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‘Punishment’ is a poem about the revenge that societal groups take on individuals who transgress unwritten laws. Written by the renowned Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, it was inspired by the discovery of the preserved remains of Windeby I in a German peat bog, as well as The Troubles.
|Written by||Seamus Heaney|
|Themes||Punishment, duality, misogyny|
|Meter||None, free verse|
|Literary devices||Tense, unnamed narrator, punctuation, enjambment|
|Meaning||The poem has many possible readings but Heaney has said that it is an exploration of the treatment of Northern Irish woman by their own people during The Troubles, as well as the treatment of the Irish by the British.Heaney explores the past as a way of understanding the present.|
Seamus Heaney is a famous Irish poet born in County Derry in 1939. His father’s side of the family were rural farmers, while his mother’s side was involved with industry. He has referenced this duality of town and country mindsets to influence his work.
At 12, he won a scholarship to the Roman Catholic, St Columb’s College and moved to Derry, his first experience of city life. At St Columb’s, he was taught Latin and Irish. He later attended Queen's University in Belfast, where he added Anglo-Saxon to his range of languages. This diversity of language studies influenced his poetry, with the tones of all three being mixed with modern English throughout his work. He also translated works into English from the original Irish and Anglo-Saxon, including the classic Beowulf (1999).
After his graduation, Heaney became a schoolteacher. He then met and married fellow teacher and writer, Marie Devlin, in 1965. Heaney published his first work, Death of the Naturalists (1966) to critical acclaim, establishing his literary career. Appointments at Queen's University and later Berkley in California followed his initial publishing success.
Over the next few decades, Heaney published more poetry, translations and prose, establishing a global reputation. He worked as a freelance writer and was appointed as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Despite his international success, he remained involved in the Irish arts community as an active participant in Brian Friel’s theatre company, Field Day and as a founding member of the Irish Arts Council.
As a poet and speaker, Heaney became so popular that “Heaneyboppers” would queue for tickets to his lectures. He was also the recipient of numerous literary awards, from the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 to the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1999 and his appointment as Saoi of the Aosdána in 1998. He referred to the Nobel Prize as the ‘N thing’. In addition, Heaney was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities, including Rhodes University in Grahamstown and Queen's University in Belfast.
He died in Dublin in 2013 after a brief illness.
The poem 'Punishment' was published in 1975 in the collection, North. The poems in this collection are separated into two linked sections. The first covers ancient themes, in particular the Irish bogs and the related bog bodies that have also been found in other Northern European countries. The second section deals with the more modern world, specifically those experienced in Northern Ireland during The Troubles (1968—1998). As a collection, North uses history to reference current issues of politics and violence.
The Troubles (1968–1998) is the term used to describe the conflict in Northern Ireland with possible origins that can be traced back a few centuries. Although more complex, it was largely the republicans (Catholics) and the loyalists (Protestants) who disagreed about whether to end British rule over Northern Ireland.
Civilians, members of the paramilitaries, the police, and the army were killed during the struggle. The women who Heaney references in his poem as being 'tarred and feathered' had their heads shaved, and were then publicly covered in tar and feathers to shame them for associating with enemy troops.
The Good Friday Agreement bought the majority of the conflict to an end in 1998. Northern Ireland is currently in a negotiation and ceasefire period known as the 'Peace Process'.
'Punishment' is one of the various bog-body-related poems found in the first section of North. It is about the Windeby I, a bog body found in Germany. It was believed at the time to be a young woman who had been ritualistically killed. The body has since been found to be a teenage boy, but the themes that Heaney links are still relevant to study.
Heaney has said that:
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 centres in Belfast. It’s about standing between those two forms of affront1
Heaney was an active member of Brian Friel's theatre group, Field Day for more than a decade. The group advocated for a 'fifth province', although they never actually released a formal mission statement. The 'fifth province' represented a metaphorical space for Irish unity. Ireland was then divided into four provinces.
The company was a key part of the Irish cultural debate and was both praised and criticised for its role.
The poem is relayed by a poetic persona or unnamed narrator. Initially, it is a description of the body of the ‘girl’ found in a German bog. The poem goes on to explore the reasons for her ritualistic murder. She is believed to have been an adulteress, a breaker of unwritten rules. Although the poem begins by showing empathy for her, there is also an admission that the speaker would not have intervened on her behalf.
The second section of the poem deals with the tarring and feathering of Northern Irish women who were associated with British troops. The speaker again does not participate but mentions an understanding of the motives that led to the public humiliation.
Tarring and feathering is a form of mob retaliation. Dating back to medieval times, it has regularly been used as an informal method of punishment since the days of Richard I of England in 1189.
Since then it has spread to Europe and Northern America, where it was primarily used on men and driven by political or financial motives. It was also metered out as punishment by women on other women. A famous example of this is the case of Mrs Hattie Lowry who was tarred and feathered by four women from her neighbourhood (1906). It is unclear what her crime was but the perpetrators were fined $10 each.
In North America, between the 1800s and mid-1900s, tarring and feathering was used in attacks based on race or ethnicity.
The technique has also been extensively used during wartime to publicly humiliate women who were accused of associating with enemy soldiers. This occurred in places like Belgium during WW2, as well as in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
Heaney has been called a poet of the in-between.2 This can be seen in the themes and execution of this poem as he often represents and shows an understanding of both sides of a conflict.
Of course, punishment is a key theme in this poem. The title clearly and simply introduces it.
In the poem 'Punishment', Seamus Heaney first describes the remains of the bog woman, who is punished for her crime of adultery. We are led to understand that her murder is the punishment metered out by the tribe for her crime. She is described as a 'scapegoat'.
Then Heaney links the bog woman's punishment to the Northern Irish women, who are tarred, feathered and publicly shamed as punishment for their crime of associating with enemy troops during a conflict. The effect of this punishment is physical pain, long lasting discomfort and of course, humiliation. They are described as 'betraying sisters'.
Seamus Heaney repeatedly shows empathy for the bog woman by using words such as ‘scapegoat’. What is hinted at here but left unspoken is whether the man who must also have committed adultery met the same fate.
In line 24, ‘they punished you’ simply and effectively contrasts the many enacting the punishment on a single person. The narrator's description of her as ‘little’ and ‘frail’ adds to the sense of her being the victim of group-enacted violence. Yet, he also admits that although he would not participate in it, he would not have stopped her murder. This is despite his understanding of her relative vulnerability and her 'scapegoating'.
But would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.' (lines 30–31)
In lines 29–30, Seamus Heaney depicts the duality of the poetic persona’s non-action. He portrays his lack of action as a form of violence by implying that his silence was actually an act of casting stones.
Heaney further develops the duality of speaker’s opinion in the final two stanzas, when the poem shifts to the modern era when women were tarred and feathered during The Troubles.
In lines 37–38, Heaney describes ‘betraying sisters’ who are ‘cauled in tar’. Although the speaker's opinion of these modern Irish women is not as empathetic as his portrayal of the ancient Germanic adulteress, his non-participation in their punishment is the same.
yet understand the exactand tribal, intimate revenge.' (lines 43–44)
Here the speaker admits that he would express civilised outrage, but underneath that, he also understands the very basic, elementary tribal instinct for revenge.
Seamus Heaney's reference to not acting to prevent injustice as 'casting a stone of silence' mirrors the often misattributed but actually anonymous, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Do you think that not preventing an unnecessary act of violence is actually an act in support of violence?
A more hidden theme is one of misogyny. The bog woman was murdered by the tribe for her crime, but what of her partner? Even in modern times, it is often the women who are scapegoated in adultery scenarios, even if they themselves are unmarried. Although she was considered mature enough to be thought an adulteress and ritually murdered as punishment, she was also named the 'Windeby Girl' until discovered to be a boy.
Similarly, the modern Northern Irish women were publicly tarred and feathered for being accused of associating with British troops but males considered to be traitors in conflict situations are often dealt with more swiftly and less publicly.
Seamus Heaney uses an array of literary and poetic techniques in 'Punishment'.
Both the speaker and the poem switch between the past and present tense on several levels. The speaker uses the present tense when speaking about his thoughts and feelings, but switches to the past tense when describing what happened to the ancient bog woman and the modern Irish women.
The use of present tense creates immediacy when used in the examples “I can feel’ and ‘I can see” phrases. This device also links the present and the past. The speaker is in the present, but looking at, feeling and addressing the past. Similarly, ‘I am the artful voyeur’ is a current admission of a present-day attitude about a historical event and person.
The poem is also divided into two sections, one dealing with the ancient past and the murder of an adulteress, the other dealing with the contemporary public humiliation of Northern Irish women who associated with British troops. The speaker's use of present tense and past tense in both examples is the link between the past and present of these events.
Do you think that the past and present are linked as Seamus Heaney suggests? Does history inform our present?
Seamus Heaney makes use of punctuation to emphasise his themes and add meaning.
The key punctuation element to note is the colon in line 28 that separates the two sections, one dealing with the ancient past and the other with then-contemporary Northern Ireland. A colon is usually used to link two independent but connected clauses into one sentence. Often the second clause clarifies the first. By using this colon between the two sections, Heaney links the past and the present on a level that works in addition to this use of tense.
Another variation on Heaney's use of punctuation to add meaning and rhythm is enjambment. Enjambment is the continuation of one line of poetry into the next, without a punctuation break. This device is used extensively throughout the poem.
The first stanza is an example where the girl's noose is described as being felt by the narrator. Adding to the use of a personal statement in the present tense, the enjambment helps to create rhythm and an immediate sense of the methods of her murder.
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck' (Lines 1–3)
1 David Bourne, A Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, 1960 - 2015, 2021.
2 'Seamus Heaney', Poetry Foundation, 2022.
3 'Seamus Heaney', Punishment, All Poetry, 2022.
Heaney said that he wrote 'Punishment' to explore his sense of being a bystander while atrocities were inflicted by both sides during a conflict.
The themes include punishment, duality and misogyny.
The tone varies from empathetic to intense and even aggressive.
Heaney uses tense, punctuation, enjambment and an unnamed narrator, as well as other literary devices.
The bog woman is described as a 'scapegoat' indicating that the speaker thinks that she is not guilty or at least, not the only guilty party.
He describes her brutal murder in a way that empathises with her, even though he would have done nothing to prevent it.
Who wrote 'Punishment'?
Which collection was 'Punishment' published in?
What is the poem 'Punishment' about?
It is about the punishment that tribes or societies enact on women who break unwritten rules.
What country does Heaney refer to in the second half of the poem, 'Punishment?'
What is the name of the bog body thought to have been a girl who was ritualistically murdered?
Windeby Girl or later, Windeby 1 when it was later discovered that the body was a teenage boy.
Which languages influenced Heaney's use of English?
What meter or rhyme scheme is 'Punishment' written in?
None, it has no fixed meter or rhyme scheme.
What technique does Heaney use to create immediacy in the opening lines of 'Punishment'?
He uses 'I' statements by an unnamed narrator and the present tense.
Which simple example of punctuation links the past and the present in the poem, 'Punishment'?
What are some of the themes in the poem 'Punishment'?
Punishment, duality and misogyny.
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