Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” illustrates the revival of history through the eyes of an empathetic narrator and a two-thousand year old mummy. Throughout the poem, Heaney uses a very descriptive and imaginative language in order to create a tone of sympathy towards the reader; nevertheless, this tone is accompanied by a tone of adoration and admiration towards the bog girl. However, by the end of the poem, the narrator completely changes his tone from admiration to understanding and empathy for the killing of the girl.
Seamus Heaney uses detailed images, a very descriptive style of diction and a simple form of structure in order to emphasize the narrator’s changes in tones and attitude throughout “Punishment. ” The diction in “Punishment” embodies a very detailed yet grotesque style of writing. The entire poem is a description of the York Girl, a two-thousand year old petrified body which had been preserved under the earth and then dug up in 1817 in Holland. Heaney gives this fossil life through his diction by describing the state she was in when they dug her up.
Heaney starts the poem using words like “tug,” “halter,” “nape,” “neck,” and “naked” in order to immediately establish a dark and gruesome yet depressing tone. Heaney’s desire is to make the reader feel an emotion of sympathy towards the York Girl. He uses very penetrating adjectives such as “amber beads” and “frail rigging” to quickly establish this sympathetic tone. As the poem moves on, the reader notices the narrator’s change in attitude and feeling towards the York Girl as he begins to describe her in an admiring manner. In the seventh stanza for example, Heaney writes, “… our/tar-black face was beautiful. ”
The reader notices the narrators change in tone as he uses a paradox to describe the York Girl. The last four stanzas of “Punishment” are completely different from the first eight. The narrator switches from describing the York Girl and starts talking directly to her. This cant be stated as Heaney uses the word “you” and “your” four times; for example, “I almost love you” and “your numbered bones. ” This completely changes the tone and the atmosphere of the poem. The reader does not feel sympathy towards the York Girl anymore but empathy for her killers.
He ends “Punishment” by writing, “yet understand the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge. ” By the end of the poem, it is clear that the narrator too understands and accepts the York Girls punishment. “Punishment” contains several images which emphasize Heaney’s change in his tone from sympathy to empathy. The first eight stanzas individually illustrate a gruesome picture in a passive and almost harmonic manner. “her shaved head/like a stubble of black corn,/her blindfold a soiled bandage,/her noose a ring” is an example of one of these penetrating yet harmonic stanzas.
Heaney uses a set of horrible images yet through the use of his language, the stanza manages to remain passive and harmonic to the reader. Moreover, this stanza contains a metaphor which further adds to Heaney’s penetrating yet passive tone, “her shaved head/like a stubble of black corn. ” Heaney compares the York Girl’s putrefied head to black corn, emphasizing the gruesomeness of the stanza. The last four stanzas contain many images which guide the reader to understand the death of the York Girl and stop feeling sympathy. “the stone of silence. /I am the artful voyeur. This line uses an alliteration to emphasize the narrators understanding of the York Girls death.
Although the narrator clearly sees the suffering of the York Girl, the narrator understands that it is necessary for the York Girl to be punished, “I who have stood dumb… /yet understand the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge. ” Heaney concludes the poem without any sorrow or sympathy for the York Girl. All the images in the poem at first guide the reader using a sympathetic tone; however, Heaney completely switches his tone to one of understanding and empathy.
The structure of “Punishment” significantly serves in emphasizing Heaney’s different tones throughout the poem. Heaney uses eleven stanzas which are divided into four lines each; making the poem very simple. However, the reader notices that by the seventh stanza, the narrator has switched his attitude and tone towards the object of the poem. Therefore, there are seven stanzas of description which use a sympathetic yet depressing tone and four stanzas which use a more understanding tone towards the death of the York Girl.
Heaney’s division of the stanzas using punctuations emphasize the meaning of the ending and the starting lines of the stanzas. The structure of “Punishment” although it may seem very simple is actually very helpful when analyzing the different parts of the poem. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment” manages to reveal certain characteristics which allow the reader to perfectly conceptualize the narrator’s emotions and attitude towards the York Girl. Through the use of several detailed and carefully selected words, Heaney is able to make a transition in not only his thoughts, but in the actual tone of the poem.
Heaney’s stylistic devices, such as metaphors, alliterations and juxtapositions emphasize the narrator’s sympathetic love, which then changes to an understanding of the bog girl’s death. Finally, the structure of “Punishment” adds and emphasizes to the tones and attitudes of the narrator and, at the end, helps the reader understand the division of Heaney’s thoughts. All in all, Seamus Heany’s “Punishment” is a perfectly established portrait of a historical event mixed with the emotions of a sympathetic and empathetic narrator.