‘The Casualty’ by Ted Hughes is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, also known as quintains. Hughes has not given this piece a consistent pattern of rhyme. Instead there are a number of half rhymes. These exist primarily within the second, third and fourth lines of stanzas 1-4, 6 and 7. There are also moments of repetition, such as the reuse of the end word “eye” in the fifth stanza.
A reader should also take note of the use of alliteration. One example is in the fifth stanza with the phrase “away and the wren warns.” Both the ‘a’ sound and the ‘w’ are repeated. It seems to mimic the call of the wren itself, regular and consistent. Another example is in the repetition of the ‘g’ sound in the final stanza with the line: “Grimace, gasp, gesture of death”. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Casualty
‘The Casualty’ by Ted Hughes describes an apathetic group of onlooker’s and their inability to assist when they witness a plane crash.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that a plane was falling from the sky. There are housewives and farmers watching its descent. It is of interest to them, but only abstractly, like a fight between two animals.
Those who do make it to the scene make some attempt to help the survivor but only manage to prop him up. He is in a very bad state but no one does anything substantive to assist. They stare and pretend to mourn his slow passing when they are really only interested in who they can tell about the events later on.
Analysis of The Casualty
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by drawing the reader’s attention to two different types of people, “Farmers” and “housewives.” The farmers are out working in the fields and the housewives are indoors. From where both groups are situated they are able to see a “burning aircraft.” It is moving across the sky as if in slow motion. It is said to “float” rather than fall or crash.
By the third line it is clear that apathy is one of the major themes of this piece. Everyone who has observed this sight takes it in as one might a fight between a “firefly and a spider.” It is something that first, poses no danger to an onlooker, and second, one cannot really interfere. Due to these two facts, the observers do not become upset over what is clearly an impending disaster.
In the last two lines the plane is described as being stationed “between the washing hung out.” Its crashing though the sky is as mundane to the onlookers as drying laundry. The sight of disaster has become commonplace. The only interest they show is in the “evening news” and the commercialized presentation of tragedy they’ve grown used to.
In the second stanza, long before the news comes on, the vegetation surrounding the crash sight is smashed. The animals are reacting to what happened in a much more significant way. They are still surprised by the sudden intrusion on their land. The pheasant cranes its neck “in astonishment” and a nearby “hare…hopes up.” It is “quizzical” and “hesitant.” It is important to take note of how Hughes has personified the animals. They are given a much wider range of emotions than their human counterparts. The “wren” warns it neighbours of the danger and the hare races off. They are unable to help, but at least they reacted.
The third stanza zooms back out again and the speaker notes how the “smoke beckons” some of those who “saw” the fall. The word “fall” is very important. Hughes chose it to represent the fall of the plane but also the moral fall of humankind, relating back to the biblical fall from Eden. This comparison is emphasized by a snake that is sulking in the “gloom of the brambles.”
The onlookers study the crashing plane as they would the snake or the “rare flower.” It is something they might not see everyday, but it is familiar enough they take note of it. From here on out the tones becomes darker. There is a man still alive after the crash, he has fallen from the air and is in dire need of help.
The fourth stanza describes the terrible state the crash victim is in. He is groaning and searching around him for something familiar. His senses are working in overtime, trying to make sense of what happened to him.The people who have come to the scene are unsure what to do, or even where to find the body. They search through,
[…] weeds, leaves, barbed coils
That is until they find the body and “raise” it. It has been recovered and those who place their hands upon the man’s are branded against his bones. There is some hope that the man is going to survive his accident but no one knows what to do next. They try to “prop him up” against “heaped sheaves,” or piled up stalks of grain. The people who retrieved his body see this as a necessary action as he no longer has a “spine.” This is likely a reference to the incredibly broken state of his body.
They do their best to “Arrange his limbs in order” and open his eyes. There is nothing else they can do as they are,
[…] helpless as ghosts:
They are so removed from the reality of the world they are like ghosts, unable to truly infer with the living. This is an interesting contrast as the plane crash victim is seen as being more alive than the onlookers. It is also important to note that the man in the crash is not representing one particular person but a whole contingent of people who are afflicted by tragedy and are subject to the reactions of those witnessed it.
The onlookers see the body and feel its impact just like one’s body is changed by a rapid heartbeat. It is noticeable, but nothing to worry about.
The heart’s of those looking on the scene and everyone they represent, are like “a fist clenched.” Their deepest emotions, those which help to define humanity, are held close like a diamond. They are untouchable and “Unscratchable.”
The seventh stanza gives more detail into how they do actually react, aside from their general placidity. They do not cry, as one might expect. The men and women are only playing the role of mourners. They pretend to show the necessary emotion.What they are more interested in is looking, taking in the details and then later sharing them. Their mouths will soon relay the,
Grimace, grasp, gesture of death
That is, until they look down and are confronted with the dying, or perhaps already dead, eyes of the man. This ending can be taken in two different ways. The onlookers could be shamed into change by the dead eyes of the man, or simply provoked to move away from the scene and prepare to tell the thrilling tale of a plane crash. When considering the nihilistic view the speaker holds in regards to humanity, it is likely the former.