NEW YORK – When President Joe Biden visits Ireland this week, he will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, confer with top officials on current issues and honor his Irish ancestors.
You can also count on Biden to quote an Irish poet or two, especially two late Nobel laureates — Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats.
“I think that’s a safe guess to make,” says former Biden speechwriter Dan Cluchey, who worked with the president from 2018-2022. “Yeats and Heaney encompass so much of the universal catalog of emotions poetry can express and they are the major wells he (Biden) goes to when he needs the perfect words to encapsulate a feeling.”
Presidents have long made a point of citing a favorite writer, and for Biden that often has been Heaney, renowned for what Nobel judges in 1995 called “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.” Besides his original poems, his noted works include a bestselling translation of the Old English epic “Beowulf” and his play “The Cure at Troy,” a verse adaptation of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes,” with Heaney’s inspirational alliteration about a time when “hope and history rhyme.”
Biden’s affinity for Heaney dates back at least to an earlier presidential run in 2008, when he lost the nomination to Barack Obama and eventually became his running mate. In a speech early in his own campaign, Biden observed that he liked to quote Irish poets because they are “the best poets.” He listed Heaney as his preferred “contemporary” Irish bard, and referred to Heaney’s words from “The Cure at Troy,” saying he believed they were reflected in “the sentiments and hearts of the vast majority of the American people.”
History says, don’t hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
“I believe with every fiber of my being,” Biden concluded, “we have a chance to make hope and history rhyme.”
Biden biographer Evan Osnos says that by 2008 he had already quoted “The Cure at Troy” so frequently his daughter Ashley would tease him. In his 2017 memoir “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden remembered Ashley’s response when Obama choose him as the vice presidential candidate: “Dad, this is hope and history.” Biden answered with a joke: “Oh, great. He’s hope. And I’m history.”
Biden has since invoked “hope and history” while serving as vice president, in his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination in August 2020, in a widely seen campaign video from 2020, when presenting a National Humanities Medal last fall to Elton John, and even in last month’s reception marking the Persian new year.
At the end of the Obama administration, when the president awarded Biden a Medal of Freedom, Obama joked that he was going to quote Yeats — because “Seamus Heaney is taken.”
Biden, not surprisingly, quoted Heaney during his own remarks, but this time drew from the poem “From the Republic of Conscience” as he praised Obama for his humility.
You carried your own burden and very soon your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Biden might have claimed Yeats as well. Osnos, whose biography “Joe Biden” came out in 2020, says that Biden began memorizing Yeats as a teenager working to overcome his stutter. He would stand in front of a mirror and speak lines from Yeats and Ralph Waldo Emerson, straining to avoid the contortion of his face muscles.
As vice president, Osnos says, Biden quoted Yeats’ “Easter 1916″ at least 20 times, especially the line, “The world has changed, changed utterly.”
“He has quoted the line so many times that his aides can sense when he’s about to do it, a bit like the birds who can sense when an earthquake is coming,” Osnos told the AP in a recent email.
A previous Irish-American president, John F. Kennedy, had his own history of reciting verse. According to JFK biographer Fredrik Logevall, Kennedy was a lifelong poetry reader who memorized works ranging from poems by Robert Frost to the British writer Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” In the summer of 1963, Kennedy became the first sitting president to visit Ireland and mentioned various Irish poets during his trip, which included an address to the country’s parliament.
“There are those who regard this history of past strife and exile as better forgotten,” Kennedy said. “But, to use the phrase of Yeats, let us not casually reduce ‘that great past to a trouble of fools.’ For we need not feel the bitterness of the past to discover its meaning for the present and the future. And it is the present and the future of Ireland that today holds so much promise to my nation as well as to yours, and, indeed, to all mankind.”
Heaney’s “The Cure at Troy” premiered in 1990 and politicians were soon quoting it. Mary Robinson, in her 1991 inaugural address as Ireland’s president, hoped for an era in Europe “where old wounds can be healed, a time when, in the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘hope and history rhyme.’”
In November 1995, weeks after Heaney won the Nobel, Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to visit Northern Ireland and later made a stop in Dublin, part of his years-long effort to forge what became the Good Friday Agreement among Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
“I could not say it better than your Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, has said: We are living in a moment when hope and history rhyme,” Clinton said while in Dublin. “In Dublin, if there is peace in Northern Ireland, it is your victory, too.”
Clinton’s memories of the agreement have their own internal meter. Why did peace remain in Northern Ireland when treaties elsewhere so often fail, he asked in an essay published Sunday in The Washington Post? It was, he wrote, “a happy occasion of hope and history rhyming.”
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