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

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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