Conflicting loyalties, pity and guilt, private and collective, supply ‘Punishment’ with its emotional charge… Heaney is looking for a tenable position (MP p. 137).

Heaney measures the sense of injustice generated by an iron-age community’s brutal intolerance of rules perceived to have been violated. It leads him to articulate a troubling irony: iron-age justice that puts an adulteress to death is not so far removed from elements in contemporary Northern Irish society that mete out punishment when sectarian rules are seen to be breached.

Prompted perhaps by graphic images of a bog body Heaney creates a scenario in which his first person speaker (let us call him ‘Observer’) attends the iron-age execution of a young woman accused of adultery.

Observer senses her resistance to the inevitable (tug of the halter) as she is dragged to the execution site and feels for her as chill wind torments her naked upper body (nipples blown to amber beads) and  sends shivers through her feeble frame (frail rigging of her ribs).

From sacrificial moment to aftermath: Observer has come across the burial site (body in the bog) and presumed method of execution (drowned … weighing stone); he notes the latticework of sticks that held her in place (rods and boughs) and the inevitability of her death (barked sapling).

Her retrieval (dug up) after centuries underwater speaks of the conditions that preserved it – bones as enduring and stained as fossilized trees (oak-bone), the skull still a durable container (brain firkin).

Visual detail emerges: the head shaved, its short growth still evident (like a stubble of black corn); the blindfold that passes judgement on the execution (soiled bandage); the loop of rope that dragged her (noose) a metaphor for a locket of emotions that brought about her conviction (ring to store the memories of love); the label that condemned her (Little adulteress).

Heaney portrays the girl that was: from the Viking north (flaxen-haired) and lacking, as hunter-gatherers generally were, sufficient sustenance (undernourished); bog-stained (tar-black face) and beguiling (beautiful); the first hint of allegory in a girl who bore the sins of her whole community (poor scapegoat).

Observer cannot go all the way in terms of affection or admiration for her (I almost love you). His conscience tells him that in the same circumstances he might well have condoned the ‘unchristian’ actions of the majority (cast the stones of silence) and connived with injustice. Thus the struggle faced by the poet with a public voice remaining silent in the face of Northern Irish injustice begins to build.

Observer sums up his role in the name of art (artful voyeur) of presenting iron age barbarity – her skull’s evidence (brain’s exposed and darkened combs), the tendons that once held soft tissue in place (muscles’ webbing) the itemised skeletal remains (all your numbered bones) – with all the biblical or museum overtones.

Finally, more perhaps than in The Grauballe Man Heaney reveals the self-accusation hidden behind his silent empathy for the murdered bog-girl – his public voice has remained silent (stood dumb) when Irish women were judged by nationalists (betraying sisters) for consorting with British soldiers and publicly humiliated (cauled in tar and feathered).

Heaney’s inner conflict stems from paradox: the difficulty he experiences in balancing his anger as an intelligent sensitive guy (civilised outrage) against understandable root instincts that are self-regenerating but can quickly turn barbaric: exact and tribal, intimate revenge.

In conversation with Henri Cole Heaney made his responses to events in Northern Ireland and the usefulness to his troubled conscience of bog bodies as a foil of expression perfectly clear: 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 centres 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 (from Harvard University’s Paris Review No 75).

  • tug: pull suddenly;
  • halter: originally a rope for leading a horse;
  • nape: back;
  • amber: yellow-orange fossilized resin from coniferous trees common to the Baltic Sea area and used as semi-precious gemstone;
  • rigging: meshwork of rope and chain managing a ship’s mast and sails;
  • barked sapling: sapling is a young tree; 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;
  • oak bone: produced by fossilized oak trees in peat bogs;
  • firkin: a small cask; 4 firkins would make 1 barrel; used here to indicate something cask-shaped and ‘head sized’;
  • stubble: stalks of cereal plants left in the ground after harvest;
  • bandage: material strip used to bind a wound;
  • noose: loop of rope that tightens under pressure;
  • adulteress/ cast the first stone: the clue lies in the Bible’s New Testament (John 8:7) “He that is without sinamong you, let him first cast the first stone at her”; Jesus pointed out that her would-be executioners were also sinners;
  • flaxen haired: yellow gold colouring associated with Scandinavian peoples;
  • undernourished: insufficiently fed for good health;
  • scapegoat: goat sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement, symbolic bearer of the sins of the people ‘out into the wilderness’;
  • artful: originally well versed, creative (by extension to the Arts; later crafty clever;
  • voyeur: Latin videre suggests no more than ‘one who looks, inspects’; later extended to imply sexual titillation or excitement derived from the act;
  • combs: probable reference to the internal structure of the honeycomb;
  • webbing: strong, closely woven fabric;
  • numbered bones: ‘They have numbered all my bones’ appears in Psalm21 of the Catholic Bible (ibid); the speaker is assumed to be King David; incidental to the Bible reference it is also common practice in museums to provide reference numbers for each bone;
  • cauled in tar (caul early 14c ‘close-fitting cap worn by women’) 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 exposed to public view;
  • connive: turn a blind eye to something immoral, unethical, unjust or harmful;
  • tribal: characteristic of a social division (related by blood/ economic/religious;
  • 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;
  • the so-called Windeby woman retrieved in the 1950s in Schleswig Holstein provides the kind of graphic detail generate poetic charge;
  • 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 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);
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney  places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common,  little viz. [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment