Poetry Analysis - 'Punishment' - by Seamus Heaney
In his poem ‘Punishment’ Seamus Heaney writes of the discovery of a fourteen year old girl’s body exhumed from a bog in Germany, 1951. On further analysis of the poetry, it is revealed that this preserved body was two thousand years old, and she was executed by her society on account of adultery. 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.
The poem instantly addresses the past by describing the death of the bog girl in the first half of the poem, concentrating on visual and anatomical detail. It explicitly describes her feminine vulnerability by using corresponding body parts with which we associate sensitivity; her ‘neck’, ‘nipples’ and ‘ribs’ all promote a sense of sensuous susceptibility. It then moves from the past through to the present in the second half where the speaker addresses the troubles within Ireland. He compares the punishment of the bog girl to the Irish women who were covered in tar and their hair shaved off. This movement from past to present within the form of the poem could suggest that the bog girl has in effect, physically and metaphorically travelled through time from the past to modern day, in order to remind us of the cruelty of human nature. The ‘frail rigging of her ribs’ contrast sharply with her violent death that leaves her also with a ‘shaved head’. It is this frailty that reminds us of how delicate the human body is. However, this only emphasises that as her body has withstood the ravages of time and natural decay, it could be symbolic of the unchanging and resilient aspect of the manner with which humans regard one another.
Initially, the narrator places himself in the poem in order to imagine what the bog girl might have experienced during her execution, but he also explores his possible feelings as if he were a witness to the event. He does not envisage embodying the victim herself, but possibly someone who loved her, so feels great pain at her suffering, so much so that he appears to ‘feel the tug’ of the noose himself. He calls her his ‘poor scapegoat’ suggesting in the first half of the poem that he holds the role of the bog girl’s lover and the role of the sympathiser towards the Irish woman in the second half. However, whereas he can only imagine the circumstances surrounding the bog girl’s death, he has been witness to the events in Ireland and, like the speaker in the first half of the poem he stands and watches; he is an ‘artful voyeur’. He admits to have ‘stood dumb’ whilst watching the ill treatment of the Irish women at the hands of their ‘betraying sisters’. This compounds his feelings that as he stood by in this situation, he would also have viewed the execution of the girl in ‘civilised outrage’, but he too would ‘have cast…the stones of silence’ as he understands ‘the exact tribal, and intimate revenge through cruelty that seems so ‘stamped’ in our nature and thus transcends time.
In ‘Punishment’, the speaker and the reader are forced to address the question of whether anything has altered since this ancient girl’s death, and whether we do now live in a ‘civilised’ society. The time differences serve not as a window to a strange world that we know nothing about, but in fact, worryingly, the similarities become more prevalent as the two parts of the poem, past and present appear to merge effortlessly, aided by Heaney’s use of enjambment. The idea of preserved bodies and the information about the past we can learn from them exists also in Mary Shelley’s, Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman. Just as in Punishment, the bog allows us to witness a moment captivated in time, the ice that preserves the body of Roger Dodsworth serves an equivalent purpose. Additionally, although 'Punishment' was a poem based on the factual events of the discovery of a real body and Roger Dodsworth the product of Shelley's imagination, both 'bodies' have had contemporary voices given to them by each writer. This seems to suggest that as humans we are eternally curious about our past behaviours and societies; however, any contemplation on our past reveals that we can answer many questions ourselves by looking at our present behaviour. Roger Dodsworth will have 'the same character which he bore a couple of hundred years ago, [and] will influence him now'. Furthermore Brian Friel states that, ‘the only merit in looking back is to understand how you are and where you are at the moment'. This is a point that I believe both Heaney and Shelley were intending to make clear in these literary pieces.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Punishment’ from North (Faber and Faber, 1992) ll. 3, 5, 8.
Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (Dublin: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 616.
Mary Shelley, Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman in The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (Cambridge@ Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 167.