Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

Heaney's "Casualty" is an elegy that follows the traditional elegiac format in that it is divided into three sections. The first, as in a traditional elegy, is a lament for the dead person. The third section, also traditional, is an expression of consolation. It is arguable, however, how far the second section offers praise for the "idealized dead." Indeed, the subject of this poem is not described as ideal in any way; he is an individual the speaker cannot quite define. The speaker knows his subject's motivations and inclinations, but the process of analyzing or evaluating them remains a "puzzle" to him. It is not really defined whether the subject is a good person or if his reactions to the conflict around him are good reactions.

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The imagery in Heaney's poem is fairly consistent throughout. The "casualty," a fisherman, has deliberately "turned his observant back" on what is around him and rejects curfews and warnings in order to pursue his goal of drinking "like a fish." The progression of this fish and water imagery is fascinating. It is like the fisherman is trying to find a sense of belonging in drinking, as if this might transform him into a fish himself—thereby helping him find his way back to his "proper haunt." The final section of the poem offers a serene image of consolation: the fisherman and the speaker out in a boat, a "rhythm" taking them home. Here, too, there is "purling, turning," and there is nothing going in one consistent direction. Far from pointing the reader towards a final and definite answer, Heaney simply offers more questions. Even the dead man is pictured returning as a "revenant," and the speaker wishes he would "question [him] again."

The fisherman is of course not the only victim of what has happened to him. There were "thirteen men" killed in Derry, but the poem suggests that the fisherman is different in that his motivations are different—he is not part of "our tribe's complicity." The speaker is wracked by the question of whether the fisherman is in any way "culpable" in his own death. Why was he there? Was he simply pursuing his desire to be out "drinking in a curfew"? Was this simply his way of wrestling with the sense of being out of place—Irish, English-speaking, Catholic, Protestant—while others took to their "tribes" and engaged in a conflict mediated by British soldiers?

Ultimately, Heaney's poem raises more questions than it answers. The reader is left with the strong sense that the speaker is still "purling, turning," and questioning himself.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

“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 other senses, he is, as “Casualty” shows, very much attached to it. The acts of public respect and private mourning bridge the gap between the poem’s sections and provide evidence of that attachment. The event in question is the killing of thirteen unarmed civil rights protesters—not all of them from the Bogside area of Derry, which has become a facile synonym for die-hard Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) sympathizers (“the Provisionals” mentioned in the poem)—by British Forces on January 30, 1972, commonly remembered as Bloody Sunday. (Derry is the capital city of the county in which Seamus Heaney was reared.) As the poet is assimilated to, and detached from, that notorious event, so is his subject, and the poem effectively addresses itself to the awkward existence of both distance and intimacy between the poet and his material.

The very anonymity of the casualty becomes a challenge to the poet, like a question he feels he must answer or a ghost (“Dawn-sniffing revenant”) he has no desire to exorcise. The three-part division of the poem facilitates a slow, tentative, oblique approach (“my tentative art”) to the violent absence that the poet feels obliged to confront. Opening with a fondly detailed evocation of the subject—his habits, gestures, and bearing, which recount the natural facts of his actual presence—the poem moves to the different kind of attentiveness in its treatment of the funeral of the Bloody Sunday Thirteen. On that occasion, communal feeling held sway. The mourners formed the facsimile of a community (“braced and bound/ Like brothers in a ring”).

This communal mode of observance has been denied by the casualty, who met his death indifferently breaking the law, expressing a loyalty to his own nature rather than to reflexes conditioned by larger forces. The poet who “missed his funeral” problematically preserves him in a poem, ensuring that this unassimilated citizen is assimilated in an other-than-communal order of witnessing.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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 effects of doing so can be readily experienced in “Casualty,” where such issues as historical contingency and social solidarity are installed as tributaries to the main theme of individual fate and choice so that the theme is seen more revealingly as a result.

The continuity of the poet’s witnessing voice throughout the poem, weaving its chronologically random way through various levels of a recent personal past, also adds greatly to the poem’s overall effect. The events recounted in “Casualty” happened with an abruptness that is unanswerable. This fact is preserved in the poem’s discontinuous narrative, in which what is the irenic equal and opposite to the subject’s death (“that morning/ When he took me in his boat”) is kept till last. The poem’s relaxed, yet steadfast, tone ensures that a means of both admitting and accommodating those discontinuities can be found, shocking “puzzle” though they may be. The discontinuities are reflected in the poem’s form, both in its three-part organization and in the variable lengths of its stanzas. Within those forms, however, the same meter remains constant, and subtle rhymes and half-rhymes supply an understated but persistent sense of order. In other words, the very aspects that are the poet’s fundamental attributes articulate a degree of coherence and containment that are lamentably and destructively unavailable to the world outside the poem. With the casualty presented in this manner, the reader as well as the recollecting author should be in a position to admit the tragic awareness that “I tasted freedom with him.”

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