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Analysis of the Poem 'Punishment' by Seamus Heaney

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and a Summary Analysis of 'Punishment'

'Punishment' is one of Seamus Heaney's poems that explores the nature of violence and revenge within society. It was first published in the book North in 1975.

It focuses specifically on a body that has been buried in a peat bog for around 2000 years. When Heaney wrote the poem, the body - known as the Windeby Girl, dug up in 1952 in Germany - was thought to have been ritually killed. Her hair had been shaved, a band covered her eyes and a halter (rope) was tight around her neck.

In the poem, the speaker refers to the bog body as an 'adulteress' who was killed for breaking the tribal law.

Subsequent investigation with cutting-edge technology has shown that the body is actually that of a teenage boy, the lack of hair on one side of the head thought to have been caused by uneven exposure to tannic acid, the preservative in peat bogs.

  • These discrepancies don't detract from the overall theme of the poem, which stands by itself: the punishments we humans hand out when individuals break the taboo or cross the red line.

Heaney was captivated by the visual spectacle of the bog body:

My emotions, my feelings, whatever those instinctive energies are that have to be engaged for a poem, those energies quickened more when contemplating a victim, strangely, from 2000 years ago...

And it was in these victims made strangely beautiful by the process of lying in bogs that somehow I felt I could make offerings or images that were emblems.

The poet was clearly moved by the idea that a young person from the Iron Age, preserved remarkably well in peat, could have been the victim of a tribal ritual, for the transgression of an unwritten law.

Heaney uses the bog in a metaphorical sense and parallels the death of the bog person (who he took to be female) with the punishments handed out to modern girls by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) during the Troubles in his native Northern Ireland.

These girls were shaved, stripped, covered in tar and feathers and tied to railings in Belfast for being too friendly to British troops.

The speaker in the poem confesses to not being able to do anything to help. All he can do is watch, the 'artful voyeur', as well as understand why the punishments were meted out in the first place.


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.

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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 voyeur

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.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

Stanza 1

'Punishment' begins with the first person I, taking the reader immediately into the personal and tactile world of the speaker. That verb to feel reflects the sensitive nature of the speaker as he observes the preserved body from the peat bog, bringing it temporarily to life as he imagines the living girl that once was.

The halter (strap or rope) tugs at the nape (back of the neck) as she is led naked to the bog. There's a wind blowing.

Note the enjambment in this first stanza, allowing the sense to flow from line to line in a controlled manner. Short lines always slow a poem down because they're more challenging to navigate and the line breaks have to be approached carefully.

Stanza 2

The wind affects her nipples, they become beads - a reference to jewellery - and her ribs are rigging, relating to the system of ropes that support the masts and sails of a ship. It's more the visual effect of the ribs under her skin; they are described as frail as the wind blasts against the girl.

Basically, she is seen as vulnerable.

Again, enjambment plays a role in allowing the flow, paused by a single comma at the end of line six. It's this precise placement of punctuation and use of enjambment that sets the initial pace.

Stanza 3

Now the girl is drowned, the narrative moving on. There's a weighing stone to make sure she stays underwater and also rods and boughs. These kinds of things were actually found at some bog body recoveries. It seems that the Iron Age people wanted to be certain that the bodies remained where they were placed.

  • It's important to note the gradual uses of punctuation and enjambment the poet employs. All three lines flowing in the first stanza, then two lines enjambed, then only one line. This is a careful syntactical slowing down of proceedings.

Stanza 4

The girl has now been dug up. Metaphorically she was a barked sapling, that is, young and supple, covered in bark (think skin) but now she is a tough and seasoned oak-bone, brain-firkin.

Oak is hardwood, bone is bone. Together they are a single idea. Her bones remind the speaker of oak.

A firkin is a small cask with a specific measurement by volume for ale or beer. So the bog-girl being dug up has a brain that reminds the speaker of this wooden cask.

Stanza 5

The speaker progresses with more descriptive language of the girl's head - like corn stubble, blackened by age. This simile connects the girl to the land through the idea of a field within a bigger landscape.

The blindfold is a soiled bandage, that is, material to help heal a wound. By using the word bandage the poet is attempting to show empathy with the victim.

And finally, the noose (presumably used to hang or strangle her) becomes a metaphorical ring - a symbol of trust and love - within which she can keep her memories.

Note the enjambment between stanzas, keeping the sense on the move.

Stanza 6

Up to this point, the speaker's approach has been relatively distanced, despite the first-person perspective. In this stanza, however, the speaker changes tack and starts to address the girl directly as 'you'.

This further animates the relationship the speaker has with the bog body and breathes some life into the poem.

Enjambment between stanzas occurs for the second time.

Stanza 7

The speaker imagines the living girl and turns her into a beautiful human being. Flaxen means pale yellow in colour which contrasts severely with the tar-black face.

My poor scapegoat, reinforces the speaker's sympathy for the girl. A scapegoat is someone who gets the blame for what others have done. It can be found in the Bible, where a goat was sent out into the desert after a priest laid the sins of the p people upon it (Leviticus 16).

Stanza 8

So the speaker is suggesting that the bog girl maybe wasn't 100% guilty; that she was punished because the tribal elders needed to make an example of her. Because of this the speaker expresses near love for the young female but confesses that had he been present at her execution he probably wouldn't have said anything or gone against the decision.

His silence would have been the equivalent of stoning - again a biblical punishment for those deemed guilty of adultery.

He is nothing but an artful voyeur looking on in the hope that something creative might emerge. This is quite an admission, turning the artist into a kind of mercenary.

Stanza 9

He's looking at the brain again, how its dark combs impress (combs are cellular structures, as found in a hive for example). This is a close-up inspection - we move on to the muscles and the numbered bones, set out in the museum case no doubt.

Stanza 10

The confession continues and now moves on into the modern era, when British soldiers were on the streets of Belfast and the IRA and Loyalist Paramilitaries were killing each other with bullets and bombs.

Heaney, a minority Catholic, born in Northern Ireland, was caught in between. As a poet and artist, he had to navigate his way through the sectarian troubles as they raged on through the latter part of the 20th century.

The betraying sisters are the modern girls who get punished for keeping the company of British soldiers. They are equivalents to the bog girl; they suffer similar punishments, yet are spared their lives.

The speaker remains dumb as these atrocities are carried out, but is outraged - albeit in a conniving fashion, that is he secretly allows something bad to happen.

Cauled is based on caul which is a woman's headdress, or a membrane at birth which covers the infant's head.

Stanza 11

The speaker owns up - he says nothing, does nothing, but gets why the 'tribe' has to carry out the acts of revenge. It's the tribe's way of keeping control, keeping the power.

What Are the Structure/Form and Metre?

Punishment is a free verse poem of 11 stanzas, each stanza having four short lines, making a total of 44 lines.

There is no set rhyme scheme and no regular metrical beat, though there are lines with obvious anapaestic feet, that is, a dadaDUM dadaDUM rhythmic stress, as in lines 2, 3 and 4:

of the halt / er at the nape

of her neck, / the wind

on her nak / ed front.

Iambic and trochaic feet are also common but don't fall into regular consistent beats.

Overall then, an iambic poem when it comes to beat, but the short lines and alternative feet help vary the way the stresses are read, which has to be slowly.

What Are the Literary/Poetic Devices?


When two or more words close to in a line or lines begin with the same consonant, producing a texture and added interest for the reader. For example:

nape/of her neck

rigging/of her ribs

body in the bog

oak-bone, brain-firkin

blindfold a soiled bandage

the stones of silence

who would connive


When two or more words close to in a line or lines have similar-sounding vowels. This together with alliteration adds depth and colour to the sounds, often complimenting meaning. For example:

body in the bog

that is dug up

shakes the frail

stone,/the floating


to store/the memories


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation but keeps the sense/meaning, it is said to be enjambed. It can also occur between stanzas. For example:

her shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,

her blindfold a soiled bandage,

her noose a ring

to store

the memories of love.

Internal Rhyme

Look out for words that resonate within stanzas, both displaying assonance and sound echo:











A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase 'becomes' something else - an object, person, phenomenon or event. It is used to broaden and deepen understanding, through imagery and contrast. For example:

Under which at first

she was a barked sapling


A comparison of two things which usually involves the conjunction 'like'. For example:

he shaved head

like a stubble of black corn,


The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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