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Published: 04-10-2019

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An Examination of “Intimate Revenge” in Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”

The poem “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney was written in 1975 as a part of the anthology North. It is a element of Heaney’s bog series, in which he describes the Irish bogland, and the various artifacts and remains that have been located inside the Northern European bogs. In these poems, the bog imagery is metaphoric of Heaney’s Irish homeland, especially Northern Ireland. Written in the course of the bloodiest year of the Irish Troubles, “Punishment” delves deeper into this metaphor to examine relations for the duration of the time period. In “Punishment,” the poetic persona observes the body of a bog lady, the Windeby Girl. She has a noose about her neck, and as he looks at her corpse he imagines the context in which she was hanged. Throughout this first section of the poem, Heaney creates a very empathetic tone by way of the persona’s description of the woman and the circumstances surrounding her death. Toward the end of the poem, the persona admits that some component of him does not regret her execution, and practically condones it. In “Punishment,” Heaney uses contrasting photos of the bog lady and metaphor of the Irish Troubles to produce tension and explore the internal conflict between empathy and revenge.

Heaney begins to develop an empathetic tone from the extremely first beginning of “Punishment.” The first three lines read: “I can feel the tug / of the halter at the nape / of her neck.” Right away, the word tug pulls the reader into the persona’s knowledge. Heaney’s fantastic use of enjambment in this very first stanza also leads to the creation of rousing interest. These attributes perform with each other to draw the reader into the story of the bog woman simply from the initial image of her.

Heaney continues to establish empathy by way of the persona’s continued imagery. The persona uses extremely vivid visual analogies to draw attention to the young age and unfortunate scenario of the bog girl. In lines 7-8, the wind “shakes the frail rigging / of her ribs.” The word frail highlights her weakness and vulnerability. The persona can see her ribs. She is fully exposed. In this, Heaney establishes physical infirmity. Until the fourth stanza, the reader has no perception of age. In line 14, the persona calls her a “barked sapling.” A sapling is a young, weak tree. Barking is a practice in which a row of bark is stripped from a tree, inevitably killing it. Combined, these two basic terms generate an incredibly evocative image of nature slaughtered by man. They suggest to the reader that this girl’s death is an act against nature and is inherently incorrect. The persona continues to describe her in this manner, till line 20. Possibly 1 of the most puzzling lines in “Punishment,” it refers to the noose around her neck. The persona compares it to “a ring / to shop / the memories of love” (20-22). A noose typically brings about a damaging connotation. Nonetheless in this context, it is presented with a somewhat ironic and nostalgic tone. At its most standard purpose, the metaphor is alluding to the revelation in the subsequent line. But, at a deeper level, the line could represent the persona’s understanding and justification of the bog girl’s crime. This appreciation is further exemplified by the persona’s individual connection to the girl.

Heaney’s use of apostrophe creates an specially robust sense of empathy in “Punishment.” The persona directly addresses the exhibited woman as a “little adulteress” (23). When again, the persona draws consideration literally to her youth and paltry size by way of the use of tiny. However, this is also a term of endearment, as one would call his or her own child, further codifying the connection the persona feels with the bog woman. In this line, the reader is informed for the first time of the purpose for the girl’s death. She committed a crime and she suffered the punishment. In the subsequent lines, the photos transition from frailty in death to beauty in life. The persona describes her “tar-black face” as as soon as becoming “beautiful” (27). This stark contrast highlights the tension of her life and death and demonstrates the empathy the persona feels for the girl. The final definitive sympathy the reader observes is in line 28, as the persona addresses the girl as “my poor scapegoat.” The possessive adjective my demonstrates the empathy the persona experiences, and the line as a whole shows a wonderful display of sympathy. The implication of the word scapegoat is that she was punished so that other folks would not be. She is an instance, even although the persona recognizes the unfairness of her situation.

In the next stanzas, the persona begins to reveal his personal cowardice and sin. The most poignantly ashamed lines come straight soon after vehemently expressed empathy. The persona directly addresses the bog girl for the final time: “I virtually enjoy you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence” (29-31). The photos that have been creating empathy and endearment from the 1st line abruptly dissolve as the persona’s sympathy is proven insufficient. In spite of his convictions, he does not really feel strongly sufficient to speak out against his peers and save her. If he does, he can't bring himself to do so for the simplest cause. Some component of him understands why she is killed, and agrees with the punishment.

In the poem, the persona compares the punishment of the bog girl to the punishment of Catholic girls throughout the Irish Troubles. For the duration of this time, cruel punishments for seemingly minor offenses have been not uncommon. The Troubles have been a conflict among Irish Catholics and British Protestants. In this poem, Heaney particularly references the penalty for fraternization between these two groups. If a Catholic girl was discovered associating with a British soldier, she was “cauled in tar,” and shamed publicly (39). This is comparative to a hanging for adultery as public degradation. She is produced an example, just as the bog girl is created an instance.

The metaphor extends not only to the literal “punishment,” but also to the emotional conflict the persona experiences. He is the “artful voyeur” of a murdered girl (32). This demonstrates a sense of guilt as he witnesses the atrocity in front of him, however he only watches. Equally, he has “stood dumb” as he has watched his own individuals becoming punished by his personal men and women (37). He “would connive in civilized outrage,” yet do absolutely nothing to stop the act. It is by means of these contradictions that the persona’s internal conflict is revealed. The persona can “understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge,” however also really feel boundless empathy for these punished (43-44). It is through this conflict that Heaney looks at relations in the course of the Irish Troubles.

As a prominent figure in the Catholic minority, Seamus Heaney was usually referred to as upon to make political statements in his poetry. “Punishment” exemplifies betrayal, not amongst the two sides, but within 1. It is not degrading the Protestants, nor is it a rallying cry for the Catholics. Instead, Heaney examines revenge, empathy, and betrayal at their core. Throughout the majority of the poem, the pictures of the bog lady generate a fantastic feeling of empathy. But, it is also understood that the persona would have accomplished nothing to save her. She executed an “intimate” betrayal, and hence deserved an “intimate revenge” (44). The allusion to Catholics for the duration of the Troubles presents an specially individual connection for Heaney. In the intense emotion of innermost betrayal, moral convictions could be set aside for the satisfaction of revenge. “Punishment” examines the ethical dilemma faced each by Catholics throughout the Troubles and by any particular person in a circumstance of war, either personal or intercontinental. The resolution Heaney reaches is uncomfortable. The persona stands in silence and accepts the violence, despite empathy for the victim. The reader’s discomfort comes in the understanding of why he does so. It is the question of enjoy more than hate, of peace over war, one particular every single individual have to answer individually. Although Heaney hardly ever added fuel to the political fire of the Irish Troubles, possibly through this poem he is asking whether this struggle is worth the pain it created.
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