The Irish Poet Seamus Heaney published the poem Punishment in his popular collection North, 1975. It is one of his bog-bodies poems from the collection that portrays the violence and other conflicts and troubles taking place in Northern Ireland during the end of the 20th century.
The Nobel Prize winner Heaney gave a crucial contribution to poetry, especially in Ireland. His notable works include Death of a Naturalist, North, The Spirit Level, Field Work, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, and District and Circle.
In the poem Punishment, Seamus Heaney describes the brutality and violence that was at its peak towards the end of the 20th century and how it affected the women of that time. Though it is all the imagination of the poet, the way every aspect is portrayed revealed the reality of that time.
Seamus Heaney Punishment Summary
The First Stanza of the poem describes how the poet can feel the pain of the girl whose body was found in a peat bog and can imagine the scenario of how the townsfolk brutally punished the delicate girl to death. With the halter or choker on her neck, the poet claims that he can feel the tug and sense how her frail body has been ruthlessly pulled. He can even feel the breeze sweeping across her bare body.
The poet continues to describe the girl in the Second Stanza and how the delicate woman trembles against the wind, which is even straining her ribs. He talks about how the wind changes the color of her nipples to look like amber beads as it blows on them.
In the Third Stanza of the poem, the poet repeats that he can see her drowned body in the bog implying that the girl is now dead and that she was drowned for punishment. She is weighed down into the water by the stone, which is secured in position by the floating rods and boughs.
In the Fourth Stanza, the poet now describes her body as it is dug out and compares her to a barked sapling depicting her youth covered in bark-like skin. He further describes her physical condition as oak-bone, which means that her bones are now similar to that of the wood of oak and brain firkin which describes that the brain of her now dead body is no different from a cask.
In the Fifth Stanza, the speaker elaborates on her physical characteristics by comparing her shaved head to a corn stubble that has aged darker. Her blindfold is now a soiled or stained bandage and the noose around her neck is characterized as a ring that could stand for love or a close relationship.
The Sixth Stanza of the poem further describes the noose as a ring and how it symbolizes all the loving memories stored in it. He now calls her Little adulteress, showing that she was punished and that she was punished to death. Her crime of adultery led to this punishment.
The Seventh Stanza also describes the girl’s appearance and her previous self, prior to being chastised. He calls her flaxen-haired describing her blonde or pale-yellow hair color and also praises her tar-black face calling it beautiful. In the next line, he calls her a scapegoat and sympathizes with her. A scapegoat is a person who is held responsible for the actions of another.
In the poem’s Eighth Stanza, the poet talks about his feelings for the dead woman. He said he almost loved her and even though he did if he was present at the moment when the poor girl was being punished, he would still be silent. He wouldn’t have done anything to help her or save her. He calls himself an artful voyeur who takes pleasure or inspiration from this.
The Ninth Stanza of the poem continues telling us about how the poet is an artful voyeur for the exposed remains of the dead woman’s brain and the darkened combs or the interior, exposed structure of the brain. He also calls himself a voyeur of her loose muscles and numbered bones.
The Tenth Stanza is more about the guilt of the poet when he said he had stood dumb. He explains how he saw girls being punished and destroyed and was just a dumb spectator. He didn’t do anything to help them. The betraying sisters here are all those modern girls of the time still being punished for their relations with the British army men. Caul here can be the hair net of women describing how they are covered in tar and weeping for their suffering and he didn’t do anything.
The Eleventh Stanza ends the poem where the poet connives or permits events to occur that he might find objectionable. However he shows his expression of distaste over the cruel punishment, he understands the tribals’ idea of revenge as the women were having relationships with the enemy troops.
The poem Punishment displays the feelings of the poet and his sympathy towards the women who were being punished for having relations with British Soldiers which was considered a crime among the Irish citizens. Although he sympathizes with the dead woman found in the bog and all others who were still punished for the same, he also understands the feelings of the tribal people who punished them as they were close to those who destroyed their family members. Heaney described all that in his poem Punishment.