The poem “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney is a very vivid voyage through his imagination as he describes a corpse that was found in 1951 of a young girl who had been brutally tortured and killed as punishment for adultery in a way that was custom for the time period the body dates. Heaney writes as though he can see the girl near the time of her death and even feel her tethers and bonds as though he were experiencing it first hand. He uses excruciatingly detailed imagery giving the poem a very dark and ominous feel. Also, the use of enjambment is used very artfully to flow the reader along in a progression of thought, and moves seamlessly from past to present. He devotes the entire first half of the poem to description alone, with lines like “her shaved head / like a stubble of black corn,” fifth stanza, that force the reader to picture the detestable manner in which she was treated.
The title, “Punishment,” does not really tell the reader what to expect. It is one ambiguous word, which may mean different things to different people. However, one common part that could likely be assumed is everyone would describe punishment as being something that is deserved. Entering the poem with this in mind leads to a quick shock as the reader begins to realize what Heaney is describing. What is punishment? Punishment is defined as a penalty imposed for wrongdoing, but who decides what wrongdoings are and the appropriate punishment for each deed? Heaney draws more on this as he connects the girl found in the bog to those women who were punished during much of the turmoil and war in Ireland for having relations with the British. Heaney mentions in the last two stanzas of the poem that he did nothing as he watched those women being stripped and tarred in the streets, almost as if he is placing the blame partially on himself; not just himself, but all those, like Heaney who stood by and did nothing. The situations are similar in this way because even those people who were not directly involved in executing the punishment share the guilt of the mistreatment for their complacency. We are all complacent as things progress and wrongs are done all around us. It is the old evils paralleled to the new; they have changed very little. Heaney writes in stanza eight “I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence.” He imagines his own part in the events leading up to her death and they mirror his inaction in the end of the poem in reference to his present time.
There is also the possibility that he is receiving his own punishment in this piece. It starts out with all the feelings of the young girl being transferred to the first person. He feels the restraints that were placed upon her because they are symbolic of his own restraints: the feeling of being in a crowd and seeing someone become the subject of ridicule; those who defend the person become in party with the victim, and in the volatile condition of Ireland at the time, could have very well received similar punishment for taking their defense. Therefore, no one helps, they choose to remain part of the crowd, but their guilt becomes their burden and a punishment of its own. The “little adulteress,” what crime did she commit but love. Her crime pales in comparison to the atrocity she received as punishment, just as those women who chose to associate with the British were dealt with unjustly. Heaney even seems to set himself up as the imaginary co-adulterer with his selection of words when describing the young girl in a very personal tone. He calls her “My poor scapegoat,” and refers to a time before she was killed in stanza seven: “you were flaxen-haired, / undernourished, and your / tar-black face was beautiful.” This may also be re-enforced by the voice choosing to mention the girls nipples in the cold wind, which to me seems out of place other than to illustrate her nakedness, not only to the elements but also to her peers, to those enacting this horrible judgment, and to the fact of approaching death she faces. It is as if there is a duality in his perception of her; he refers to her both lovingly and in an awkward cruelness that sets a very strange feel to the poem.