What are examples of figurative language in the poem, "Punishment" by Seamus Heaney?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In  his own words, Heaney describes his poem, "Punishment":

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.

Certainly, there is much figurative language in "Punishment":


A metaphoric poem, "Punishment" creates an allusion to the discovery of bodies from ages ago that were well preserved, much as the body of the Irish girl killed by the Ulsters for being an adultress with the British. This allusion serves to create a comparison of the primitive brutality with the contemporary Irish murder of the girl accused of consorting with the enemy in sectarian violence. 


There are several metaphors, or unstated comparisons.

  • In the first stanza, the girl's blouse has been ripped off her and her "nipples" are likened to "amber beads." 
  • Her ribs are compared to a ship's rigging: "the frail rigging/of her ribs."
  • The girl's drowned body is likenend to "a barked sapling / that is dug up / oak-bone, brain-firkin"
  • The poet addresses her as "My poor scapegoat"
  • He compares himself to an "artful voyeur"
  • The other adultresses are her "betraying sisters"
  • The "exact / and tribal, intimate revenge" is a metaphor for the primitive brutality that the girls experience in death.
  • "stones of silence" compares not voicing outrage as being complicity with the killing of the girl. This phrase also contains alliteration of /s/.


  • "I can feel the tug/of the halter," "the wind (tactile imagery)/
  • on her naked front (visual imagery); 
  • "It blows her nipples"; "shakes the frail rigging" (tactile imagery) / to amber beads (visual imagery);
  • "...her drowned / body in the bog / the weighing stone...(visual imagery)
  • "her shaved head...her blindfold...her noose" (visual imagery)
  • "flaxen-haired," "undernourished," "tar-black face" (visual imagery) hair that is "black corn" (visual imagery)
  • "cauled in tar," "muscled webbing" (visual imagery )


There is only one simile, or stated comparison using "like": In the fourth stanza, Heaney writes, "her shaved head / like a stubble of black corn"


The repetition of initial consonant sounds, alliteration appears in the second stanza with "body in the bog" and the repeated /b/. In the third stanza there is alliteration with the /b/ again: "oak-bone, brain-firkin." Again, with the metaphor "stones of silence" there is alliteration with /s/.