Essay on “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney

Punishment is a poem written by Seamus Heaney, an Irish writer, poet, who was awarded the Nobel Prize.  It provides the information on the discovery of a dead body of a young bog girl who was killed because of being a little adulteress (23). By the way, one of the main issues put forward by the author is the problem concerning the bog people.


As far as Heaney himself is concerned, the bog people first became his subject by instinct: his inspiration stemmed as much from psychic impetus, in that he perceived the possible energies of the symbol, as from intellectual choice and craft. He felt them to be something real but uncomprehended, irrational, and not available to conscious discourse (Haffenden 89).


In addition, Clines states that:


The bog poetry and the Belfast misery are entwined in ‘Punishment,’ a work in which the centuries-old cadaver of a young slain adulteress, dredged up from the bogs, suggests to Heaney some modern maids of Derry, who were shorn and tarred by neighbors for being friendly to the enemy: I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence (par. 54).

Also, Heaney writes as if he could see the girl at the time of her death.  He gives a very complete description of all the details providing a dark and disastrous atmosphere. In addition, with the help of using a literary device, such as enjambment, the author very skillfully moves the reader from past to present.

In the first three stanzas we can trace the situation how Heaney describes the way the girl was killed. We have before us a defenseless and weak girl. It can be seen as the author empathizes with her sorrows. The girl was made naked when she was punished. The following lines used by the author prove this fact the wind on her naked front (4). The fifth stanza shows a terrible manner in which the girl was punished her shaved head her blindfold a soiled bandage (19).

Talking about the title of this poem, it is possible to conclude that it does not show what to predict and expect. The word Punishment is one that can have different meanings to different persons depending on their imagination and other factors.

Observing the four major literary devices used by the writer, it is possible to speak about the following ones, such as alliteration stones of silence, blindfold… bandage; similie that can be seen in following lines her shaved head like a stubble of black corn; metaphor the frail rigging of her ribs, scapegoat, the black corn, etc.; enjambment (the mismatch of a syntactical break with a rhythmic one).

Using the literary techniques contributes to the interpretation of the poem. Through the above-mentioned literary devices it became possible to analyze the cruelty of human nature, and observe the question of whether people on the earth have changed over time or we are still wild and brutal as it was in the ancient times.

Now let us focus our specific attention on the tone of the poem. Using the third person of narrative in the first four stanzas the author creates a specific tone that produces a tender sadness. We see the girl who is fragile and unfortunate. The cruelty of the girl’s shaved head her noose a ring makes the poem’s tone powerful and touching.

Talking about the main themes in Punishment, it is possible to speak about some of them. The first one is the hypocrisy of sorrow and sympathy to those whom you agree must be destroyed. The second one is the compromise reached in the presence of violence, through the fear and uncertainty. The third theme is the contradictions or conflicts with the nature of society. The author remains as a passive observer, and connects the past and present in the last two stanzas.

Heaney analogizes the cruelty of the tribal people in the first century (BC) and the cruelty of the Irish Revolutionary Army. He notes that the criminals are different, but the form of cruelty is the same. The innocent people became the victims both in past and present times. This is a well-known fact that the Irish girls who got married with the British soldiers were massacred by the Irish Revolutionary Army. The Irish Revolutionary Army viewed the act of marriage between the British soldiers and the Irish girls as a betrayal of national norms and dogmas.

Taking the above-mentioned information into consideration, it is possible to conclude that Heaney as a great poet connects the Irish culture with the common theme of mankind as a whole.  He is a great writer who has contributed to the development of modern lyrics. In his work, the poet basically has to do with the Irish culture, traditions and history. This poem is not an exception. Punishment is notable for its instructive and moral content, which teaches us to respect all the people, and in any case not to judge them wrongly and unfairly.

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