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

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The tone of this poem is one of sombre sadness and grief at the suffering that was enacted upon this bog girl that was discovered, but also how that suffering is continued in today's age through the political violence that is perpetrated in Ireland. Note for example, how the speaker imagines the girl before she was ritually drowned:

Little adultress,

before they punished you

You were flaxen-haired,

undernourished, and your

tar-black face was beautiful...

The tone of such stanzas captures the speaker's feelings of regret and sadness at the suffering this "beautiful" girl suffered before being killed for a crime and facing a punishment that, in his opinion, was out of proportion to the actual sin that was committed. This sadness is something that is continued throughout the poem, as Heaney makes the link to modern day Ireland and the punishments of women who were covered in tar and chained to railings. Although he would "connive / in civilised outrage," Heaney recognises that he understands "the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge." Even though he recognises such crimes are wrong, he also finds deep within him that he understands the need to punish others if they step out of line of the accepted behaviours and norms. The tone of sadness remains, however, suggesting that Heaney is reluctantly complicit. 

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