Casualty by Seamus Heaney

Casualty’ by Seamus Heaney is a three-part poem that is made up of stanzas of different lengths. The three parts were divided up by the poet with Roman numerals in the original text. There is no single pattern of rhyme or rhythm in this text, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks unity. The sections, although made up of different length stanzas, contain around the same number of lines. Heaney also makes use of rhyme at the end of lines, full and slant. For example, the first lines of the poem rhyme every other line, but there are also instances of half or slant rhyme in the text. Additionally, some of the lines later on rhyme in couplets, or sets of two. 

Throughout the text, Heaney makes use of a number of poetic techniques in addition to rhyme and rhythm. These include alliteration and enjambment. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “surplice and soutane” in the second section and “coffin” and “coffin” a few lines later. Further one there is “braced” and “bound” as well as “Nightly” and “naturally”. 

Another important technique that is commonly used within poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Heaney uses this technique quite often in the poem. One strong example is in the last stanza of the first section when Heaney reveals that O’Neil was “blown to bits / Out drinking in a curfew / Others obeyed”. 

Casualty by Seamus Heaney

 

Summary

Casualty’ by Seamus Heaney describes the death of one of the poet’s friends after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 in Northern Ireland.

In the first lines of the poem the speaker, who is Heaney himself, describes his friend Louis O’Neil. He often spent time by himself drinking and calling “for another rum” with his “weathered thumb”. After the man was done drinking he would leave the bar wearing “wadders and a peaked cap”. Heaney loved this man, and took the time throughout the poem to describe him in detail. Unfortunately, his life ended tragically in a bombing.

O’Neil was out drinking after curfew, as like a fish, he couldn’t help but follow his instincts and swim towards the bar. This was soon after the deaths on Bloody Sunday and the events are connected in the speaker’s mind. He describes the funerals and the solemn, yet regimented nature of the mourners. Heaney did not attend O’Neil’s own funeral, but he knows what it was like. He merges the images of death and loss with those of a fishing trip the two took. The poem concludes with Heaney describing O’Neil as a “Revenant” and “Plodder through midnight rain”.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Context

This poem is deeply emotional. It speaks on a traumatic, history-defining event, the day in Irish history known as “Bloody Sunday”. This day, 30 January 1972, is remembered for the murder of unarmed civilians during a protest march. Those injured were all Catholic and the march had been organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Fourteen in total would die. Those involved in the slaughter were British soldiers and they shot people fleeing, and even those trying to help the wounded. The same battalion of soldiers and been involved in two other controversial shoots in the previous months. 

It was not until 2010 that the killings were officially labeled as “unjustified” and that the prime minister at the time, David Cameron, made a formal apology. 

 

Analysis of Casualty 

Part I

Stanza One

Lines 1-15

He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
(…)
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.

In the first lines of ‘Casualty’ the speaker begins by referring to a man. Although the man is not named within the text, he is known to be an Irishman named Louis O’Neil. The speaker describes him, at first, through his drinking habits.  He often spent time by himself drinking and calling “for another run” with his “weathered thumb”. From these lines, the reader can infer that he is old, and is a long-time customer of one particular establishment. This is further emphasized by the fact that O’Neill did not have to raise his voice to get another drink. Anyone working in the bar knew exactly what he wanted. In another instance, the speaker describes how O’Neill is able to justify the lift of his eyes “order a quick stout”.

Heaney continues on, describing how after the man was done drinking he would leave the bar wearing “wadders and a peaked cap”. Often when he left the bar it would be dark, and he would be forced to contend with a shower of rain. The speaker emphasizes how the man was weathered, a “natural for work” and someone who got financial help or a “dole” from the government. 

 

Lines 16-20

I loved his whole manner,
(…)
And turned observant back.

After making the statements about O’Neil’s personality and evening habits, Heaney states that he “loved [ONeil’s] whole manner“. In the last lines of the stanza, he adds a few more details about this “manner” and what he found appealing about it. He thought of O’Neil as “sure-footed but sly”. He also had a way of not calling attention to himself and even when his back was turned he was observant.  

Through a single stanza, Heaney is able to paint a clear picture of who this man was. This is important, for as the poem continues a reader’s empathy for the character involved is of the utmost importance. As is the realism with which Heaney speaks on O’Neil and the events surrounding him. 

 

Stanza Two

Incomprehensible
To him, my other life.
Sometimes, on the high stool,
(…)
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

In the second stanza of the first section, it is confirmed that the speaker is meant to be Seamus Haney himself. He describes how when speaking with O’Neill the man tried to understand the writer’s life, but failed. The speaker outlines how they were times that O’Neill tried to engage in poetry. These moments occur when the man was,

Too busy with his knife

At a tobacco plug

And not meeting my eye,

In these lines, Heaney is referring to the way that O’Neil pressed his chewing tobacco is into a square, brick-like shape. Rather than spending time talking about this part of his life that the man didn’t understand, Heaney does his best to quietly and politely change the topic to something more common. He mentions eels, the horse and cart, or “the Provisionals” as examples. The last statement is a reference to one group of the IRA army. The Provisionals, compared with the Officials, were the dominant grouping of members. 

 

Stanza Three

But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
(…)
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.

In the third stanza, there is a transition from the mundane talk of the pub to the main event which inspired Seamus Heaney to compose this poem. One day, the man was out past curfew, which others obeyed, and he was “blown to bits“. This occurred, 

three nights

After they shot dead

The thirteen men in Derry.

This is a clear reference to Bloody Sunday that occurred on January 30, 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland. British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment. Of the people shot, thirteen were killed immediately and a fourteenth died later. In the last lines of this stanza, Heaney uses soccer/football scoring, as well as the abbreviation for “parachute regiment,” to speak about the deaths.

 

Part  II

Stanza One 

It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
surplice and soutane:
(…)
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.

In the second section of the poem, the speaker describes the imagery on the day of the funeral for those killed on Bloody Sunday. It was cold, windblown, and filled with a “raw silence”. One powerful image is of the “surplice and soutane” or the loose garments worn by the priest. These were moving in the wind. The rhythm in these lines is very exacting in order to reference the regularity of the funeral service.  

Coffin after coffin

Seemed to float from the door

Of the packed cathedral

They floated out like they were “blossoms on slow-moving water”.  The water imagery continues, as the poet defines how the onlookers were wrapped together in their morning, like “brothers in a ring”. 

 

Stanza Two

But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
(…)
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.

In the second stanza of the section, the speaker describes how O’Neil disobeyed curfew. There was no way that his family could hold him back. It didn’t matter what kind of threats were called in or what kind of “black flags waved”.  

The speaker then spends the next lines of ‘Casualty’ describing how he saw O’Neil in that “bomb offending place”. On the man’s face he observed remorse and terror. These were present while he was still “knowable,” or alive. His face was blinded in the flash of the bombing.

 

Stanza Three

He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
(…)
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’

In the third stanza of the second section, Heaney emphasizes the lengths the man would go to find something to drink. If it had not been for his habit he would not have disobeyed the curfew. He was like a fish who naturally and instinctually swim towards the “lit up places”. He was attracted to the glasses / in the gregarious smoke”. 

The next lines of ‘Casualty’ are used to speak on whether or not it should be considered O’Neil’s fault that he died. The poet isn’t sure how he should think about this, and at the moment he thinks back to a conversation he had with her O’Neil before he died. He quotes the man saying:

‘Now, you’re supposed to be

An educated man,’

….

The right answer to that one.’

 

Part III

Stanza One

I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
(…)
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…

The first stanza of the third section of ‘Casualty’ is the longest. It begins with the poet saying that he missed O’Neil’s funeral. But, he knows how it went. Again, the rhythm and rhyme correspond to mimic the step of the mourners and the horses. They are compared to groups of fish that are “Shoaling” from one place to another. They all move at an “equal pace”. At this point, funeral processions have a  “habitual / slow consolation”. There is something darkly meditative about the sound of the dawdling engine. This calm, but mournful moment is merged with the poet’s own memory of a time that he and O’Neil went fishing. There was:

[…] cold sunshine 

on the water, the land 

was covered with fog […]

 Just as the engine of the car was dawdling, the engine of the boat was “purling” in “Indolent fathoms white”. In those moments that he was fishing with his friend, he “tasted freedom with him”. The simple pleasure in getting out early and falling into a rhythm, brought Heaney to a different, but similar king of meditative state. The miles go by, and as he recalls the experience he dwells on distance, and the unknowable future and past. 

 

Stanza Two

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

O’Neil is the intended listener of the final lines of ‘Casualty’. Heaney describes him as  “Dawn-sniffing revenant” and  “plodder,” or someone moving slowly, as O’Neil did, “through midnight rain”. He was the best and worst of his own attributes. The last line asks the man, now revenant, to “Question [him] again” as he did when the two would drink together.  

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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