Life strategies suggested by a poem by Seamus Heaney

Just how often, when you are smarting from some sort of a blow to your pride, equilibrium, feelings, intelligence, or perhaps more life-endangering, your physical person, has some other well-meaning and ultimately interfering soul muttered “Oh, well, we should all learn to turn the other cheek…”?  And usually their remark trails off into an infinity of foolish remarks, because most people do not suffer either fools or bullies or well-meant interference gladly, and you (listening to this from them), however much you are a follower of Scripture or perhaps only an admirer of some of the wisdom there, find other bits of doctrine hard to swallow.

Your hour has come!  Rather, it came back in 1996, when Seamus Heaney told the other side of the “turn the other cheek” story in his poem “Weighing In.”  This poem came to my attention first because it’s one of my brother’s favorites, and I felt compelled to read it and compare it with the man I know and see just what made the poem (and him!) tick.  Before I go any further with this, I should say that my brother is a very erudite and accomplished university teacher, who puts up with a great deal and never complains, or at least he seasons his complaints with the salt of jest, which never grows old.  He never complains about his students to me, of course, because his students don’t ask him computer questions and don’t ask him to design websites the way his sister has until recently.  But according to the poem, I’m not just supposed to say mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and let it go at that.  I’ll try to give, in my prosaic and ultimately less interesting flow of words, some sense of what Seamus Heaney has to say on this subject in his poem “Weighing In,” which comes from his collection “The Spirit Level” (in Ireland, a spirit level is what we refer to as a “carpenter’s level” in the U. S.  You know, that straight hunk of wood or metal which has a little window full of liquid in the middle of it–when the liquid bubble is exactly in the middle of the window, then the surface you have it placed on is level!).

Heaney begins the poem “Weighing In” by describing another piece of builder’s machinery, a “56 lb. weight.”  He characterizes it as a “solid iron/Unit of negation.”  His main point in the first few stanzas of the poem is that it’s nearly too heavy to lift at all until placed upon a weighbridge (which holds another balancing weight on it).  Then, “everything tremble[s], flow[s] with give and take.”

Having established his governing metaphor thus in the first four stanzas of his poem, he goes on to consider what this imagery means in human terms:

“And this is all the good tidings amount to:/This principle of bearing, bearing up/And bearing out, just having to/Balance the intolerable in others/Against our own, having to abide/Whatever we settled for and settled into/Against our better judgement.  Passive/suffering makes the world go round./Peace on earth, men of good will, all that/Holds good only as long as the balance holds/The scales ride steady and the angels’ strain/Prolongs itself at an unearthly pitch.”

But having enunciated this poetic and sparse and tightly and neatly rhetorical principle in its human terms, Heaney goes on in the next section of the poem to elucidate what the two sides of the balance are in Scriptural terms, the part of the balance we’re familiar with hearing in terms of Christ’s “turning the other cheek” and the less familiar (if in realistic fact more common) command to “refuse the other cheek.”  For Heaney sees the knuckling down to others’ whims and egos as humoring “The obedient one you hurt yourself into,” a question therefore of masochism (though this makes a somewhat more simplistic idea of his intricate and involved picture of the emotional and psychological elements involved).  He suggests that what Christ did in fact when the soldiers were mocking him was to exercise “the power/Of power not exercised, of hope inferred/By the powerless forever.”  Then, he begs the party addressed in the poem, “just this once,” to say who hurt him or her, “give scandal, cast the stone.”

Finally in this mastery of poetical imagery and argument, he brings the poem down even more to the personal level and a specific time (“one night when follow-through was called for”) and apologizes for having withheld retaliation for a remark from his friend which required a swift and presumably angry rejoinder, and says that he thus “lost an edge.”  The last two lines of the poem tell us that this was a “deep mistaken chivalry,” and that “At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.”

This poem is a vital and thorough recognition not only of the struggles we go through in making and holding on to our accomplishments and strengths, but also of the difficulties we encounter in making and holding on to friends.  In relatively small space, the poem links our friends to our innermost habits of response and self:  do we forgive too readily, do we take offense too easily?  Is there a middle ground?  Can “chivalry” be “mistaken,” can we be too gentle with a friend?  And just when does a friend need to hear from us that he or she has gone too far, and not from the point of view of our own concerns only?  The entire question of a fair balance is, after all, what hangs in the balance.

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