Punishment by Seamus Heaney

Published 15 Feb 2017

Speaking about the poets of the 1970th, Seamus Heaney, an Irish poet and a Nobel Prize winner was, maybe, one the best known authors. Born in 1939 near Castledawson, County Derry, Heaney was the eldest of nine children of a Catholic farmer and cattle-dealer. Like Seamus Deane, he attended St Columb’s College in Derry and Queen’s University, Belfast, where he was a member of the informal ‘Group’ whose mentor was Philip Hobsbaum.

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Heaney, especially in his early poems, exploited the archaeological richness of the “symbolic geography” of Northern Ireland, making the essentially Revivalist argument that authenticity could be evoked through a poetry that unearthed “fair equivalents” of the Irish past. Thus, contemplation of a judicial sacrifice, described in Heaney’s poem “Punishment”, together with Iron Age killing leads the author to reflect on violent retaliations taking place in his own society. Violence of the past days is compared to the events likely to be repeated in the present. The author depicts Iron Age killing and drops a hint on having the same reaction as he has while seeing young Catholic girls publicly punished for consorting with English or Protestant soldiers in 1960’s Ireland.

Such women were tarred and chained to railings in public places by the IRA. The parallelism is quite obvious here: “I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters/cauled in the tar/wept by the railings”. This is closely connected with Heaney’s personal experience as well. After his graduation from Queen’s University in 1961 Heaney worked and lived in Belfast until 1972. Then he moved from to County Wicklow, partly to escape the violence of Belfast at the height of the conflict between Roman Catholic minority and Protestants. Though Heaney escaped the uneasy events of those days, they were clearly reflected in his works.

On the other hand, there is also a psychological and cultural component that can be traced in this poem. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period during which Heaney composed and published Wintering Out and North (the poem “Punishment” is included into), his “archaeologizing imagination” was being energized by events in Dublin. As the great interest to the historical past suddenly appeared, there were excavations going on, and the revisionism about the Vikings was in the air. Some readers have criticized this “archaeologizing imagination,” especially as it is manifested in Heaney’s so-called bog poems. In these poems, this imagination becomes politicized when the poet confronts head-on the problem of tribal loyalties and his obligation to literary traditions (English and Revivalist).

The central image appearing in any of them is bogland, the symbol, which unifies place, person and time. Peat bogs both contain and preserve, and the author manages to develop this image into the powerful symbol of the continuity of human experience. This motive is reflected in the second verse too: “It blows her nipples/to amber beads/” – as amber is also known for its ability to preserve things inside it. So, the image of preservation and (to some extent) resurrection and re-birth is repeated throughout. Moreover, to some extent Heaney’s works are rooted in rural life of the Nothers Ireland, and draw on myths and unusual aspects of Irish experience. In Seamus’ later poems (and “Punishment” among them) the following image is created: victims of ancient tribal violence have been wedded to the ‘goddess’ for so long that they have become a part of the bog:

“I can see her drowned/body in the bog/the weighing stone/the floating rods and boughs/Under which at first/she was a barked sapling/that is dug up/oak-bone, brain-firkin”.

In Heaney’s poetry they undergo a second transformation in art, and the brutal nature of their deaths is distanced as they are seen in the context of a history extending behind and before them. This distancing, however, is compromised in each case by an implicit comparison with the present day, which cannot be contemplated with equanimity. If the poems offer the consolation that violence is nothing new to the twentieth century and contemporary conflicts will be forgotten someday just as the bodies in the bog have been absorbed into the land, the parallels between present and past remain bright and vivid.

Thus Heaney, in the poems about the bog which are his most memorable creations, completed something approaching an epic reconstruction of primitive man in his prehistoric, preliterate stage, and connected that remote and aboriginal tribal experience with his own experience as an Irishman living in the violence-torn North, the subject of so many terrible and shocking headline stories in the latter half of the twentieth century. In so doing, he drew a strong moral parallel between contemporary terrorism and ancient ritual sacrifice, or what in “Punishment” he calls “the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge.”

It would be too easy to say that he has accounted for the causes of strife among the people of his native country, and too much to say that he has produced a cure for them, but he has humanized them by the power of poetic language and so made them more understandable, more capable of a sympathetic response, than they would otherwise be. Especially by transforming the Irish bogs into a symbolic landscape, Heaney has performed a feat of imagination which can justly be compared with Yeats’s achievement in creating an image of a symbolic landscape in front of the reader’s eyes.

In “Punishment” the speaker addresses the corpse of a girl who was executed for adultery and draws a connection between her plight and that of Catholic girls in his own Northern Ireland who were abused for dating British soldiers. The force of the poem derives from his own ambivalence toward his subject: I almost love you/but would have cast, / I know, the stones of silence.

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.

Nevertheless, in “Punishment” (North) contempt for ‘connivance in civilized outrage’ is unexamined. The ‘artful voyeurism’ of the poem is supposedly criticized as the safe stance of the remote and lustful ‘civilized’ observer, yet is smuggled back in as the unspoken and unacknowledged condition for the understanding of the ‘exactness’ of tribal, intimate revenge’. The epithet ‘tribal’ cannot, in this context, be immanently questioned, since it at once is sustained by and reinforces the metaphor of tribal rites which organizes the whole poem, and which is at once its pretext and its subject-matter. Neither the justness of the identification of the metaphor — the execution of an adulteress by Glob’s Iron Age people — with the actual violence which it supposedly illuminates — the tarring and feathering of two Catholic ‘betraying sisters’ -nor the immediacy of the observer’s access to knowledge of his object (‘I can feel…I can see’) is ever subjected to a scrutiny which would imperil the quasi-syllogistic structure of the poem. Voyeurism is criticized merely as a pose, never for its function in purveying the intimate knowledge of violence by which it is judged.

As so often in Heaney’s work, the sexual drive of knowing is challenged, acknowledged, and let pass without further interrogation, the stance condemned but the material it purveys nevertheless exploited. Thus a pose of ethical self-query allows the condemnation of enlightened response — reduced in any case to paralytic ‘civilized outrage’, as if this were the only available alternative — while the supposedly irrational is endowed as if by default with the features of enlightenment — exactitude, intimacy of knowledge — in order to compact an understanding already presupposed in the selection and elaboration of the metaphor.

Heaney’s so-called ‘bog poems’ use descriptions of the preserved bodies catalogued as vehicles for contemporary analysis. In “Punishment” Heaney as persona deliberately enters the drama of ritual sacrifice: “I can feel the tug/of the halter”. The poem makes an analogy between what Heaney calls, in another of the ‘bog poems’, the ‘old man-killing parishes’ and the modern ‘North’ of the book’s title, subtly connecting the ritual victim with the tar and feathering of Catholic girls who dated British soldiers: “your/tar-black face was beautiful”. The poem is almost a love lyric, suffused with the intimacy of an “artful voyeur”, but Heaney is weighed down with what he calls elsewhere his “responsible tristia” as a Catholic with strong Republican sympathies who knows his complicity in the psychology of retribution, its ‘slaughter/for the common good’ as ‘Kinship’ puts it. The narrator is morally ambivalent since he “would connive/in civilized outrage/yet understand the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge.”

Such intimacy is double-edged; ‘outrage’ and ‘revenge’ stand poised but suspended, an effect achieved partly through the ponderous short-lined accentual metre that Heaney employs. Heaney may be praised for his exposure of ‘a private world of divided feelings’ as a means to both political statement and ‘fine poetry’. Yet one may suspect that English liberalism—and its school teachers—prefers this suspension of politics in private feeling in which Heaney’s Irish sense of the historical nature of his culture’s divisions can be read as a suitably engaged, yet comfortably distant, ironical defence.

Throughout the early 1970s, Heaney was gradually facing up more directly to his own sectarian resentments, residues in himself of which his education told him to be ashamed. His time at Berkeley had given him an enhanced awareness of poetry as ‘a mode of resistance’–North was one of the fruits of this. According to Heaney, the “scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium” are balanced by the poetry. His poetic scales were perfectly balanced in his “bog” poems.

Works Cited List

  • Castle, Gregory. Modernism and the Celtic Revival. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Curtis, Tony, ed. The Art of Seamus Heaney. 3d ed. Chester Springs: Dufour, 1994.
  • Gonzalez, Alexander G. Modern Irish Writers: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, 1997
  • Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
  • Heaney, Seamus. North. London: Faber, 1975.
  • Lloyd, David. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment. Duke University Press, 1993
  • Mcguinn, Nicholas. Seamus Heaney: A Guide to the Selected Poems 1965-1975. Leeds: Arnold-Wheaton, 1986.
  • Moore-Gilbert, Bart. The Arts in the 1970’s: Cultural Closure? Routledge, 1994
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