Death and Dying in Literature
Edited By John J. Han and Clark C. Triplett
Chapter Eight: Haunting and Melancholia: A Reading of the Revenant in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”
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Haunting AND Melancholia
A Reading of the Revenant in Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”
Written during the violent political turmoil of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, Seamus Heaney’s works of the 1970s often reflect upon and respond to the sectarian tensions and brutal killings of the conflict. In many ways, Heaney is what critic Daniel W. Ross calls a “[poet] of cultural trauma” (110), addressing the Troubles explicitly in his works and attempting to create a poetic language commensurate with the devastation and violence around him. While in many of his earlier poems, such as those in Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), Heaney appears to rely on a traditional concept of mourning—on the importance of properly burying the dead, on the communal process of the funeral to accomplish this end, on achieving closure through the proper and complete work of mourning. In the poem “Casualty” of his 1979 collection Field Work, Heaney’s work shifts focus. “Casualty,” I will argue, marks a turning point for Heaney, a point at which the certainty of the corporeal and funereal mourning is upset, at which Heaney puts the noncorporeal figure of the ghost (a figure which will appear again and again both in Field Work and in Heaney’s later works) into play.
“Casualty” reflects on the death of an acquaintance of Heaney’s, Louis O’Neil, killed in sectarian violence despite (and indeed because of) his refusal to acknowledge...
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