Punishment by Seamus Heaney – Full Text & Analysis

Since I’ve had trouble finding the full text of Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment” elsewhere on the web, I decided to transcribe it here. I’m pulling this directly from his poetry collection titled North, which you can buy here.

Bog Body - "The Adulteress"

Punishment

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.

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 voyeuur

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.


Contextual notes:

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney (February 2009)

In some versions of this poem, footnotes are included that explain Seamus Heaney’s basic context. The whole of the poetry collection North discusses the time in Ireland’s history known as The Troubles. Heaney is and was a “Derry boy,” and Derry was the location of the majority of the conflict during that civil/revolutionary struggle. Heaney himself, while technically born in the UK, declares as Irish—and makes no question about that point.

In Derry and other areas of conflict (primarily the region of Ulster), members of the IRA brutally punished those who harbored and sympathized with the British.

Heaney wrote this poem, along with seven others (originally published as a collection titled Bog Poems), in response to the discovery of several bog bodies. These bodies, dating back to the 1500s and earlier, were immaculately preserved in the environment of the bogs. “Punishment” is written to Windeby I, a body found in Northern Germany that dated, according to original speculation, to the 1st century A.C.E. The original speculation also indicated the body died an unnatural death, and that Windeby I was an adulteress who had been punished in brutal, tribal ways for her crime.

(The entire thing eventually unraveled. The original date of Windeby’s death is unknown, but it’s believed that Windeby was actually a young boy, not a woman. You can check out a National Geographic feature on the topic.)

Heaney addresses this poem to Windeby I, comparing the brutal punishment that he rejects with such abhorrence to the crimes of the IRA against British sympathizers in Ulster. He relates the powerful, difficult emotions of injustice with the sense of brutality created by the conflict of The Troubles.

In an interview with the Paris Review (no. 75), Heaney stated that the poem actively reflected on his personal experience:

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. It’s about standing between those two forms of affront.

Additional footnotes on “Punishment” can be found here. You can check out more biographical information on Seamus Heaney (who I had the immense pleasure of meeting a few months ago), or take a look at his other published works.