Weighing In

The title is teasingly equivocal: contestants ‘weigh in’ before a contest; ‘weighing in’ suggests ‘actively taking sides’; ‘weighing’ has to do with balancing one force against another, adding force to an argument so as to tip the balance.

Often troubled by his placatory responses to events, there were moments when Heaney’s customary urbanity, generosity of spirit and sense of fair play were tested to the limit. In ‘Weighing In’ he appears to have reached just such a moment.

Heaney invites us to envision a 56 lb. weight, an unyielding, inflexible block of solid iron. The Unit of negation is a metaphor for denial and contradiction, bigotry and extremism. Its cast-iron shape (moulded) is generally recognizable: Stamped ( ) With an inset, rung-thick, ( ) short crossbar / For a handle.

Despite its innocuous build (Squared-off and harmless-looking) efforts to shift it will be all but beyond human strength: a socket-ripping, / Life-belittling force. The equivalent of an indestructible flight recorder, Gravity’s black box is beyond a weight lifter’s ability or a mathematicians ability to calculate its true mass: immovable / Stamp and squat and square-root of dead weight. In short it is an oppressive burden.

To neutralize its effect requires an opposite force: another one placed on a weighbridge – /On a well-adjusted, freshly greased weighbridge When things are in balance the measurement dial quivers (everything trembled) but tips in neither direction: concessions between opposing forces are in the air: give and take.

By means of an everyday 1940’s weight of defined mass the poet has succeeded in spelling out the gulf between the entrenched, inflexible positions adopted by parties and opinions tied up in dispute and the absence of compromise, a very obvious link with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

  • lb: abbreviated Latin word ‘libra’; a pound in pre-metrical, British avoirdupois weight (56 pounds about 25 kilos);
  • stamped: Impressed with a pattern or mark;
  • rung: a horizontal support on a ladder for a person’s foot;
  • socket: an anatomical hollow into which something ball-shaped fits and in which it revolves e.g. shoulder joint; eye-socket;
  • black box: the flight recorder on an aircraft is a device that faithfully records air-flight performance, recoverable after an air accident;
  • squat: crouch or sit with bent knees; a weight-lifting exercise;
  • square-root: a number which produces a specified quantity when multiplied by itself;
  • dead weight: the weight of an inert object;


Christmas time reveals the sickening gap between its spiritual message and human behaviour: Heaney recognizes the imbalance between the conciliatory messages of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and explosions and outrages on the street outside He is angry (this is all the good tidings amount to); it is beyond him how to achieve compromise when ‘grin and bear it’ is the modus vivendi of the downtrodden (This principle of bearing, bearing up / And bearing out, just having to, no more than an exercise in weighing the intolerable in others / Against our own, suffering contradictions and injustices, imposed or chosen by custom and practice, without contention (having to abide / Whatever we settled for and settled into) and however contrary to personal tolerance (Against our better judgement).

Heaney is neither taking prisoners nor taking sides: clichés about one-sided tolerance (Passive /Suffering makes the world go round) do not hold up to the light; the Christmas message that preaches Peace on earth, men of good will will only come about when both sides are ‘up for it’ (when the balance holds, / The scales ride steady). Then and only then will people trust in the words sung by the heavenly host; they are sounding a touch fraught to Heaney: the angels’ strain ( ) at an unearthly pitch.

  • good tidings: good news, good information; Luke2:10 contextualizes the phrase in relation to the birth of Christ; the phrase appears in the Christmas carol ‘God rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’: ‘Good tidings we bring to you and your kin’; Heaney is wondering who his ‘kin’ is!
  • bearing up: remaining cheerful in the face of adversity;
  • bearing out: having no alternative but to support or confirm something:
  • abide: accept or act in accordance with (a rule, decision, or recommendation);
  • makes the world go round: (something extremely important) without which many ordinary events could not happen;
  • Peace on earth: a second phrase appearing in Christmas carols seeking to announce the birth of Christ as a positive message to the world; Heaney finds little cheer where he is at this moment;
  • strain: pun on stress and a musical melody;
  • pitch: the highness or lowness of musical notes;


The watchman in Mycenae Lookout fails to report on the things that he has witnessed because he is weighed down by ‘ox’ on his tongue, a huge inert weight that prevents him speaking.

Not so Heaney! His dander is up! He is anti the 56 lb weight anti his own conditioned, repetitious injunctions not to say what he feels. He turns the Bible’s exhortations on their head. Why turn the other cheek as usual? Why hold off casting the first stone as a matter of course?

He sets out the grounds for defying his natural compliant inclinations and his training: to hold one’s tongue is to cheat oneself: Not to do so some time, not to break with /The obedient one you hurt yourself into / Is to fail the hurt, the self, the ingrown rule (that is, the unchallenged conscience that ‘tolerant ‘Christian’ people do not do this kind of thing’).

He quotes the example of Christ mocked by his executioners (Prophesy who struck thee) and Jesus’s non-response he didn’t strike back. If Jesus was hoping to teach the soldiers something it was lost on them: They were neither shamed nor edified. What was actually demonstrated (made manifest) was a lesson in weakness (the power / Of power not exercised, of hope inferred) used for ever after By the powerless trotting out the same old excuse.

Out of keeping with himself Heaney vociferously urges direct action: Still, for Jesus’ sake,/ Do me a favour, would you, just this once? / Prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone.

  • Refuse the other cheek: reversal of the biblical exhortation in Matthew 5:39: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek … i.e. respond to the aggressor without violence;
  • Cast the stone: A woman, caught in the act of adultery and sentenced to be stoned to death, was brought to Jesus Christ by the scribes and Pharisees ; they were seeking to test his knowledge of the Law of God; ‘So when they continued asking (Jesus )he lifted himself up, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her (John 8:7);
  • Prophesy who struck thee: Luke 22:64: he soldiers holding Jesus in custody prior to his crucifixion mocked Him and struck Him; though blindfolded they expected the Son of God to ‘see’ what was happening;
  • manifest: obvious to the eye or the mind


The poet counters a tiresome well–rehearsed retort he is sick of hearing (Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes) contending that there are moments when people are justly driven to unrestrained responses and should feel no shame or conscience: every now and then, just weighing in/ Is what it must come down to, and without / Any self-exculpation or self-pity.

Far from preaching violence Heaney is at odds with himself for having lacked the killer instinct in an intellectual wrestling match! He regrets (Alas) that pulling his punches, holding back lost him an advantage in the debating ‘ring’ with a friend: one night when follow-through was called for/ And a quick hit would have fairly rankled.

Failure to deal with the charge that his strong views were parochial (my narrowness/ ( ) kept me keen), cost him the first round (a first submission / I held back when I should have drawn blood). He has only himself to blame for losing the upper hand (mea culpa lost an edge) putting it down to his sense of fair-play (A deep mistaken chivalry, old friend).

He has learnt a lesson: everything going around him in the world particularly in his own society demonstrates that always playing by the rules is a fool’s game: At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.

  • self-exculpation, root from Latin ‘culpa’ meaning ‘blame’: exonerating oneself, declaring oneself innocent;
  • follow-through: the continuing of an action or task to its conclusion; he ‘quit’ on it;
  • rankled: caused annoyance been painful;
  • countered: hit back, responded with a counter view;
  • first submission: (in wrestling) surrendering to a hold by one’s opponent (but not yet losing the whole contest)
  • lost an edge: an advantage that offered superiority over a rival;
  • cleans the slate: writes off all past problems or mistakes in order to make a clean start;
  • During the twenty five years preceding the Good Friday Agreement (still no more than a glimmer of hope in 1996) Heaney was constantly taxed by the hugely complex vortex of political and sectarian turmoil, the eternal cycle of murder and revenge, the fate of the minority Catholic population, pessimism about settlement and so on. It was ever on his mind wherever in the world he was and the pleasure of returning home to Ulster was often marred by events. He was the poet caught in-between: between the nationalists’ wish for him to enter the propaganda war and his own unwillingness to paint himself into a corner; between the Bible’s injunctions to ‘turn the other cheek’ and his own instincts.
  • Quoting W.B. Yeats’s hope for the lyric ‘To hold in a single thought reality and justice’ HV sets out the gap between them (p10), defining reality as ‘how things are’ and justice as ‘how things should be’. As she rightly implies Heaney’s integrity constantly pitches him into a whirlpool of emotions, ethics and personal nature from which he emerges with honour and integrity intact.
  • In many poems over the years, Heaney has subjected his actions and motives to severe self-questioning. A decade ago in “The Haw Lantern,” his imagination saw in the homely haw berry “the roaming shape of Diogenes / with his lantern, seeking one just man.” In this new book, surprisingly, while claiming for the refusal by Jesus to strike back at those who mocked Him “the power / Of power not exercised,” he comes out in favour not of turning the other cheek but of “every now and then, just weighing in.” The idea of the impulsive, even violent action seems to contradict the sense of judicious balance he praises earlier in the poem. This is a less tolerant, more aggressive Seamus Heaney, capable of claiming, in relation to some undefined personal feud, “At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.” Poems Into Ploughshares, Richard Tillinghast
  • (1) four triplets; a 4 sentence construct; line length between 4 and 11 syllables; 2 incidental rhymes but no scheme; judicious balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • need to use the word ‘pound’ rather than the Latin abbreviation;
  • concrete vocabulary in the description of the weight (difficult for Heaney to find alternative names for the object when he also wishes to play on the word ‘weight’);
  • several example of compounds used adjectively; the final ‘well-adjusted’ is effectively a pun: if a ‘well-adjusted’ is required then the people weighbridge to people involved are not judged to be mentally and emotionally stable;
  • vocabulary of wrestling ‘squat’; aviation: black box;
  • unusual use of adverb/tome phrase introduced by ‘until’;
  • (2) four triplets; a three sentence construct; irregular line length;
  • use of prepositions (small words useful for varying meaning especially when juxtaposed with the same verb): ‘for’ ‘into’ ‘against’
  • Christmas messages with deliberate puns added: ‘strain’, ‘pitch‘;
  • (3) four triplets; a 7 sentence construct; this structures accompanies number of short sharp references and a quotation; faced with potential staccato Heaney uses enjambed lines to smooth the flow;
  • Irregular line length; unrhymed;
  • direct question addressed to the reader;
  • use of verbs in the infinitive form in positive and negative pairings
  • In a sentence focusing on ‘hurt’, Heaney selects ‘ingrown’ that might remind of a painful toe;
  • unusual: conjunction clause: ‘although’; use of adverb ‘still’;
  • colloquial idiom expressing disbelief: ‘do me a favour!’;
  • (4) four triplets in 6 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed
  • vocabulary of competition: wrestling, boxing, fencing;
  • repetition in response to a tired cliché: ‘ yes, yes, yes’
  • Latin mea culpa helps Heaney in need of 4 syllables;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines of ‘Two Lorries’ for example, bring together alveolar plosives [k] and [g]alongside bilabial continuant [w] and sibilants [s] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment