17 pages 34 minutes read

Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment,” initially published in his 1975 poetry collection North, explores the nature of cultural violence and revenge by comparing the ancient violence done to bog bodies with the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) use of revenge tactics during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (See also: Further Reading). “Punishment” accomplishes the aims of North in one complete poem, drawing together images of “betraying sisters, / cauled in tar” (Lines 38-39) and the “drowned / body in the bog, / the weighing stone,” (Lines 9-11) all to indict the speaker who admits he “would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence” (Lines 30-31) as “the artful voyeur” (Line 32) to the bog body’s terrible demise.

One of the most accomplished and well-known Irish poets of the 20th century, Heaney was Harvard University’s Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006 and the Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994. Heaney’s poetry is known for its hyperfocus on the Northern Ireland landscape and politics. Heaney was concerned with the political strife in Northern Ireland, and his poems consistently return to and comment upon that violence. Inspired by Heaney’s interest in P.V. Glob’s The Bog People (1965), an archaeological investigation into the ancient bodies found mummified in bogs in Northern Europe, North ruminates upon the fate of the “bog bodies,” while also remarking upon the cycles of violence through human history.

Through an in-depth look at one of the bog bodies, Heaney’s “Punishment” touches intimately upon cyclic violence, its connection to the Troubles in the modern era, and the conflicted role of the “artist” as a troublingly neutral voyeur to human suffering.

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 at the Heaney family’s farmhouse, Mossbawn. He spent his childhood at Mossbawn, which was centrally located between the villages of Castledawson and Toomebridge in Northern Ireland. In 1963, Heaney moved with his family to Bellaghy, a local village, and when he was 18 years old, Heaney began his study of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. Heaney graduated with honors from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1961, and then he went on to gain his teaching certification from St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College. Afterwards, Heaney worked for a time as a teacher in Belfast, where he maintained good friendships with many other Northern Irish writers. In 1965, Heaney married Marie Devlin, whom he had met while studying at St. Joseph’s.

In November of 1965, Heaney published his first collection of poems, Eleven Poems. The following year, Heaney’s second, acclaimed collection, Death of a Naturalist, was published. The 1970s were a prolific time of change for Heaney and his growing family. (He and his wife welcomed three children in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) Heaney lectured at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1970s, before returning to Belfast to teach. In 1972, Heaney and his family officially made the move to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland so he could focus on writing full time. While living there, Heaney produced two of his most well-established poetry collections, Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975). In 1981, the Irish Arts Council Aosdána was started, and Heaney was elected as a member. In 1997, Heaney became an elder for Aosdána, a great honor.

In 1995, Heaney won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although remembered primarily for his poetry, Heaney was also a writer of prose, drama, and translation. His 1999 verse translation of Beowulf in particular is highly regarded by critics and readers. On August 30, 2013, when he was 74 years old, Heaney died while in residence at a Dublin clinic. Memorably, Heaney’s last words to his wife were “Noli timere” or “Be not afraid.”

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of violence and death.

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Punishment.” 1975. All Poetry.


Written in 11 stanzas of four lines, or quatrains, “Punishment” moves with quick deftness through a range of interconnected descriptions and topics. The poem opens with a first-person description of the naked, mummified body of a woman, presumably after being discovered in a bog. The speaker describes feeling “the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck” (Lines 1-3) and “the wind / on her naked front,” (Lines 3-4) implying a certain level of empathy between the speaker and the bog body, who seems to have been a naked victim of some sort of violence. The speaker goes on to describe her body in detail and provides some hint as to his imaginings of how she came to be mummified in the bog: “I can see her drowned / body in the bog, / the weighing stone” (Lines 9-11).

After introducing the body to the reader, the speaker continues to provide specific details as to the look and feel of the body. He describes her as “a barked sapling / that is dug up / oak-bone, brain-firkin” (Lines 14-16). All of the speaker’s descriptions of the body in this section of the poem reference the color brown. A barked sapling tree is typically brown, and mummified bog bodies are also usually colored a brown or copper color because of the mixture of chemicals in the bog environment. “Firkin” possibly refers to a small cask for liquids, which illustrates for the reader, in detail, the state of the body’s internal organs after being lodged in the bog for hundreds or thousands of years.

Midway through the poem, in the fifth quatrain, the speaker describes the woman’s body as having a shaved head, a blindfold tied around her eyes, and a roped noose, ringed around her neck (Lines 17-20). These specific details speak to a type of punishment or social disgrace. Throughout human history, the forced shaving of a woman’s hair has typically been associated with punishment for some sort of vanity or presumed sexual impropriety. In the next stanza, the speaker addresses the sexual nature of the woman’s supposed crime by referring to her as “Little adulteress” (Line 23). It is clear at this point that the speaker believes the woman was punished by her society for a sexual indiscretion.

The speaker seems to feel empathy for the woman. At different points, he refers to her as “flaxen-haired” (Line 25) and “beautiful” (Line 27), and he addresses her with another twisted term of almost-endearment, calling the body his “poor scapegoat” (Line 28). The speaker even says, “I almost love you” (Line 29).

However, after the speaker’s almost-profession of almost-love, the last few stanzas of the poem shift and darken in tone. The speaker admits that he “would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence” (Lines 30-31) and calls himself “the artful voyeur” of the woman’s broken body (Line 32). The heart, or main theme of the poem, appears near the end with the speaker’s admittance of artistic voyeurism. His sexual description of the body, combined with his use of aggressive, loveless endearments for the woman’s body, speak to an almost sexual obsession with her suffering and the violence that wrought it.

In the final two stanzas, the speaker turns his attention to modern examples of his artistic voyeurism, saying he has “stood dumb / when your betraying sisters” (Lines 37-38) were “cauled in tar” (Line 39). The speaker is describing the Irish Republican Army’s use of vengeful punishment; when Northern Irish women fraternized with British soldiers during the Troubles, they were often covered in tar and feathers as a painful, belittling punishment for “sleeping with the enemy.” The speaker ends the poem by saying that he would undoubtedly have felt “civilized outrage” (Line 42) for the treatment of the woman from the bog, despite knowing and possibly supporting “the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge” (Lines 43-44) of similar modern persecutions inflicted upon women during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.