Seamus Heaney is one of the most famous poets of the modern era, and his “Field of Vision” is perhaps one of the most beautiful elegies ever written. This sample literature review explores his elegy and themes of domestic violence.
Seamus Heaney’s popular elegy
“She never lamented once and she never/Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight,” writes Seamus Heaney of the aunt he remembers in Field of Vision.
Heaney’s Casualty is an elegy to an unnamed friend, a poem that follows a somber trimeter as the narrator looks back on his subject. The elegy, following a tight scheme of cross-rhyming, is arranged in three parts, seemingly reflecting a traditional linear narrative of beginning, middle, and end—an ironic structure, considering the poem deals with three stages of the past.
Although the poem does not progress beyond the period of sectarian urban warfare in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the tribute to the anonymous “casualty”, needlessly caught up in times of violence, is contained within Heaney’s retrospective musings.
Field of Vision’s tone
The quiet tone of Casualty is matched by the initial description of the poet’s friend, who orders his drinks at the pub through gestures of “discreet dumb-show”. As the stanza progresses, Heaney deftly sketches his friend’s portrait: the casualty was a fisherman, a man with a rare mixture of self-deprecating but sociable qualities that causes the poet to reflect:
“I loved his whole manner”.
Heaney injects irony into the poem, observing that his life as a writer was “incomprehensible” to his friend while carrying on with his verse homage. “
But my tentative art/his turned back watches too,” Heaney continues as a precursor to the colloquial and violent announcement that his friend was “blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew”.
Ignominiously, then, the living friend becomes the casualty but reaches, in his death, an omnipresent understanding of poetry and the politics behind it. Since the poet and his subject are no longer divided by their earthly pursuits, the intimacy of the tribute increases.
In the second part of the poem, Heaney strikes a distance from the violence of the previous stanza, with a description of “Cold/Raw Silence”, a bold statement of his friend’s rebellion against the constraints of curfew—he “would not be held/At home by his own crowd”— and the political situation that led to his death in a cold blinding “flash”.
Heaney goes on to contrast this “flash” against the “warm lit-up” pubs that enticed his friend with their comforting “blurred mesh and murmur” and drifts of hazy air. At this point, Heaney asks the only question of the poem, one that remains unanswered yet points out his friend’s deliberate political unawareness in the face of his desire to satiate his individual needs.
Themes of violence and death
Heaney imagines his friend’s funeral, attended by “quiet walkers/And sideways talkers” and the “purring of the hearse”, in images that establish a fluid and civilized aftermath to the violent death. These images then merge into another memory, a recollection of Heaney and his friend in a fishing boat on the ocean, removed from the streets and the pubs and their intoxicating atmosphere.
Recalling that they both “tasted freedom” during this boat trip, Heaney declares it the “proper haunt” of his friend, somewhere that matches his afterlife state of “well out, beyond…” The stanza breaks; the last three lines herald the return of Heaney’s quiet tribute as his friend is brought back down to earth and into the shadows, becoming once more a “plodder through the midnight rain”, whose company is sorely missed.
Although they both concern recollections of the past, loss and mourning, the poems Casualty and Field of Vision by Seamus Heaney could hardly be classed as “laments”. The very word evokes sobbing, screaming and beatings of the heart, whereas the approach of the poet is honorific, touching, modest but never severe. As discussed above, retrospect is explored by both poets with dignified, rather than extravagant, sentiment.
In Casualty, Heaney plays with the idea of time and variations of light and life before he lays his friend to rest with no florid and elevated questioning of the futility of his death. Memory can haunt but it does not have to shout, and the poems are all the more haunting and effective for not carrying a “spare ounce of emotional weight” in their evocation of memory and what remains captured within it.
Boland, Eavan. “Domestic Violence.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180326.
Heaney, Seamus. “Casualty.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/182158#poem.
Heaney, Seamus. “Field of Vision.” Fung ENG4U. Mrs. Fung’s ENG4U CKSS, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013. https://sites.google.com/site/fungeng4u/poetry/field-of-vision—seamus-heaney.