Last Updated September 5, 2023.
There are many significant and critically interesting quotations we could look at in Heaney's elegy for a man who lost his life during a British Army attack in 1970s Northern Ireland. I will select a few which are particularly instructive in terms of the poem's broader themes, language and imagery.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.
This important quotation from the first section of the poem seems to summarize the "casualty" in terms of his nature, his profession, and, significantly, his position with regard to the conflict going on around him. The "fisherman"—fish and water imagery become important later in the poem—is wry, tactful, and "observant." He is perceptive, and he knows what is going on around him. It is therefore a deliberate choice on his part to have "turned" his "back" on what is going on. He doesn't want to take sides in this conflict; he does not want to be part of "our tribe." Instead, he wants to focus on what he likes to do, which is drinking ("like a fish"). Look forward to the end of the poem:
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond...
Again, the fisherman's profession appears. He is very much defined by this profession, even though he is now on the "dole" (not working). He seems defined by this rather than by the "tribe" to which he belongs, unlike others. The "rhythm" of his job is imagined by the poet as the rhythm of the "casualty['s]" life. As a fish out of water, he drinks in order to feel that he is moving into his "proper haunt" or the place where he really belongs. He does not seek belonging by participating in the feud in which others are fiercely "complicit," but instead tries to find his own way. The speaker does not offer an opinion on whether this is better or worse than other approaches, but he takes consolation in the fact that, in death, the fisherman may finally know where he belongs.
As well as "fish," another word from the first quotation I selected comes up again and again: "turned." Just as the fisherman's "observant back" is turned to what is going on in general, so too is he
turned / In that bombed offending place.
What does Heaney mean by "turned" in this instance? Is the fisherman "turned around," as in, confused and in a place he should not be? Or is the act of turning a deliberate one—a continuation of his earlier, deliberate turning of his back on participating in the conflict? Is he accidentally, or defiantly, in a place he should not be? The "puzzle" is how far the fisherman can be considered "culpable" in his own destruction.