Heaney measures his sense of injustice against a stone-age community’s brutal intolerance of rules perceived to have been violated. He illustrates the troubling irony: stone-age justice that puts an adulteress to death is not so far removed from contemporary Ulster society that metes out punishment when sectarian rules are seen to be breached. Conflicting loyalties, pity and guilt, private and collective, supply ‘Punishment’ with its emotional charge… Heaney is looking for a tenable position (MP p 137)

The first person speaker attends the stages leading to the execution of a young woman accused of adultery. He senses the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck as she is pulled to the execution site; her upper body has been stripped of clothing; the chill wind exaggerates the shape and colour of her nipples blown to amber beads sending shivers through her frame: the frail rigging of her ribs.

From feel to see. He imagines the executed girl disposed of: her drowned body in the bog, weighted down and held in place with rods and boughs; her survival was as impossible as that of a barked sapling.

Her retrieved, dug up, body has survived the centuries, its bones as enduring as the strongest tree (oak-bone), its skull a durable container (brain firkin). The speaker notes the detail: the head shaven before the event, its short hair still evident like a stubble of black corn; the blindfold that passes judgement on the execution: a soiled bandage; the noose with which she was strangled a metaphor for a locket of keepsakes: a ring/ to store the memories of love; the crime that led to her death-sentence: Little adulteress.

Heaney portrays the girl that was: from the Viking north (flaxen-haired; undernourished as hunter-gatherers generally were); the bog-stained tar-black face was beautiful.

He expresses affection and admiration for a girl who bore the sins of the whole community: poor scapegoat; but his conscience stops him short: I almost love you confessing that he would have cast …/ the stones of silence, connived with injustice and by not condemning it appeared to condone barbarity.

The narrator’s ‘peeping Tom’ rôle makes him the artful voyeur; his artfulness couched in his poetic talent for description: her brain’s exposed/ and darkened combs, the softer tissue of her muscles’ webbing / and all your numbered bones (whether biblical reference or museum coding system).

As in the previous piece description of the fate of the bog body is replaced by the grim exposure of contemporary events in Northern Ireland. The poet questions his own conscience: empathetic towards the bog-girl and addressing her directly he confesses he has remained a silent observer in the cases of Irish women being humiliated: I have stood dumb when, seen as betraying sisters for consorting with British soldiers, they were publicly humiliated, cauled in tar and feathered.

Heaney’s inner conflict stems from paradox: he finds it difficult to balance the civilised outrage generated within him as a minority Catholic himself against his understanding of root factors: the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge.

  • Tarring and feathering was a vehicle of rough justice; hot tar was poured onto a person’s skin or scalp and feathers thrown in; once cold the tar became immensely difficult to remove and acted as a long-term reminder of punishment;

  • halter: originally a rope for leading a horse;

  • barked sapling: the bark is the tough outer protective sheath of the tree; to ‘bark’ a tree is to strip the bark from it; any tree that has a complete ring of bark removed will die; sapling is a young tree;

  • firkin: a small cask; 4 firkins would make 1 barrel; used here to indicate something cask-shaped and ‘head sized’;

  • scapegoat: goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, symbolic bearer of the sins of the people;

  • combs: probable reference to the internal structure of the honeycomb;

  • cauled: early 14c., “close-fitting cap worn by women,” from Fr. cale “cap,”

  • a body retrieved from a peat bog in North Germany in 1952 was christened ‘Windeby Girl’; The powerful impact of Heaney’s poem should not be diminished by the fact that DNA analysis was later to prove that ‘Windeby Girl’ was in fact a boy!

  • 11 quatrains; lines vary in length between 2 and 8 syllables;

  • 7 sentence structure with plentiful use of enjambed lines. No rhyme scheme;

  • assonant effects in stanzas (1) and (2): Heaney retains the [ʌ] of the title in tug/ front; a pair of [i:] feels/ Beads/ later see; [ei] nape/ naked/ shakes; [ɪ] wind/ nipples/ rigging/ ribs; nasal consonant [n] is repeated alongside bilabial plosives [b] and [p];

  • stanza (3) offers a weave of variant vowel (o) sounds [au] drowned/ boughs; [ɒ] body/ bog/ rods: [əʊ] stone/ floating; bilabial [b] is heard;

  • stanza (4) reverts to [ʌ] Under/ dug up; [əʊ] is retained: oak-bone; [ɜː] first/ firkin;

  • [æ] emerges and carries into (5) :at/ sapling/ that/ black bandage; alliterative effects are achieved using labio-dental fricative [f] bilabial plosive [b] the latter joining sibilant [s] in (5) and (6); (6) interweaves [ɔː] Store/ before and [ʌ] love/ adulteress/ punished;

  • (7) (8) and (9) retain assonant [ʌ] undernourished/ love/ muscles’/ numbered/ dumb also exploring the variant sounds of vowel (a): [ei] brain/ shaved/ face/ scape [ɑː] tar/ cast/ artful/ darkened; [æ] flaxen/ black and so on; [əʊ] goat/ know/ stones / exposed/ combs/ bones;

  • the final 8 lines mix a sound cocktail around [ʌ] (stood)/ dumb/ understand [ei] betraying/ railings/ outrage [ai] connive/ civilized/ tribal [ɪ] civilized/ intimate [e] when/ betraying; alliterative effects are achieved using voiced and voiceless alveolar plosives [d] and [t];

  • the use of powerful language accompanies the graphic images of humiliation published in the British media: betraying/ cauled in tar/ connive/ outrage/ tribal/ revenge;:

  • From The Paris Review No 75 in conversation with Henri Cole: But there was always a real personal involvement—in a poem like “Punishment,” for example.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. About standing between those two forms of affront. So there’s that element of self-accusation, which makes the poem personal in a fairly acute way. Its concerns are immediate and contemporary, but for some reason I couldn’t bring army barracks or police barracks or Bogside street life into the language and topography of the poem. I found it more convincing to write about the bodies in the bog and the vision of Iron Age punishment. Pressure seemed to drain away from the writing if I shifted my focus from those images;
  • biblical references: the adulteress in John 8 saved by Jesus from stoning; Jesus pointed out that her would-be executioners were also sinners (‘He that is without sin … NCp73);

  • the ‘scapegoat’ in the Bible’s Leviticus carried the sins of the tribe out into the wilderness (ibid);

  • They have numbered all my bones’ appears in Psalm21 of the Catholic Bible (ibid);

  • incidental to the Bible reference it is also common practice in museums to provide reference numbers for each bone;

  • 3 ‘religions’ are present: the fertility vegetation rites of Nerthus; Irish republicanism; Christianity.

  • the poem reminds us of the persistence of atavistic emotions and responses in any poet born into the community of Northern Irish Catholicism who wishes to tell the truth about it (NC);

  • NC spots a duality: creativity and connivance; intrusion in the name of Art … inherent scopophilia (synonymous with ‘voyeurism’).

  • Heaney’s’s dominant emotion: empathetic pity for the victims (NC74);

  • NC sees it as an almost-love poem because Heaney is questioning his own integrity;

  • Some lines, regarded as ambiguous sparked off intense debate about Heaney’s stance in relation to events; NC quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien: I have read many pessimistic analyses of NI but none that has the bleak conclusiveness of these poems (1975);