Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

An elegy set in the divided Northern Ireland of the 1970s, Heaney's "Casualty" takes conflict as its key theme. It explores how conflict can affect those who, like the unnamed former fisherman who is the subject of the poem, have offered only a "turned back" to it.

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The "casualty" is not involved in what is going on; he doesn't really want to think about it. His key preoccupation is drinking. He "drank like a fish" and would ignore all warnings and curfews in order to do it. While we know he was not unaware of what was going on—he was "observant" and had "tact"—he "would not be held" at home and refused to be part of his "tribe's complicity." In the speaker's mind, the dead man asks him to "puzzle" the question of whether this makes him culpable in his own death: "blown to bits" by a parachute regiment stationed in Bogside. The speaker does not answer this question. He cannot answer it himself. Should we take sides in conflicts? Does this make us safer? Conflict, the poem indicates, affects everyone who is in its proximity, whatever their personal attitudes to it.

Another theme in this poem is that of belonging and where our "proper haunt" truly is. This intersects again with the political context of the poem. The people of Northern Ireland were (and to an extent, remain) torn about where they belong—in terms of religion, language, and nationality. This inability to feel secure or in the right place feeds into the conflict. The casualty, meanwhile, is imagined as literally a fish out of water; while seeking that water, he "drank like a fish," as if to become one again. Finally, in the end of the poem he finds his home "somewhere, well out, beyond. . ."

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

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 poet both admires and is disturbed by, since it is the occasion of his untimely death.

It seems, however, that the poem needs a sense of the sea (“fathoms,” “haul/ Steadily off the bottom,” “well out, beyond”) in order to give a sense of scope to the freedom being “tasted.” Such scope is necessary in order for the full measure of risk and self-sufficiency to emerge. The sense of self-sufficiency is present in the reader’s introduction to the character, while the understanding of risk emerges in the victim’s paying with his life for a forbidden drink. The fact that “he would not be held/ At home by his own crowd” (those to whom by reason of culture, social standing, and background he might be presumed to owe allegiance) is both the unnerving cause of his death and the reason he is the poem’s subject.

In the obscure fate of an anonymous citizen, Heaney trawls the emptiness for an image of adequacy. What he comes up with is a potent recognition of independence as something that is not only provided for by militant activity and tribal prescriptions: It may also be something innate. By means of a typical verbal maneuver, Heaney uses the colloquial Irish expression, “he drank like a fish,” to invoke a sense of the casualty’s larger-than-social existence. It is by virtue of his nonaligned, nonconforming aspects, and the poet’s insistence on their relevance, that “Casualty” becomes an elegy for the “cornered outfaced stare” of humanity in Heaney’s homeland.

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