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Casualty Poem Analysis

Analysis of Casualty by Seamus Heaney

Casualty is a spectacular poem written by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. The poem was first published in his fifth poetry collection called, “Field Work”, in 1979.  The poem is set around a time that highly resonated with political unrest in Northern Ireland and thus, immediately focuses on the themes of death and politics. But these themes are accompanied by the theme of political conflicts that locates an ambiguous question within the center of the poem to derive at the thought of human morality. Such a question gets reflected within the poem as the poet incorporates to the core of Casualty, a lamentation for the death of his close friend.


 Casualty | Summary and Analysis

 Written in a linguistically simple and elegant style, Casualty is an elegy that embodies various patterns of the rhyming scheme and metrical structures. The poem consists of three parts but with differing lengths of stanzas. The poem begins with an intrinsically knit portrait of his dear friend, Louis O’Neil.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 1-20

Stanza I

He would drink by himself  

And raise a weathered thumb  

Towards the high shelf,  

Calling another rum  

And blackcurrant, without  

Having to raise his voice,  

Or order a quick stout  

By a lifting of the eyes  

And a discreet dumb-show   

Of pulling off the top;  

At closing time would go  

In waders and peaked cap  

Into the showery dark,  

A dole-kept breadwinner  

But a natural for work.  

I loved his whole manner,  

Sure-footed but too sly,  

His deadpan sidling tact,  

His fisherman’s quick eye  

And turned observant back.


In the first lines of Casualty, the speaker begins with a vivid description of his friend as he sits at the bar and drinks all “by himself”. The man in the poem is described as an old man, evoked in the lines, “And raise a weathered thumb”, who has long been a customer at the bar having established a custom of ordering a particular drink of rum, “And blackcurrant, without/ Having to raise his voice”. The poem further portrays him as an established customer who can “order a quick stout/ By a lifting of the eyes”. These swift eyes of the man represent, “His fisherman’s quick eye”. In this line, we recognize the man to be a fisherman, who is “a natural at work”, even though he is “A dole-kept breadwinner”.

The speaker further implies the characteristic style of the fisherman as he shifts from a description associated with his drinking habits to that of his personality which the poet adores. Donning “waders and peaked cap”, the fisherman would go “Into the showery dark”. His personality embodies several mannerisms like, “Sure-footed but too sly”, “His deadpan sidling act” and, a “turned observant back”. The poet shrewdly devises anaphoric lines on the repetition of the word, “His”, to connote the unique manners of the fisherman that only belongs to him.

Furthermore, the poet elevates the occupation of the man as a fisherman throughout the poem with respect to the theme of water. Words like, “weathered”, “showery” and even more, the beginning of the description of the portrait of the man with his drinking habits are all associated with a theme of liquid and water to create an atmosphere of aquatic life of the fisherman.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 21-35

 Stanza I


To him, my other life.  

Sometimes, on the high stool,  

Too busy with his knife

At a tobacco plug  

And not meeting my eye,  

In the pause after a slug  

He mentioned poetry.  

We would be on our own  

And, always politic  

And shy of condescension,  

I would manage by some trick  

To switch the talk to eels  

Or lore of the horse and cart  

Or the Provisionals.

 These lines introduce the speaker of the poem to be the poet, Seamus Heaney himself. Thus, these lines also manifest a juxtaposition of the occupation of the speaker as a poet with that of the occupation of the close friend as a fisherman. The life of the poet for the fisherman was quite, “Incomprehensible”. But at times, when he is “Too busy with his knife/ At a tobacco plug”, probably “after a slug”, the poet says, “He mentioned poetry”. But rather than talk about his “other life”, the poet cunningly would change the topic to that of “eels” or “lore of the horse and cart” or even more, to “the Provisionals”. These lines of conversation between the poet and his friend suggest a mutual attempt to understand the very contrasting lives of each other. In no way does the speaker undermines the life of his close friend as a fisherman and such a perspective of dismissing any presence of trivialization is invoked in the lines, “And shy of condescension”.

The final line of this stanza, “Or the Provisionals”, is a reference to the Irish republican paramilitary organization called Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) that sought to end the repressive British rule in Northern Ireland. Thus, these lines foreshadow the sudden shift of tone from a monotonous narration to a deeply traumatic and emotional narration within the poem that is about to happen.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 36-46 

Stanza I

But my tentative art

His turned back watches too:

He was blown to bits

Out drinking in a curfew

Others obeyed, three nights

After they shot dead

The thirteen men in Derry.

PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,

BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday

Everyone held

His breath and trembled.


These lines of the poem significantly echo the mourning of the death of his friend conveyed through the sudden shift of tone to grief and loss. The sudden shift of tone within the poem might also suggest the unhesitating hands of the political powers to take a life. Thus, this part of the poem foregrounds the context that inspired the poet to compose Casualty, precisely, the traumatic historical event called the “Bloody Sunday” that took place in Northern Ireland in 1972.

Bloody Sunday or the Bogside Massacre was a massacre that happened in the Bogside area of Derry, wherein the British army shot 26 unarmed civilians, out of which 13 of them were immediately killed, while another man died one month later. Such a historical context is echoed in the lines, “PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said/ BOGSIDE NIL”. Here, PARAS refers to the paratroopers, the parachute regiment of the British army. In the wake of such a tragic event, curfews were imposed on the country as the political unrest persisted. Subsequently, “three nights”, “After they shot dead/ The thirteen men in Derry”, his fisherman friend “was blown to bits”. As “Others obeyed” the curfew, he was “Out drinking in a curfew”, evoking the customary habit of drinking in him. The sense of a traumatic loss becomes more emphasized as the poet further expresses the death of his friend, “That Wednesday/ Everyone held/ His breath and trembled”.

The repetition of the mention of the observant “turned back” within the poem is to be noted here. Following the same year of Bloody Sunday, Heaney moved to the south of Ireland which became a controversial move on his part. For many people of Northern Ireland, it seemed as if the poet was ‘turning his back’ on the political commitments. With respect to receiving a lot of criticism on this subject, Heaney defended the right of freedom for poets to be apolitical. He had come to resent the role of a poet. Such a right for freedom might be suggested to echo in these lines that denote the poetic life of the speaker as “my tentative art” and “my other life”.

The lines, “But my tentative art/ His back watches too”, followed by the lines evoking the sudden death of his friend, reflect upon a change from a politically committed poet to a less politically inclined poet. The moment, his friend is “blown to bits”, politics comes to take up a whole another level of meaning for the poet. The political event of Bloody Sunday now comes to be associated with the tragic death of his civilian and fisherman friend. Moreover, the poem only ambiguously expresses the culprit behind his friend’s death as the only reference the poet offers is that “He was blown to bits”. Shockingly, we discern the fact from history that the IRA, specifically the militant branch of them, the Provisionals, was the organization behind calling in the bomb threats. Thus, the poet could be subtly hinting at the suggestion that his friend might have been blown up by the IRA. Hence, a more evident and foregrounding factor to the poet’s sudden detachment from any political commitments.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 47-59

Stanza II

It was a day of cold

Raw silence, wind-blown

surplice and soutane:


Rained-on, flower-laden

Coffin after coffin

Seemed to float from the door

Of the packed cathedral

Like blossoms on slow water.

The common funeral

Unrolled its swaddling band,

Lapping, tightening

Till we were braced and bound

Like brothers in a ring.


This first part of the second stanza of the poem expresses the day of the funeral for the people shot in Bloody Sunday. The day is described as “cold”, “Rained-on”, and “wind-blown” with an echo of “Raw silence”. The repetition of the word “coffin” in the lines “Coffin after coffin”, emphasizes the “packed cathedral” that was held as a “common funeral” for the people who died during the bloody massacre. The imagism of water continues to be present even at this moment of the poem as the poet compares the stuffed funeral with that of the “blossoms on slow water” using the rhetorical figure of simile. Moreover, the words of alliteration, “surplice and soutane”, might suggest the setting of the funeral as a Catholic church because all of those shot in Bloody Sunday were Catholics and these words symbolize the type of clothes worn by the Catholic priests.

The last five lines of this part of the poem embrace a sense of rhythm in the composition of the poem with respect to the pattern of the procession of the funeral. The words, “unrolled”, “swaddling”, “lapping”, “tightening”, “braced” and “bound”, all echo a particular pattern of musical rhythm. The final last two lines here, “Till we were braced and bound/ Like brothers in a ring”, evoke a sense of brotherhood, a communal bonding as well.


Casualty Analysis, Lines 60-69

 Stanza II

But he would not be held  

At home by his own crowd  

Whatever threats were phoned,  

Whatever black flags waved.  

I see him as he turned  

In that bombed offending place,  

Remorse fused with terror  

In his still knowable face,  

His cornered outfaced stare  

Blinding in the flash.

 The poet devices the technique of juxtaposition in the immediate lines here that describe how the man disobeyed the curfew. In the preceding lines, the speaker evoked an unbending, “braced and bound” coffin. But these lines are followed by, “But he would not be held”, which expresses the yielding nature of the man. The man here is described in these lines as someone who is not bound by the laws as he cannot be held back from the curfew, even “At home by his own crowd”. The speaker moves on to visualize the moments before his friend met with death, “In that bombed offending place”. The “knowable face” of the friend is described to be “Remorse fused with terror” and as he walks towards the brink of death, his face becomes blinded “in the flash” of the bombing.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 70-84

Stanza II

He had gone miles away  

For he drank like a fish  

Nightly, naturally  

Swimming towards the lure  

Of warm lit-up places,  

The blurred mesh and murmur  

Drifting among glasses  

In the gregarious smoke.  

How culpable was he  

That last night when he broke  

Our tribe’s complicity?  

‘Now, you’re supposed to be  

An educated man,’  

I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me  

The right answer to that one.’

Within these lines in the poem lies the central ambiguous question that speaks of human morality as the speaker further moves on to describe the reason behind the disobeyed curfew by the friend. Naturally, the reason is his drinking habit, upon which the description of the friend began in the poem. Apparently, “He had gone miles away/ For he drank like a fish”. Once again here, the employment of simile to compare the friend to a fish, another image of water, becomes manifested here. The extent of limits that the friend could reach to consume alcohol is beautifully portrayed by the poet with that of the swimming of the fish inside the water. As the poem moves on, the metaphoric way of comparing the friend’s drinking habits to associated water images and ultimately, to a fish gets a metamorphosis at the end of the poem, wherein, his death is compared to that of the death of a fish. Thus, diminishing the gap of metaphoric language to portray the friend as a fish.

Finally, the poet utters the question, “How culpable was he/ That last night when he broke/ Our tribe’s complicity?”. Here, the subtle suggestion that the poet’s friend was killed by his own “tribe”, the Provisionals, becomes more evident. But yet, this is only an ambiguous assumption because the poet only indicates that the friend “broke” the curfew imposed by the IRA. Regardless, this is a tricky question, as the friend of the speaker says, “…Puzzle me/ The right answer to that one” but we are sure that this makes the poet reflect on his own political commitments. We can also be sure about another thing. The poet might have left open-ended the person responsible for his friend’s death but the wordplay on the title, “Casualty” evidently manifests the friend as only a “casual” individual, another civilian who gets pushed to the hands of death during the Bloody Sunday.

Casualty Analysis, Lines 85-109

Stanza III

I missed his funeral,  

Those quiet walkers  

And sideways talkers  

Shoaling out of his lane  

To the respectable  

Purring of the hearse…  

They move in equal pace  

With the habitual  

Slow consolation  

Of a dawdling engine,  

The line lifted, hand  

Over fist, cold sunshine  

On the water, the land  

Banked under fog: that morning  

I was taken in his boat,  

The Screw purling, turning  

Indolent fathoms white,  

I tasted freedom with him.  

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…


These lines give insight into the poet’s reflection of thoughts on the funeral procession of his friend because he did not attend it. The poem follows the running thoughts or stream of consciousness of the speaker and thus, in between the lines, a sudden shift from the friend’s funeral to the memory of a day in the life of the poet and his friend manifests. The speaker imagines the funeral as the “quiet walkers” and the “sideways talkers” shoal “out of his lane”. Herein, the poem exhibits the talented and incredibly knit skill of the poet as it demonstrates a seamless merging of the theme of death and the loss of a friend with the memory of the poet that he shared with his friend. The “purring of the hearse” is rhythmically carried towards the image of the “dawdling engine” to convey the memory to be about going fishing in a boat. The musical rhythm mimicking the pace of the funeral procession embodies a smooth contrast with the memory and thus, the rhythmic pattern remains within the poem regardless of this juxtaposition. The poet describes the memory with the friend as the day he tasted freedom.


Casualty Analysis, Lines 110-112

 Stanza III

Dawn-sniffing revenant,  

Plodder through midnight rain,  

Question me again.


The poem ends with the vision of the friend at dawn, now as a “revenant”. As the friend “Plodder through midnight rain”, the imagery of water continues here, he once again confronts the speaker with another puzzling question. Thus, leaving the poem with ambiguous, open-ended meanings of references.






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