The Question Raised in Heaney’s “Casualty”

Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty” is an elegy for a fisherman in loose iambic trimeter that reflects not only on the implications of tribal or societal obligations and subsequent political affiliations, but ultimately questions whether it is worth it to act on a moral imperative. The poem follows the uneventful life of an anonymous and unassuming “dole-kept breadwinner” (14) who, according to the speaker, frequents two very different kinds of “haunts.” The fisherman’s rightful place is on the water, and yet his other preferred habitation, the pub, is connected by the image of consumed liquid, although the latter will be his demise. However, nightly drinking will not kill the fisherman in a conventional way, but it will cause the fisherman to patronize a bar in a Unionist neighborhood because of the Bloody Sunday curfew, and consequently the Catholic fisherman’s moral ambiguity will contribute to his death. The speaker remembers how they would talk of the Provisionals, which as a literal definition is synonymous with the transition into the first section’s last stanza, where the most explicit connection between the two is displayed: “But my tentative art / His turned back watches too” (36-37). The speaker then correlates this arbitrary act with the turning point of his intellectual affiliation, and hence the (albeit early) turning point of the poem, when the fisherman “…was blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew” (38-39).

Heaney divides “Casualty” into three parts, the first two having three stanzas, the last having only two, with the final being a truncated triplet. At first sight the poem’s development seems confusing, or at least non-linear, as the narrative is shifted back in time once the speaker mentions the death of the fisherman in a bombing at the end of the first section. The rhyme scheme remains relatively uneven albeit slipping into abab at certain points when Heaney wants to highlight the significance of the passage. The next two sections shift from the funerals for the Bloody Sunday victims and the fisherman’s solitary funeral, to the tranquil scene of the speaker going out to fish instead of being at his friend’s funeral. However, the speaker envisions the man coming back from the dead through the light on the “indolent” waves, and desires for the ghost to ask him again the extent of their duty to their “tribe.”

The title itself represents the anonymity of the subject of the poem, as the speaker describes the personal habits and shortfalls of a man who was not involved politically. And yet the fisherman is a victim of his own habitual need to have a pint in a pub, but only because of Bloody Sunday. The poem takes place in 1972, soon after British paratroopers opened fire on a group of protesters, killing thirteen. The speaker lets the reader assume the specifics of exactly how the fisherman is killed, except that the speaker can “see him as he turned / In that bombed offending place, / Remorse fused with terror / In his still knowable face” (64-67). The first section leads up to this moment by explaining how the man would coyly order drinks, and the relationship between him and the speaker. The first line along with the entire first stanza describes how the man “would drink by himself” (1) in a way that earned the respect of the speaker of the poem. The speaker goes so far as to say that he “loved his whole manner, / Sure-footed but too sly…” (16-17) because he could relate to that sort of attitude on a larger scale when it came to the speaker’s political leanings. 

Heaney does not chide the subject of the poem (whom Heaney revealed through an interview to be a distant relative named Louis O’Neill) because he can relate to the man’s ambivalence toward remaining steadfast in his allegiance to his tribe by only patronizing Catholic pubs. Instead, the fisherman is so accustomed to his habitual pub-going that on the night in question “He had gone miles away / For he drank like a fish / Nightly, naturally” (70-72). Heaney expands on the aforementioned cliché by posing the question of why should it matter that an innocent man was sitting in a bar frequented by Protestants. Through this Heaney implies that he objects to the extremism of the IRA Provisionals in randomly killing innocent Protestants in retaliation for Bloody Sunday. It just so happened that Louis O’Neill was a Catholic knowingly endangering himself by sitting in the wrong place at perhaps the wrong time. Heaney explicitly answers this dilemma with the question “How culpable was he / That last night when he broke / Our tribe’s complicity?” (78-80)

The figure of the dead fisherman transcends the actual person that Heaney knew when the subject directly asks the speaker if being associated with Protestants warrants death while sardonically saying he’s “…supposed to be / An educated man..” (81-82). This paradigm shift in time and space runs parallel to Heaney’s own detachment from the militant Republican cause. In 1972 Heaney left his academic position in Belfast and retreated south to a rural part of the Republic of Ireland in order to write the Glanmore sonnets and presumably get away from the heightening tensions that were brewing in Northern Ireland. Stepping away from the Troubles further alienates Heaney from his Irish predecessor, Yeats, in that the latter poet’s “Easter, 1916” romanticizes the struggle to oust England from Ireland, while Heaney’s “Casualty” takes a more complex and realistic approach. Heaney’s form in “Casualty” also serves to be antithetical to Yeats because it is in the same elegiac trimeter form as “Easter, 1916,” but with the infrequent rhyme scheme mentioned above, as opposed to Yeats’ conventional rhyming. Heaney utilizes the fisherman, a victim of the chaotic ramifications of political terror, in his poem in order to set an example of the arbitrary nature of death in the Troubles. 

The speaker in “Casualty” ultimately does not even attend his friend’s funeral, and yet imagines it while actually on the deceased’s boat. Heaney uses fishing diction in order to describe the imagined funeral procession as people “shoaling” like schools of fish by the hearse. This choice of words is an extension of the many different uses of fishing and water imagery throughout the poem, which is appropriate considering how Heaney ends the elegy by desiring the dead fisherman, the “Plodder through midnight rain, / Question me again” (112). Heaney’s transition from funeral to fishing boat in the penultimate stanza is fluid because the speaker cinematically shifts from the sound of the hearse’s engine “Purring” to that of the boat. While on the water the speaker states that he “tasted freedom with him” (102). Heaney no longer feels obliged to his kin to the point of not even attending the funeral, because the procession itself turns into a partisan statement. 

The speaker of the poem desires to get away from the political violence that’s tearing his countrymen apart. At his closing remarks, Heaney makes a sudden shift from speaking of the fisherman in the third person into the second person, so as to bring the subject nearer home and show the conjoining of their ambivalence. The speaker imagines the now “revenant” fisherman in his “proper haunt / Somewhere, well out, beyond” (108-109). Heaney questions the worth in pursuing a categorical imperative if the end result will so often become extremist. Thus, Heaney departs from Yeats’ romanticized battle against the English through the arbitrary death portrayed in “Casualty.”

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

13 unarmed protestors were murdered by British paratroopers on 30 January 1972. The British government would not admit Bloody Sunday as unlawful until 2010.

The Tumbril as Both a Literal and Figurative Vehicle in Heaney’s “The Tollund Man”

Seamus Heaney’s “The Tollund Man” is an elegiac poem, (although in quatrain form) for an ancient sacrificial bog man found by peat cutters in Denmark. The speaker in the poem relates the geography of Jutland to his home-country of Ireland, particularly the “fen” or bogs, which were used as burial grounds for people sacrificed to pagan gods in both countries, (in this case the fertility goddess). In the third and final section of the poem, the speaker expresses being able to not only relate to the land, but also the Tollund Man himself, since “Something of his sad freedom / As he rode the tumbril / Should come to me, driving…” (“The Tollund Man” lines 33-35). Heaney’s diction is particularly significant in this case because the choice of the word tumbril can convey the poem’s meaning almost entirely, and its plethora of definitions evoke multiple metaphors and interpretations.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s two most common definitions of the word tumbril, (or tumbrel) have two entirely different meanings. The first definition entails the modern perception of the nature of the bog man sacrifice, as the tumbril is described as “an instrument of punishment, the nature and operation of which in early times is uncertain…” (OED online). The second definition reveals the more literal usage of the word that Heaney infers, which is “a cart so constructed that the body tilts backwards to empty out the load; esp. a dung-cart” (OED online). The implication that the tumbril is especially used as a dung cart also brings about negative connotations for the word, however, Heaney acknowledges that the sacrifice was an act of holiness because the speaker of the poem stops to “pray / Him to make germinate” (“The Tollund Man” lines 23-24). The use of the word tumbril is contradictory, as the speaker associates the cart with the car he is driving in, implying that there is a sense of honor in being put on display in a vehicle on the way to being sacrificed for the greater good of the community.

The “sad freedom” that both the Iron Age victim and the modern speaker feel lends to the profound beauty in having a willingness to die. There is no doubt that the word has demeaning undertones, not only with the aforementioned use of the tumbril as a dung cart, but also the historical allusion of the tumbril being the vehicle that was used to carry prisoners in the French Revolution to the guillotine. However, like the implications of King Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette being sent to the chopping block aboard a simple cart, there is a sense of respect in being given up to the earth goddess in order for there to be a good harvest, which is similar to the sacrifice of the royalty for the good of the revolution. In the same respect, the long ride in the tumbril is essential to the bog man’s acceptance of death in the same way as it is to the speaker in the poem.

Interestingly enough, Heaney does not give any evidence of proof that the Tollund Man had actually been carried to the spot of his sacrifice in a tumbril, or any kind of vehicle for that matter. Yet the speaker is so certain about this point not only because it elevates the meaning of his death, but because otherwise there would be no association that would connect the speaker to the bog person. One of the first shown peculiar structural idiosyncrasies of “The Tollund Man” is that the voice speaks in future tense. This gives utmost importance to the idea of the tumbril, because in retrospect, the reader realizes that all along the tone of the speaker in first person is as if he is on his own tumbril ride to his awaiting grave in the earth. The bewilderment the speaker feels on the ever-moving tumbril of life is graceful and sad all at once, and ultimately when he reaches death he “will feel lost, / unhappy and at home” (“The Tollund Man lines 43-44).

The well preserved face of the over 2000 year old Tollund Man.

The well-preserved face of the over 2000 year old Tollund Man.

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. “Wintering Out.” Poems, 1965-1975. New York: Noonday, 1980. Print.

“tumbrel | tumbril, n.1”. OED Online. December 2013. Oxford University Press. 28 February 2014 <http://www.oed.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/view/Entry/207364?redirectedFrom=tumbril&>.

Precariousness in Irish Poetry: Poverty and the Past

Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, two of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, reflect on the precariousness of the Irish lower and middle classes through two of the three mainstays of their nation’s literature: Irish history (or past in Boland’s view), and rural life (the third being mythology, which is not represented in the traditional sense). However, their treatments of these classic themes are not synonymous with what Irish writers in the revivalist period aimed to accomplish, which was to glorify Ireland and her people in order to create a national literature. Conversely, Heaney and Boland’s poems are meant to expose the fragility of the Irish way of life and the injustices that its people have suffered, whether it be through ecological precariousness, civil unrest, or British imperial oppression. Yet Heaney and Boland starkly contrast in what they focus on in their poetry, and this departure in poetic meaning is seen particularly in the relation between Ireland’s past and how it affects the contemporary Irish individual. Although in spite of the differences, there is much continuity in subject matter between the two poets, such as the similarities in dealing with precariousness, ecology, and manual labor in Heaney’s “Digging” and “The Forge”, as well as in Boland’s “Quarantine” and “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”.

Whether dealing with Irish history, familial past, or rural themes, both poets thematically converge on the acknowledgment of scarcity throughout the Irish lifestyle and landscape. The bleakness of the land, especially in the west of the island, has made it necessary for laborers to remain resilient in spite of what little yield the soil may give. Boland treats these themes in the context of the most drastic example of fragility in the history of Ireland: the Great Famine of 1845-1847. While Heaney focuses on the recent (although still precarious) gains in affluence for the lower classes by displaying the resilience that the Irish have shown in working the land in spite of a lack of fertility, which results in the character qualities seen in “Digging” in particular. The determination and the dignity of hard-work in manual labor emanates from “Digging” especially, as Heaney observes in awe at how his father and grandfather could handle a spade, and disproves that such agrarian work does not require some sort of skill. Heaney stops short of glorifying pastoral life by recognizing the hardships of subsistence farming, while at the same time still showing pride in his family’s agrarian accomplishments. “My grandfather cut more turf in a day \ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”

Meanwhile, Boland’s poems portray little accomplishment in the pursuit of manual labor. In “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”, the futility of hard work that Boland describes through the existence of an unused famine road, (which is inexistent on the map) displays a negativity that borders on nihilism. Boland associates the Irish landscape with melancholy and pessimism, instead of the resiliency that Heaney portrays, which can be seen in the first stanza of the aforementioned poem, “the gloom of cypresses \ is what I wish to prove.” Not only does Boland wish to prove the sadness surrounding dying without a name (which the cypress trees symbolize), but that the Irish past is filled with the forgotten suffering and poverty that has not been given the justice of even being acknowledged on a map. This means that the story of Ireland is not fully told, which is why Boland differentiates between the words past and history, in that Irish history is a mythologized version of the past that fails to even make note of the vulnerable existence and suffering of the common people. Hence, Boland is dealing with the individual’s view of the past and the relation between that and a distorted societal perception of history. This mode of thinking is unusual in that it is retrograde, unlike in Heaney’s “Digging”, where instead of the present having an effect on the view of the past, the past causes a development, which is acknowledged and appreciated in the present.

Heaney capitalizes on overcoming poverty in “Digging”, as his family gradually ascends from the lower to the middle class through two generations. Heaney experiences the fulfillment of his father and grandfather’s determination and hard work in their manual labor through comfortably making a living with writing. This is in stark contrast to the precariousness of the agrarian working life which Boland portrays, resulting in the full collapse that was experienced by the nameless laborers in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”. “Digging” begins with Heaney watching his father enjoy retirement by digging in the garden, which is a hard-earned comfort, and ends with Heaney recognizing that being able to write for a living instead of farming is due to the efforts and ascendency of his ancestors. In this recognition, the poet associates his pen with the spade of his forefathers, exclaiming that he will dig with his tool into the past in order to spread the story of Irish resilience and determination in hard work. Heaney also realizes that his father and grandfather’s economic rise was not completely smooth or guaranteed, because the threat of the bleak Irish ecology always looms upon the agrarian laborer, which Heaney simply shows by mentioning the “smell of potato mould”, a reference to the blight which caused so much death and misery portrayed in Boland’s poems.

“In the morning they were both found dead. \ Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.” Boland reverses the meanings of history and myth in her ode to two lovers, a simple but profound poem called “Quarantine”. That the couple the poem focuses on were not specific people proven to exist means that history as a subject based upon facts is irrelevant to the lives of common people who have not had the chance for their stories to be told. Not only did the toxins of history, or the British policy failures and economic fragility that led to the Great Famine, cause an untold amount of death to the Irish people, but the toxins also wiped away the names and stories of these people. Thus, the lives (or the actual past) of the suffering masses reverted to myths, or otherwise became something that can only be speculated upon in hindsight. The distortions of history and myth that Boland reveals in “Quarantine” is essentially a role reversal, in that Irish history is an incomplete story that does little justice to the actual past in which the story of two nameless lovers is raised to a legendary, mythical status. This is seen in the climax of the poem, where Boland describes a final act of love between the ordinary man and woman that transcends words, “But her feet were held against his breastbone. \ The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.” Leading Boland to proclaim “Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.” The love between a dying man and woman in “Quarantine” is a departure from the nihilistic leanings of “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”, because Boland portrays the lovers’ demise as a dignified death, an applied Irish characteristic akin to the dignity Heaney gives his characters in both “Digging” and “The Forge”.

Heaney’s poems are dealing with the metaphorical death of an agrarian lifestyle, as opposed to the actual deaths of people, which is the focus of Boland’s poems. “The Forge” is a portrayal of a decaying lifestyle manifested by the rusting of “old axles and iron hoops”. The withering away of the traditional Irish rural life causes the disuse of the blacksmith’s forge to the point of mythologizing the anvil by associating it with being “horned as a unicorn”. Unlike Boland’s use of myth in which all security has collapsed however, Heaney’s blacksmith is still working the bellows, even though his economic position is extremely precarious in a modern industrial world run by machinery. Nostalgia for the traditional Irish way of life is clear when the blacksmith looks out the door, into the past and “recalls a clatter \ Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; \ Then grunts and goes in”. Heaney delineates the blacksmith in “The Forge” in such a way as to have the reader sympathize with the character and his dismay of widespread modernization. Thus Heaney is able to represent two sides of the same coin when it comes to dignity and labor in modern Ireland, the benefits of which as seen in “Digging”, and the negative effects on the blacksmith, who is determined in “The Forge” to pursue a profession which is seemingly anachronistic in the modern world.

The precariousness of Irish life displayed in “The Forge” is a story of economic failure, where a man who makes horseshoes is no longer needed in a land now filled with cars. This is in contrast to the economic ascendency from poverty to comfort experienced by Heaney’s family in “Digging”, which still shows the vulnerability in the Irish rural life in its fading importance, and by referencing the fearful past potato blight. Precariousness as a theme leans towards a full collapse of ecology in Boland’s poems, beginning with poverty and ending with death in both “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” and “Quarantine”. Both Heaney and Boland deal with the mythologizing of Irish history or past, and their poems resonate with the theme of precariousness in showing the fragility of the Irish land and people. However, the poets differ in the degrees and contexts in which they portray the precarious Irish lifestyle, as Heaney references the past in order to emphasize the changing contemporary Irish way of life, and Boland focuses on the perception of the past in an attempt to create justice for those who have suffered due to poverty and famine.

The Great Famine killed over a million people, and caused a massive diaspora of the Irish people. The British government's response came only after the potato crop failed for two years. The British officials decided to only give relief to those who would work on building roads to nowhere, even though many were too weak from famine.

The Great Famine killed over a million people, and caused a massive diaspora of the Irish people. The British government’s response came only after the potato crop failed for two years. British officials decided to only give relief to those whom would work on building roads to nowhere, even though many were too weak from the famine.