A close reading of Seamus Heaney’s celebrated elegy.

By Joshua Weiner
Poetry Media Service

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.

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 to spend four years writing in Glanmore, County Kerry. From that experience grew the “Glanmore Sonnets,” the heart of his fourth book, Field Work (1979). “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.

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.

“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. 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. 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.

Heaney opens his elegy with 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?

“Turning” is 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.” 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.

Joshua Weiner is the author of The World’s Room and From the Book of Giants, and the editor of At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn. This article first appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Seamus Heaney, and his poetry, at

© 2009 by Joshua Weiner. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on April 7, 2009.

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