For anyone who missed the class, or mislaid their handout, here’s the text of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Punishment’, which we’ll focus upon on Friday. You can add your thoughts and your answers to the questions I set you below, in the comments (don’t forget to identify yourself, either by name or student number).


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeuur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

In an  interview with the Paris Review, Heaney reportedly said of ‘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.

There’s a website here with a very useful introduction, written to be accessible for students whose first language is not English. You should be moving beyond it in your own readings of the poem, but it does give you the basics. You can also find links to the author’s introductions to Heaney’s other poems.

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19 Responses to ‘Punishment’

  1. b20902819 says:

    Isn’t the title a little ambiguous? It might hold two meanings. It is not only the girl who is “punished” here. The speaker also punishes himself with the guilt he feels of not having been able to stop those people who tortured the girl in such a shameful way.

  2. This is a stark, and modern, poem about the usually unaccounted face of a war, the crimes committed against the civilians. The (not-so) civil war between the IRA and the English government led to many a scene like the one above: people getting humiliated to the point that it may as well be called tortured, right before they were executed or sent to prison. But what is more important in the poem is that neither the woman, nor the party who captured her is identified. It is quite possible that she is an Irish protestor captured by the English soldiers, or an English (or Irish) protestor, or even an officer, captured by IRA. By not blaming a certain side, Heaney manages to stick the blade of criticism to both sides, while also presenting a self-criticism, and, also the criticism of “us”, the civilians, who are content “standing by”.


  3. I believe that the girl isn’t the real subject of this poem, it is the persona himself. The girl’s anonymity gives a sense of insignificance under the heavy weight of the voyeur’s conception of her. We don’t know what she’s done, why she was hanged or who she was. All we get to learn is what the persona thinks of her, and her “sisters”, after her punishment. Does the persona really know her (so that he says she was “flaxen-haired, undernourished” and “beautiful”) or is it only now that he imagines what she must have been like, and it is now that he loves her (“I almost love you”, he says, not “I loved you”). The poem is about the thoughts and feelings, and especially the guilt the persona feels because of watching these girls being so cruelly punished, on what side they were or what they have done are of no significance, and not being able to do anything about it except, watch.

    Also, if anyone would like to see a creepy hand-drawn illustration of the first few stanzas, I found this on youtube that helped me visualize those parts a little bit more easily.

  4. artun352 says:

    I think the poem is a comparison of cruelty of human nature between the past and present. The speaker first describes the death of a young girl as a punishment for adultery. We see that he describes the scene as if he were there and witnessed the public humiliation of the girl. I think we can sense his sympathy for the girl since he calls her a “scapegoat” and he “can feel the tug/ of the halter at the nape/ of her neck”, here he can feel the push that leads to the hanging of the girl, then he goes on to visualize the girl for the reader in a sensuous way. He talks about her “nipples”, “naked front”, “neck” and “ribs”. While here on one hand he tries to show the reader the humiliation that the girl has been put through, on the other hand I think he shows how desperate and vulnerable the girl is in an attempt to make the reader sympathize with her. Later he can see her found body in the bog and I think that’s where he starts to compare the public disgrace the girls has experienced with the situation of the modern Irish women. The Irish women’ ill treatment and humiliation “cauled in tar” is a symbol of non-changing cruel human nature. The speaker questions his own conscious and morality by admitting that he has “stood dumb” and he too would have “cast… the stones of silence”.
    In this concept I think we can interpret the title as the internal punishment that the speaker puts himself through for standing by as an “artful voyeur” and justifying the humiliations in a “civilized outrage”.

  5. ie20902343 says:

    It’s an interesting poem since the process of the girl being punished is expressed so simple, and I think this is what makes the condition of this woman so poignant. The woman is being punished because of adultery and the persona questions the ethical side of such a punishment. We understand his sympathy for the woman as he focuses on the frail parts of the body such as her ribs, nipples, neck, feet. I think this also suggests how human beings are so frail and weak and unprotected in nature and that it is against humanity to punish a human being. So, the condition of the woman can be universal. The persona suggests this universality when he talks about the other women who were punished like her. Although the persona feels close to the woman, he also blames himself for standing ‘dumb’ and not doing anything to prevent this. He explains the reason in the last stanza by stating that although it is a very inhumane action to punish a woman in this way, he can understand the human rage and the instinctual ‘tribal’ drive. Perhaps the last stanza also suggests that even we live in a modern society, human instincts are still the same and that it does not change. The brutality of tribal life can still be traced. To add, the persona’s talking about the specific experience of a woman and attributing this experience to a ‘tribal’ and ‘intimate revenge’ reminds me of Jung’s collective unconscious theory. The punishment of the woman echoes other punishments, and the persona perhaps blames the civilisation collectively.

  6. Although Heaney’s poem is initially concerned with the girl from the bog, it appears to transfer its meaning halfway through to include a particular Irish woman whom Heaney had seen receive punishment from other women as a result of having a relationship with a British soldier. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as being a more ambiguous idea of ‘sisters’ and thus multiple women.
    Heaney’s perspectives and time frames appear to shift from past to present, and by using his imagination, presumptions and his own memories, in ‘Punishment’ he attempts to investigate the nature of the human being, and to answer the question of whether we still remain as tribally and barbarically motivated as we once were.

  7. 20801870ss says:

    The language of the poem quite simple but the poet’s use of language makes it interesting. “bog” is a metaphor for the continuation of inhuman, brutal and cruel actions of people in the world. In the first three stanzas, the poet seems to create an innocent girl, who is accused of adultery,in his imagination. Her punishment creates a visual scene in readers’ mind with the words like “it shakes the frail rigging of her ribs.” Moreover, He says “her shaved head / like a stubble of black corn,” in the fifth stanza, that help the reader to picture the disgusting manner in which she was treated. I think the poet tries to show us how the real world in which he lives is like and how it resembles a bog. Another thing is the punishment. It is a crucial question “Who decides this kind of punishment for bad deeds?” or “Who can give the punishment?” Maybe the wrongdoings which is wrong for a person are not wrong for another one that is ambiguous. In that sense, in the last two stanzas it is obvious that the poet feels quilty for not doing anything and for just standing and watching what is about to happen to this girl. I consider it is quite clear that his feeling quilty is also his punishment.

  8. 20801343l says:

    In the poem, Heaney puts himself as the first person poetic observer in the opening “I can feel the tug”, addressing the young woman, the “Little adulteress”. He interprets one of the victims (a young girl) as an adulteress. I think adultery and going out with British soldiers are not the same thing, but what matters to Heaney is that they are both forms of betrayal of the tribal pities. Besides, Heaney’s “Punishment” explores his own ambiguous response. The ambiguity of his response is political one. These lines: “I who have stood dumb/ when your betraying sisters,/ cauled in tar/ wept by the railings,/ who would connive/ in civilized outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge” have given rise to critical debate about precisely what position in relation to IRA violence is assuming.

  9. n20900754 says:

    The poem looks as if it consists of two parts, that are the past and the present. The speaker in the poem addresses to the past by describing death of a bog girl and in the description of her, we sense how vulnerable she is which can be understood from the descirption of her neck, nipples and ribs. This description and the reference to the past takes place in the first part of the poem. The speaker is in present time in the second part and he refers to the problems in Ireland. He talks about the condition of the women in Ireland who are treated cruelly, and he compares the girl from the past to the Irish women of the present time. In a way, the speaker makes us feel that the girl has come back from the past in order to remind the humankind of the violence and cruelty of human nature. Describing the girl as if she was in good condition and she stood the ravages of time makes us think that the cruel nature of human beings also never change, no matter how much time passes.

  10. nimetpoyraz20900260 says:

    Q. 4. In what way(s) is the speaker an “artful voyeur”?
    Artists can see the beauty that normal people cannot see and when they see this beauty, they want to describe it in their arts. Just like these artists, Irish poet Seamus Heaney describes and admires the beauty of a girl’s body in his poem “Punishment”. Since he sees this beauty of the body, he calls himself as an “artful voyeur”. About the girl’s body, he affirms,
    “I am the artful voyeur
    of your brain’s exposed
    and darkened combs,
    your muscles’ webbing
    and all your numbered bones”
    Here, the poet shows that he can see all the parts of this body though it is in the bog and in terrible situation. Nobody can see the beauty of the body apart from an artist when the body is in this situation. However, our poet can see the beauty and he admires her body. He says,
    “Little adulteress,
    before they punished you
    you were flaxen-haired,
    undernourished, and your
    tar-black face was beautiful.”
    Heaney thinks that before the punishment this girl is very beautiful and impressive. Heaney’s descriptions of the girl’s body show his artistic approach to the body. In the poem, he even says that he almost loves her. However, we cannot certainly know whether this love is originated from her beauty or his pity for her. We know that his artistic talent causes him to admire and describe this poor girl’s dead body.

  11. unalemre29 says:

    Not wanting to repeat friends’ and people’s comments here, I would like to focus on two lines: “her noose a ring/ to store/ the memories of love” (20-22). Through the course of human life, numberless people were put to death for miscellaneous reasons. Yet in the poem, we hear the story of a girl being put to death for adultery. The lines that I quoted, as far as i am concerned, states the injustice done to the girl for having loved by breaking the rules. Heaney draws the attention to the killing of a human being whose fault is love or making love in this case. Heaney wants to deliver the message that before she is beheaded, the only proof of her love relationship is the ring that would mark her love which causes her beheading. through that ring or by the means of that ring she will be gone to the after life as being “the scapegoat” for the victim of love.

  12. b20801711y says:

    In my opinion, Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Punishment’ puts forth a comparison of brutality of human nature from past to present. The poetic persona depicts the death of a young girl as a punishment of adultery. In the narrative of poetic persona, reader easily deduces that he narrates the event as if he were there, observed the death and the people’s insultment of the girl. In my opinion, we can deduce his sympathy for the girl because in some sections he visualizes the girl in an emotional way for the reader. Besides, he tries to explain the reader the situation of the girl, I mean the humiliation that the girl has been put through. He depicts the desperate situation of the girl in order to make the reader sympathize with her. Through the analysis of the poem, we can interpret the title as the inner punishment of the poetic persona.

  13. Dilara says:

    Reading this poem once is definitely not enough. It should be read again and again. I cannot say what exactly effects me in this poem, is it the story behind or is it the way Seamus Heaney tells it but there is something for sure that he manages to evoke emotions strongly with so few words in a way that I may call as weird.


  14. betulerdem says:

    I have found a few points that resembles with “The Grauballe Man”. Heaney uses the soil and ground in both of these poems and in “Digging”. When you quickly read the poems you come across similar imagery that wanders around bog, oak and soil. There is always a time gap in the poems, “Digging” the generations -Grandfather, father and son-, “The Grauballe Man” there is a skeleton of a man who lived quite a long time ago, “Punishment” covers a long time that covers the torture of a certain group of people of another. In other words there is always a past to look back in his poems and it is far away from yesterday but Heaney makes it today through writing about it. Describing the bodily features of a dead body is common for Punishment and The Grauballe Man, because of these similarities I struggled a little to generalize the meaning to IRA or the British Torture because I kept thinking about the Grauballe Man. -bog, oak, death, soil, deformed body parts…

  15. “I am the artful voyeur
    of your brain’s exposed
    and darkened combs,
    your muscles’ webbing
    and all your numbered bones”

    I would like state that these lines remind me of the Body Worlds Exibition in which dead human bodies have been prepared to be shown to all of the world with their exposed bones, brain, veins, muscles, genitelias and so on. just as the punished woman’s decaying body because of time passage, these bodies went through a lot of chemical processes to be prepared for the exihibiton, and millions of people all of the world watch their exposed bodies and make comments about them. Some become enchanted with the human body no matter how ugly and scary it seems because of plastination. Similarly, in the poem , the speaker can see the beauty in the bog woman, and he says, ” before they punished you/ you were flaxen-haired,/
    undernourished, and your /tar-black face was beautiful” . As we see, the speaker speculates about the punished woman’s fresh and beautiful self before the punishment But , he also says, “I am the artful voyeur” which means that he won’t take any action to stop the punishment or exposition , or to encourage it, because he will just watch it as an object of art to make it beautiful through his poetry as he wishes. similarly, when I was in the Body Worlds Exihibiton, I thought a lot about what kind of lives these dead people had , and how were their appearences before the plastination or whether they would be happy if they had seen themselves in these positions. however, the important thing is that these dead bodies consented for their exposure after they died , so they made a choice and contributed to satisfaction of human curiosity. On the other hand, this bog woman was severely punised because of adultery, and she was not asked for her permission (of course) to be exhibited, but she has a great influence on the present situation (still past for us) of the Irish woman who were tyrannized by the IRA. That’s to say, dead bodies and their ways of reflections in art or science may have huge influences over human minds. Besides, in this way, past never stays in the past, but it continues to be part of present and future whenever we face it.

  16. ceren20601875 says:

    In the beginning of the poem, Heaney addresses the girl, who is being punished, as “she” and “her”, putting a distance between himself and her. This distance, on one hand, can indicate the speaker’s inability to help her; he can do nothing but watch, he is only “the voyeur” casting “the stones of silence”. On the other hand, we may take this as an implication of the past since the poem delicately shifts from the past to the present,as explained in the previous comments, thus justifying, in a way, the speaker’s silence and lack of action. However, later in the poem the speaker starts referring to the girl as “you”, putting the distance away and perhaps marking the shift to the present. He refers to the bog girl and the past when he says I “would have cast … the stones of silence”, using past conditional to relieve himself from the burden of not helping her even though he still feels guilty and empathizes with her. He refers to the present and the girl(s) punished by the IRA when he says “I… have stood dumb”. This time he actually stood silent and watched the girl being punished, punishing himself at the same time for his lack of action when he had the chance to act.

  17. I believe the poem show the exactness of human cruelty against the ones who defy the rules of the society they live in no matter if in the past or present due to the speaker’s conflicting emotional responses to the execution of the adultress. The description of her frailty and powerlessness suggests a feeling of pity on the speaker’s point of view. However, he admits that he contributed to her punishment by not speaking up and resisting such a punishment. Thus he threw “the stones of silcence”, Or he would have as he refers to a dead body of a girld who lived centuries ago. This girl draws a parallel to the Irish women who sleep with English soldiers and who are punished by IRA. So, the speakers unwillingness to take action towards the end of the poem is an act of acknowladgement that the woman has indeed committed a crime and deserve to be punished.

  18. 20804215k says:

    The speaker of ‘Punishment’ discusses if blimpishness or contervativeness still goes on even though decades past. In the poem we first witness the image of a bog girl who was executed being accused for adultery. Then we see the image of women who are blamed, excluded from society and executed for being accused of adultery. Then we see the speaker criticizing himself for being a spectator to what these women are exposed to. He himself believes that even though he seems to criticize those who are judging people in a primitive way, he is after their idea inwardly. He does not really take an action to make a change. The poem is a kind of self-confession and the way it criticizes the conservative mind is impressing.

  19. muzmul says:

    I was very interested when I first learnt that this poem is about a bog girl because last summer I was taking archeology classes and the professor lectured about the bog people. So, this poem attracted my attention directly. Also, this poem has become one of my favourite poems by Seamus Heaney. I like the way he imagines himself next to the bog girl as if he was there with her two thousand years ago. He imagines her feelings before she dies and imagines her pain. The shifts between past and present also create a magical atmosphere in the poem and make the reader feel like time travelling. As it can be understood from the plot, the main theme is death in the poem. Through death, Heaney aims to criticize the modern societies. He compares the society the bog girl used to live in two thousand years ago to today’s modern world. He complains that even though thousands of years have passed, not much has changed because the same cruelty and violence continue today. Innocent people are getting killed because of any valid reasons. There are wars where millions of people are killed for nothing. Heaney criticizes all these by just using his imagination on a bog girl he sees.

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