Seamus Heaney: “Casualty”
Seamus Heaney is likely the best-selling English-language poet alive. Famous, at this point, for being famous (he received the Nobel Prize in 1995), Heaney began earning acclaim with his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966). Critical interest and popular response came together in praise of Heaney’s work, which captured a County Derry childhood in what he called “the sucking clabber” of a rich, guttural, elemental, and vivid music. With each successive volume, Heaney broadened the allusive reach of his poetry; his nostalgia for a rural childhood fused with the sound of a deep tribal history that also reached forward into the contemporary plight of Ireland, its political fate shaken by the explosive “Troubles” of nationalist violence.
A Catholic republican from the north, Heaney had a talent for weaving personal experience into the tale of the tribe, and his talent brought growing pressure on him to become a public spokesman. After the political poems of his third book, North (1975), Heaney grew wary of that role, finding it too confining. He had already left Belfast and his teaching position at Queens University in 1972 to spend four years writing in Glanmore, County Wicklow. From that experience grew the “Glanmore Sonnets,” the heart of his fourth book, Field Work (1979). While the move south seemed to some a deliberate withdrawal from a previous political commitment to fight the British presence in Ireland, Field Work indicates rather a growing commitment to stay engaged, but to do so by maintaining the long view, which asks questions more than it assumes positions.
The title, Field Work, is a kind of pun; while it suggests most immediately anthropological investigation and agricultural labor, the wordplay digs down to submerged levels, evoking darker and more complex secondary figures of burial, memorial, and the poetic genre of elegy. “Casualty,” one of the most powerful elegies in the book, exemplifies Heaney’s evolving identity as an Irish poet from the north who is torn between public commitments and personal freedom, and who shares his language and literary antecedents with the English and Irish alike. Because the political conflict of Ireland is inscribed in Heaney’s personal and poetic drama, it is fundamental to understanding the shades of Heaney’s great elegy.
The poem is set in the northern province of Ulster in 1972, the infamous year of Bloody Sunday, when the British army killed 13 civil rights protesters in the Bogside area of Londonderry. The elegy takes the form of a kind of triptych memorializing a regular patron of the pubs, a fisherman known to Heaney who becomes a casualty of the sectarian urban warfare in the north. Although Heaney named the man in an interview—he was Louis O’Neill—he remains unnamed in the poem, a deliberate withholding that underscores the way the violence pulls even those who have no designated role onto the stage of history to play their accidental, anonymous part.
“Casualty” bears some formal resemblance to Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” which memorializes the Easter Rising of 700 Volunteers, rebels who seized areas of Dublin and held out against British forces for six days. (It is from just this legacy of the Volunteers that the militant branch of the IRA, the Provisionals, would grow.) The occasion of Heaney’s poem makes a kind of subject-rhyme with Yeats’s, as well as echoing the trimeter and its scheme of crossed-rhyming (ababcdcd). But if Heaney takes the abstract tune from Yeats to embody such figures of resistance in his own time, the man whom Heaney memorializes in his poem is of a different stature than John MacBride in Yeats’s poem. Unlike MacBride, an executed leader of the Easter Rebellion who “resigned his part / In the casual comedy” of life to assume his tragic role in the uprising, Heaney’s pub-loving fisherman refuses to abide by a curfew in order to indulge in his nightly pint, and is killed without having assumed any significant part in the struggle.
Heaney’s echo of Yeats—the way he adapts Yeats’s use of “casual” to sound the darker strains of “casualty”—further transforms the implications of Yeats’s famous refrain in “Easter, 1916,” that from such violence life in Ireland is “changed utterly” and “a terrible beauty is born.” In “Casualty,” there are no beautiful transformations, only hauntingly terrible ones. The rebels may have “hearts with one purpose alone” in Yeats’s poem, but the fisherman in Heaney’s “would drink by himself”—
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice
Neither does Heaney raise his own voice to reach the rhetorical elevation of Yeats. That he takes so much from Yeats in plying his allusive craft while maintaining a more modest level of address is one element of genius at play.
Yeats also has his “Fisherman” (also in trimeter), “a wise and simple man” for whom Yeats hopes someday to have written “one / Poem maybe as cold and passionate as the dawn.” One of the stunning particular observations of the fisherman, set like a jewel in Yeats’s highly rhetorical poem, is “the downturn of his wrist / When the flies drop in the stream.” Heaney opens his elegy with similar though more deliberate portraiture: the fisherman’s raised “weathered thumb,” his low voice, discretion, and “quick eye / And turned observant back.”
Heaney’s eye, as quick as his subject’s, sees how even though the fisherman has his back turned, he is animated by a sensory alertness to what he cannot see. There is a pun buried in this description—the fisherman has apparently turned his back on the political struggle of the militant nationalists. Has Heaney also turned his proverbial back? The implication gathers weight as Heaney defines those qualities he admires in the fisherman: “sure-footed but too sly / His deadpan sidling tact” suggests, too, Heaney’s expert prosody, his often cunning indirect approach, and his final evasion of political pronouncement that some readers have indeed found “too sly.”
Turning and turning. Yeats’s favorite verb makes a figure of historical process in “The Second Coming,” a poem often quoted by politicians and in newspapers, with its dark prophecy about the center of civilization not holding as the beast of the apocalypse famously slouches towards Bethlehem. “Turning” also refers to a natural process of mutability, one that returns us to points of personal origin, to original sources of myth and legend. Such turning is present in the very action of figurative language, which turns one thing into another; in verse movement itself, which turns from the end of one line to the beginning of the next; and in rhyme, which turns us back through a poem as we listen for the acoustic correspondences.
“Turning” is also the dominant verb in “Casualty.” It captures the fisherman “as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face.” And it signals Heaney’s turning to the art of elegy, with its shifts between public utterance of private feeling, to commemorate the fisherman, a fixture of the pub scene, “blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed.” It is also through the act of elegy that the role of observer shifts from the fisherman observing the poet in the pub, to the poet watching the fisherman in a haunted imagination. And through the shifting from simile into metaphor, the fisherman who “drank like a fish” ultimately becomes a fish, “swimming” out of cliché and “towards the lure / Of warm lit-up places.”
The final turning in part three is even more remarkable for its suave displacements. Though Heaney admits missing the fisherman’s funeral, he envisions the mourner’s “shoaling out of his lane / . . . / With the habitual / Slow consolation / Of a dawdling engine,” the sound of which seamlessly joins the funeral occasion to “that morning / I was taken in his boat, / The screw purling, turning / Indolent fathoms white.” The “indolent fathoms” of poetry are indeed slow to develop, but it’s on such waters that, in the fisherman’s company, the poet “tasted freedom.”
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond. . . .
The fisherman’s “proper haunt” was on the water, “well out, beyond,” as the poet’s place is in the poem, where “you find a rhythm working you,” and where, through elegy, the fisherman continues to haunt the poet.
To “haul / Steadily off the bottom” reinscribes Heaney’s figure for learning one’s craft by “learning to turn the windlass at the well of poetry.” “Usually,” writes Heaney elsewhere, “you begin by dropping the bucket halfway down the shaft and winding up taking air. You are miming the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself. Your praties will be ‘fit for digging.’”
Much of the hardest digging Heaney does in Field Work is in these burial grounds of the “Troubles.” In “Casualty,” he exhumes the fisherman who, in a final turning from the human, becomes something other than human, a “dawn-sniffing revenant, / Plodder through midnight rain.” It is no accident that, in the volume’s sequence of poems, “Casualty” is followed by “The Badgers”—“murdered dead” who “glimmered away / into another garden.” Like Dante in Hell, Heaney desires to converse with the elusive dead. Against the 13 victims of Bloody Sunday, who belong to history, Heaney depicts a loner, an outsider to whom he feels the strongest affinity as a poet. The poem’s final line, “Question me again,” is an invitation to the revenant to visit and to press the poet to keep asking about his own “proper haunt” inside and outside the complicities and conflicts of tribal belonging.
Joshua Weiner was born in Boston and grew up in central New Jersey. He is the author of three books of poems, The World’s Room (2001) and From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013).Weiner earned a BA from Northwestern University and a PhD from...