The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Casualty” is a lament for the unknown citizen, an anonymous victim not merely of the social violence of the poet’s native province but also of those tribal attachments that make the violence so aggravated, interminable, and difficult to understand—those elements that are referred to toward the second section of the poem as “our tribe’s complicity.” Since the poet himself was born and reared in Northern Ireland, he speaks with particular, if understated, eloquence and with an intimacy that is typical of his work as a whole on the complex of human inevitability and historical happenstance of which his subject has fallen foul.

The poem is one of a number of elegies in Field Work, a collection that also includes, among other poems of this type, one on a murdered cousin as well as an elegy on the American poet, Robert Lowell. In addition, Field Work—the author’s first book after leaving his native province and coming to live in the Republic of Ireland—contains numerous poems on the possibility of renewal. The collection’s overall concern with death and rebirth and the impact of that historical, social, and natural cycle on an individual consciousness is conveniently, if not necessarily definitively, condensed in the three parts of “Casualty,” making it one of the emblematic statements in a pivotal work in the poet’s development.

Although the poet has, in a biographical sense, left his native place, in...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Heaney’s poetry is widely admired—even by readers without direct access to the poems’ contexts or allusions—for its fidelity to the actual and its ability to render the world of things with a direct, sensory appeal. The opening stanza of “Casualty” is a good example of the poet’s economical conjuring up of his subject’s physical presence. The oxymoronic “observant back” vividly connotes the man’s ready presence and complements the sense of his being “a natural for work.” This economy of means is underlined by the poem’s almost laconic three-foot line—a line that seems to replicate the casualty’s “deadpan sidling tact.” Immediacy of language and simplicity of metrical structure also make acceptable the disarming candor and the poet’s attitude: “I loved his whole manner.”

The poem’s patent disavowal of rhetoric, the means whereby it is able to “manage by some trick/ To switch the talk” from the loftiness often considered endemic to elegies, makes its larger project of reclamation and commemoration seem feasible. Nothing in the poem seems beyond the bounds of nature, except the various violences that it addresses. The same plain and rather plaintive tone is maintained even in the act of imagining the victim’s moment of death (“I see him as he turned”). Sustaining a steady tone to guide the supple range of his associative mode of writing has always been one of Heaney’s principal characteristics. The...

(The entire section is 500 words.)