What is the theme of the poem "Punishment" by Seamus Heaney?

One of the themes of “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney is the universality of violence against women. Though separated by over thousand years, the bog people of the Iron Age share a similar attitude with IRA terrorists in the twentieth century about women who transgress society’s norms.

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In “Punishment," Seamus Heaney shows us the universality of violence, especially violence towards women, throughout human history. As presented in the poem, violence against women is used as a way of keeping them in line, to discourage them from transgressing the values and mores of the community.

None of the values are written down; seldom are they articulated. They collectively form the cultural backdrop against which officially sanctioned acts of violence against women take place. What is remarkable about this cultural phenomenon, as well as highly disturbing, is its persistence into what it proposed to be a more modern age, where women have the kind of rights that would’ve been unthinkable only a generation earlier.

But the point here is that while women may have changed, along with the status they enjoy in society, male violence against women remains ever-present. The IRA, though ostensibly committed to the liberation of Irish men and women, are in actual fact involved in acts of terrorism against the very people they claim to represent. This includes those women whom they regularly tar and feather as punishment for being too friendly to British troops, who are seen as an illegal occupying force.

The grim suggestion here is that the fundamental nature of male violence towards women hasn’t really changed all that much in 2,000 years. For all the great strides that women have made, the superior physical strength of men, with its seemingly endless capacity for violent expression, can always be used to keep women firmly under control.

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There are several key themes in Seamus Heaney's "Punishment" but perhaps the most significant is the theme of violence. The poem describes the dead body of a woman tarred and feathered for the crime of adultery, and the violence of the woman's death is implied by the description of her body. There is an obvious physical violence implied by phrases like "her noose a ring" and "her drowned body in the bog," and there is also a violence of a psychological kind implied by phrases like "her shaved head" and "tar-black face." This woman was clearly humiliated as part of the process of her punishment.

The violence in the poem also prompts the speaker to feel remorseful and ashamed. He imagines himself as a witness, or a bystander, and imagines that he would do nothing to intervene. He suggests that he has "stood dumb" as a witness to similar acts of violence before. This is probably an allusion to Heaney's personal experiences of witnessing acts of violence carried out by the IRA. The speaker of the poem also imagines that, if he had been present when this woman was being tarred and feathered, he would likely, "have cast . . . the stones of silence." He then reproaches himself as "the artful voyeur."

"Punishment" therefore not only explores the gruesome brutality of violence, both physical and psychological, but also explores the impact of such violence on those who witness it. We can assume that many, like the speaker himself, must feel (whether rightly or wrongly) intense feelings of helplessness and shame as a result of the violence that they are exposed to. Indeed, in this poem, the speaker seems to feel that being witness to so much violence has made him complicit in it.

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An Irish poet, Seamus Heaney writes of the atrocities committed by the Irish Nationalists, atrocities akin to those of the French during the German occupation as well as the brutality of humanity in general. His theme is that of "the scapegoat"; that is, he explores how humans engage in killing and other brutalities, but justify their inhumane actions by punishing others who can be perceived as traitors to their "justifiable" causes. 

In his poem "Punishment," Heaney describes the Nationalists' retribution exacted from an Irish girl--the killing and burial of a waif of a girl who consorts with a British man. Seeing her in a bog, Heaney describes the dead adultress, who once had a fragile beauty,

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

Further, Heanus even castigates himself for allowing the girl to be victimized while the British man is not similarly punished. For, he understands that this type of brutality is universally human, dating back to when men were but tribal savages. Like so many others, the poet stands by weakly and merely watches,

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.

In his poem, Heaney wrestles with the question of what responsibility the poet shares for the despair that ensnares so many people in his Ireland, and, so, he shares in this poor woman's punishment. The woman, too, can be interpreted as symbolic of Ireland itself that is exploited by both the British and its own countrymen as they fight for their causes.

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