In Seamus Heaney's "Casualty," please explain the imagery employed, in particular the water imagery.

In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Casualty,” imagery describes the fisherman and his love for both drinking and fishing. Through body imagery and synecdoche, Heaney creates a picture of a familiar, tenacious “regular” pub customer. The poet then shifts mainly to water imagery to link the fisherman’s affinities for drinking and fishing as well as his continued journey on the water after death.

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In “Casualty,” Seamus Heaney uses body imagery to establish the character of the fisherman; the poet presents water imagery to illustrate the man’s ties to fishing and drinking. The repeated water imagery links his love of drinking, his journey after death, and his connection to his most comfortable...

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In “Casualty,” Seamus Heaney uses body imagery to establish the character of the fisherman; the poet presents water imagery to illustrate the man’s ties to fishing and drinking. The repeated water imagery links his love of drinking, his journey after death, and his connection to his most comfortable place—a fishing boat.

In the first stanza, Heaney offers glimpses of the fisherman that speak volumes about the character. Through synecdoche, he reveals the fisherman’s familiarity to the bartender and his understated personality. At a pub which he frequents, for example, he silently orders more drinks through subtle gestures and mimed actions. While imbibing alone, he would

raise a weathered thumb

Towards the high shelf,

Calling another rum

And blackcurrant, without

Having to raise his voice,

Or order a quick stout

By a lifting of the eyes

And a discreet dumb-show

Of pulling off the top;

Heaney captures the fisherman’s nature and mannerisms through physical imagery. The man exits the bar “sure-footed but too sly” like a person who confidently knows what he is doing and where he is going, but with a way of not drawing attention. Similarly, in his trade he must avoid making noise or attracting notice in order to lure and catch fish. Simultaneously, he must be ready with a “quick eye” in order to spot and nab his prey. With an “observant back,” he is suitably aware of his surroundings and can sense movement (like approaching fish) around him. He turns his “observant back,” however, on the political unrest and curfew in pursuit of an open pub. This “turned back” results in the fisherman being “blown to bits” during the 1972 Bloody Sunday bombing.

In the second stanza, the fisherman’s funeral occurs on a windy and rainy day where

Coffin after coffin

Seemed to float from the door

Of the packed cathedral

Like blossoms on slow water.

This metaphor of coffins floating like flowers on the water recalls the fisherman’s occupation of patiently and quietly trolling the waters in a search of fish. He cannot control his path—either after death or during life at work—but floats along. Similarly, he is pulled by the draw of alcohol and cannot resist his search for an open pub.

He had gone miles away

For he drank like a fish

Nightly, naturally

Swimming towards the lure

Of warm lit-up places

The oft-used simile “to drink like a fish” is appropriate here because the fisherman loves to drink and fishing is his trade. He swims like his prey to the bait of alcohol.

In stanza 3, Heaney imagines a return to the fisherman’s natural habitat, the water. Aboard the fisherman’s boat, the poet travels through the churning waters turned white by the engine. The fisherman and poet experience the “freedom” and satisfaction of hauling in an abundant, early-morning catch. They enjoy the natural “rhythm” of the laboring on the water. Of course the late fisherman’s presence is not literal; the poet imagines a

Dawn-sniffing revenant,

Plodder through midnight rain

The ghost or spirit of the fisherman continues to live on the water. The “midnight rain” recalls “the showery dark” of the first stanza, as the fisherman—when still living—exits the bar at closing time into the night rain.

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Seamus Heaney's poem, "Casualty," is about a man who is killed during the civil war between Ireland and Britain, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, after being told (with the other "men in Derry") to observe the curfew.

The speaker describes the man, and though the man is an old tar and the narrator is a "poet," they get along well enough, and the narrator greatly admires him.

There are a number of references to water or things associated with water: the man in the pub wears "waders and a peaked cap;" there is mention of his "fisherman's quick eye;" and, the speaker moves their conversation to "eels." 

Part II also mentions water, but here it is used to describe the day of the funeral when those killed in the Bloody Sunday massacre in the 1970s are buried: 

Coffin after coffin

Seemed to float from the door

Of the packed cathedral

Like blossoms on slow water.

The focus of the poem then shifts back to the fisherman. The reader learns that he was killed going out for a drink after curfew...

He had gone miles away

For he drank like a fish

Nightly, naturally

Swimming towards the lure

Of warm lit-up places...

In Part III, the speaker notes that he missed the fisherman's funeral, but into his mind's eye comes a memory when the two men went out on the first man's fishing boat:

...cold sunshine

On the water, the land

Banked under fog: that morning

I was taken in his boat,

The Screw purling, turning

Indolent fathoms white,

I tasted freedom with him.

The narrator continues to describe that morning—going out early to catch the fish, developing a rhythm in the work, "in your proper haunt." Subtly the narrator has begun to speak to the fisherman in his memory. And he brings the images of the two aspects of the man together at the end:

Dawn-sniffing revenant...

...the fisherman—now a ghost (perhaps the speaker feels this way through his memories of their day on the water, fishing); and the drinker, the law breaker—and the casualty...

Plodder through midnight rain.

The eNotes source on Heaney's poem cites its similarity to William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Fisherman." Yeats' character was similar to that of Heaney's—a man alone, anonymous. But the critic notes the references to water:

It seems, however, that the poem needs a sense of the sea...

The critic then points out use of the words "fathoms," "haul/ Steadily off the bottom," "well out, beyond," and mentions that this "sense of the sea" lifts one...

...to give a sense of scope to the freedom being "tasted."

Certainly the fisherman experienced a freedom on the water that was not allowed to him (or anyone else) because of the fighting raging all around.

There is also a furtive side to the fisherman. This imagery can be seen in several descriptions, such as "...Sure-footed but too sly; "His fisherman's quick eye;" his "observant back;" and, "he would not be held / At home by his own crowd." Here is imagery that suggests he was up to some kind of mischief—going where he shouldn't; refusing to be directed. This ties in with the speaker's question as to whether the fisherman was somehow to blame for his own death. However, his furtive movements seem more to suggest his need to be free, and not only his discomfort for being controlled, but also his refusal to be tied down. 

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