The dehumanization of women is shown in Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment” through poetic and literary devices that include imagery, metaphor, and alliteration. The poem presents the speaker’s observations about the excavated body of a woman from ancient times. Throughout, elements of her body are compared to nonhuman items.
The speaker expresses revulsion at the ancient society’s treatment of the woman, who was presumably stoned for adultery before she was hanged or drowned. Despite their rejection of such treatment, the speaker also believes they would have conformed to the others’ actions if they had lived in those times.
Imagery is the use of references to any or all of the five senses to create an impression on the reader. Heaney primarily uses sight but also includes touch and sound. The visual imagery is mainly used in extensive description of the appearance of the woman’s body, but it also invokes a scene that possibly occurred long ago. This scene includes sound as well in mentioning “silence.”
A metaphor is a direct comparison of unlike things for effect. Words used as metaphors in the poem include “beads,” “rigging,” and “sapling.” The speaker compares the woman’s nipples to amber beads, then likens her ribs to the rigging (the lines that connect a ship’s sails). They also describe her thin body as a “sapling.”
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. In several lines, Heaney employs alliteration with a combination of s and b sounds: “Shaved,” “stubble,” “soil”; “black,” “blindfold,” “bandage”:
Her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage.