In "Punishment," Heaney is describing a "bog woman," a woman who was punished and killed, later to be thrown in a bog. This was a common practice of ancient tribes; bogs were also used for ritual sacrifice. The chemical make-up of the bog preserves the body down to minute details. For example, eyelashes are often preserved, hair color, muscle tone, etc.
In this poem, a young girl has been punished for adultery; Heany makes this victim—called the Winderby Girl—relevant to his era, seeing similarities with Irish women punished for having relationships with British soldiers.
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.
This beginning introduces the poet's empathy with the girl: his feeling of the tug of the noose on the neck of the naked bog girl. In the second stanza, the wind blows against the nipples of her breasts that are like "amber beads," and "shake" her thin ribs. The speaker, in the next stanza, can see her body, drowned in the bog, with a "weighing stone" attached to hold her body beneath the water.
The next stanza seesm to infer that her body was found beneath a young tree (sapling) that had been dug up. "Oak-bone" may refer to the condition of her hardened, petrified bones, and "brain-firkin" may simply describe her skull as nothing more now than a container that holds her brain. The speaker goes on to note that her head is shaved, looking like darkened kernels on "black corn." She was blindfolded with a dirty piece of cloth, and the noose around her neck did more than hold her fast. (For if she drowned, the noose may simply have been a means to limit her movements, keeping her from escaping.) This "ring" (a pun) is not the romantic kind, but the speaker notes that in the end it may hold her "memories of love."
It is noted here that her sin was adultery. Here the past is being joined with the present (something Heavy often does, making note of the cycle of life—cruelly unchanged thousands of years after the bog girl died), creating the image of a modern woman who was punished because she "franternized" with a British soldier during the heightened conflict of the civil war in Ireland, between England and Ireland. She, too, can be seen as an adultress of sorts. At the end of the sixth stanza, the speaker begins to describe her "flaxen-haired" beauty. She was thin from malnutrition, and then they tarred her face. (Note: for tar to be maleable, it has to be hot.) She was, as the narrator puts it, a scapegoat (in stanza seven). Picked out of others with the same sin to be punished. In stanza eight, the speaker notes that he almost loves her—is this "artful voyeur," as is suggested by one source, her lover who stands hidden in the shadows? He admits that he would be guilty of casting "the stones of silence," remaining quiet when someone—more than one—should have spoken up to stop the punishment.
In the next stanza, the speaker moves back to the image of the bog girl. He studies what is left of her: brains, muscles and bones exposed. Back again to the present day, he stands mute while others like this woman, "cauled in tar," cried. He, like others in the past, did nothing. They should have experienced "outrage," but he also understands (though he may not agree with it) what motivated the tribal mentality to punish, as well as that of modern civilization: a kind of "intimate revenge."