I want to talk about “Punishment,” but it’s probably a good idea to look first at an early poem of Heaney’s, “Digging.”
This is maybe not Heaney at his best–it’s a bit too straightforward, doesn’t trust us enough to figure things out for ourselves, and ‘snug as a gun’ is perhaps a bit too Ted-Hughes-I’m-a-real-man-even-if-I’m-a-poet. But it does tell you a lot about who Heaney will become. The earthy sound of that ‘squelch and slap’ resonates through the rest of his work, and he continued to seek the roots of his own psyche and his culture in the mysterious bogland of Ireland.
So you can imagine that he was fascinated when he saw a book called “The Bog People” by P.V. Glob (how can you be named P.V. Glob and _not_ write a book called “The Bog People”?). Here’s what Glob was writing about:
Heaney wrote several poems inspired by the bog people, including “Punishment”:
This poem certainly enacts the ‘digging’ that Heaney promised; the bog miraculously preserves the young woman executed (in his version) for adultery, and it also encapsulates the buried secret of tribal violence in Northern Ireland, for the bog woman’s ‘sisters’ are surely Northern Irish women punished by the mob for sleeping with the enemy. The most disturbing part is not even the destructive cruel rage of the mob, but the way it is enabled by those who stand by and ‘cast the stones of silence.’ In Ireland as in many places, the few actively violent partisans were supported by a penumbra of those who clucked their tongues, felt the violence was going too far, but did not actively oppose it.
There are many who admire Heaney for his candor and for his unwillingness to be swept away by partisan allegiance, though he certainly expressed outrage. There have also been those who chided him for failing to take a stand, and especially for moving away from the Troubles to the Republic of Ireland in the ’70s. One famous essay mockingly uses the title of one of his own poems against him, “Whatever you say, say nothing.” One of his later books is called “The Spirit Level,” and that image of balance seems to attract him greatly.
Formally, I’m struck by how much Heaney has toned down the sound effects, how this poem exudes restraint and balance instead of exuberance.