body pictures her as a prisoner. The lyrical voice focuses on the details of the girl’s body. Her head was shaved “like a stubble of black corn”, as a punishment for adultery, and she is blindfolded (“her blindfold a soiled bandage”) and has a ring around her neck, as all prisoners do. However, “her noose a ring” could also mean the entrapment of married life, which the girl was condemned to.
before they punished you
The sixth quatrain expands on the symbolism of the ring/noose. The lyrical voice suggests that the ring is an element that stores death and “the memories of love”. This is a complex and intense image which is emphasized by the last two lines. Then, the lyrical voice addresses the subject of adultery directly by calling the girl “Little adulteress”, accentuating her youth and her fragility. Moreover, the punishment is also mentioned directly. From the previous stanza, there is a sort of link between the quatrains as one continues the message of the one before. This helps to provide a sort of unity in the poem, but, also, to accentuate every quatrain as an evocative portrait that provides a bigger scene. Notice, also, how the images depicted get more graphic and more dramatic with the stanzas in order to increase the dramatic tension in the text.
you were flaxen-haired,
My poor scapegoat,
The seventh quatrain talks about the past state of the young girl. The lyrical voice remembers that she was beautiful before, with her “flaxen-haired,/undernourished” and her “tar-back face”. These images contrast with those depicted before, as the girl, although in a past state, is mentioned as beautiful. The last line of the stanza is crucial because the tone of the poem shifts and the lyrical voice feels a sort of pity towards the girl. Moreover, the girl is mentioned with the possessive “My” and she is described, again, as a fragile victim (“poor scapegoat”).
I almost love you
I am the artful voyeur
The eighth quatrain presents a shift in the lyrical voice’s position. Throughout the stanzas, the lyrical voice described the girl from a distant point, but, in this particular quatrain, he/she relates sentimentally to the girl (“I almost love you”). The lyrical voice also mentions that he/she is “the artful voyeur”, a role which implies that he saw her death and did nothing to stop it (“the stones of silence”). The tone in this stanza is more intense, as the lyrical voice puts him/herself and his/her feelings in the stanza.
of your brains exposed
and all your numbered bones:
The ninth quatrain continues with the description of the girl’s body. The lyrical voice goes back to depicting the remains of the young girl’s body (“of your brain’s exposed/and darkened combs”). The girl appears to be completely exposed; there is little dignity in her death. Furthermore, the lyrical voice portrays the girl’s remains in a very powerful and descriptive way.
I who have stood dumb
wept by the railings,
The tenth quatrain shifts back to the lyrical voice’s position. This stanza is a critical part of the poem as the lyrical voice admits his/her feeling of guilt (“I who have stood dumb”). The lyrical voice feels guilty because he/she didn’t do anything and watched the girl being punished. The young girl’s helplessness and her death can be related, because of the strong historical background of the poem, to that of the Irish women in modern society.
who would connive
and tribal, intimate revenge.
The final quatrain continues with the message of the previous one. The tone of the poem shifts and becomes a sort of confession. The lyrical voice refers to the barbarities of the modern world (“civilized outrage”) and how to reverse them (“tribal, intimate revenge”). Thus, the poem finishes with a dramatic message. As already mentioned, the poem is deeply related to historical events that happened in Ireland during the end of the twentieth century and here Heaney recalls his own reactions and denounces that particular time.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Justin Heaney was born in 1939 and died in 2013. He was an Irish poet, playwright, lecturer, and translator. In the 1960s Seamus Heaney became a lecturer in St College in Belfast after attending Queen’s University Belfast. His most notable works are: ‘Death of a Naturalist,’ ‘North,’ ‘Field Work,’ ‘The Spirit Level,’ ‘Beowulf,’ ‘District and Circle,’ and ‘Human chain.’ Moreover, during his lifetime, Seamus Heaney received many awards such as the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968), the E.M. Foster Award (1975), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995), the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1996), the Saoi of Aosdána (1997), the Golden Wreath of Poetry (2001) and the T. S. Eliot Prize (2006), among many others. Explore more Seamus Heaney poems.