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Punishment By Seamus Heaney – Reflection And Discovery

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Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment” from his “North” collection is a heartbreaking reflection on pain and revenge. It’s stirred by the tragic tale of a young girl’s ancient remains found preserved in a German bog. This innocent, punished long ago for a mistake, speaks to the soul.

In a piercing comparison, Heaney draws parallels to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s heart-wrenching to think that young girls were harshly treated by the IRA for just being associated with British soldiers. The past and the present pain meld together in Heaney’s words, showing that time hasn’t changed the hurt we inflict on each other.

The poem’s raw power also lies in Heaney’s own struggle. He feels the pull of anger and the need for revenge but is tormented by the knowledge of its wrongness. Through his words, we, too, are made to feel the sting of standing by, watching, and not stepping in.

Heaney’s “Punishment” is a moving reminder of the cycles of pain and the sorrowful echoes of history.

So let’s get to the poem. 

Punishment By Seamus Heaney

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 adultress,
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 voyeur

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.


A very powerful Irish poem. If you enjoy Heaney’s wonderful and powerful poems, then you should read 11 other great poems by him here.

Also, be sure to grab your weekly dose of Irish here. 

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