Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Students of Irish poetry will find many intriguing echoes between “Casualty” and William Butler Yeats’s “The Fisherman.” Published in a pivotal collection in Yeats’s development—The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)—this poem conjures up a remote, anonymous, isolated figure and holds him up as an ideal whereby the aspirations of the day might be revealed in all their tawdry (though not necessarily violent) opportunism. In particular, Yeats makes a strong case for the fisherman as the embodiment of cultural integrity based on personal distinctiveness.

Heaney’s “Casualty” is less politically ambitious than Yeats’s “The Fisherman,” and it is much more quiescent in tone, as befits the personal tenor of this elegy. With its emphasis on questioning and on thought as an experience of difficulty rather than of release (“you’re supposed to be/ An educated man”), “Casualty” is also less didactic than its Yeatsian predecessor. Nevertheless, Heaney’s poem may be instructively read as a critical companion piece to Yeats’s, particularly in its Yeatsian tendency to seek redemption in nature for what society manifestly disdains to supply. Since Heaney’s fisherman is “A dole-kept breadwinner” (that is, a recipient of unemployment benefits), it is tempting to see him in the poem’s concluding section as a poacher, a fisher of waters not his own. Such a view would be consistent with the sense of his going his own way that...

(The entire section is 491 words.)