Joe Biden's love for Seamus Heaney is evidence of a soul you can trust | Jonathan Jones

The president-elect has often quoted Heaney’s poetry, with his reading of The Cure at Troy going viral after his election victory

I didn’t fall for Joe Biden until I learned that he loves the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Anyone who responds to the steady, humane voice of Heaney has the timbre of soul you can trust. It’s not like a politician rattling off a quotation from Shelley or St Francis of Assisi. You can’t pretend to love Heaney, for he’s too subtle for that; a slow-speaking country man giving up his secrets gradually, like a farmer revealing the land’s hidden knowledge – and its graves.

Heaney, born in rural Northern Ireland in 1939, lived through the Troubles and defied them with poems of generous compassion. His peace process in language anticipated – and helped bring about – the political peace process of the 90s. He is a truly great, adventurous writer who proves the devil does not have all the best tunes.

Biden has frequently quoted Heaney, particularly from The Cure at Troy, his version of Sophocles’ drama Philoctetes. To mark Biden’s victory on Saturday night, Ireland’s RTE broadcast him reading his favourite passage from this play, urging us to “hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge”.

Joe Biden reads from The Cure at Troy.

It is for this call for reconciliation that Biden summons Heaney’s wise ghost. And that is a frightening insight into how serious the president-elect thinks the US’s crisis is, despite the celebrations this weekend. For Heaney wrote brilliantly about hate. It was part of his democratic genius to be able to put himself in other poets’ voices, to empathise with other passions, making him a wonderful translator. Some of his greatest lines are in Ugolino, his version of one of the most grisly encounters in Dante’s Inferno. In the frozen lake near the bottom of hell, Dante sees:

“two soldered in a frozen hole
On top of other, one’s skull capping the other’s,
Gnawing at him where the neck and head
Are grafted to the sweet fruit of the brain,
Like a famine victim on a loaf of bread.”

The biter is Ugolino, his prey Archbishop Roger, who walled him up in a dungeon with his young sons to starve to death. Ugolino tells how, as his little boys died, they urged him to feed on their own flesh. Blind from hunger, he succumbed. Now he gets his revenge on Roger for all eternity, but he, too, is in hell. It is a terrible image of the cycle of hatred and revenge that gripped Northern Ireland in 1979, when this poem appeared in Heaney’s book, Field Work.

Other devastating verses in this collection mourn the murders Heaney saw all around him. Casualty remembers a drinking acquaintance who crossed the lines in search of a pub and was caught in an IRA bomb.

“How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?”

Heaney wrote this long before the Good Friday agreement, at a time when there seemed no end to communal conflict, and when it took immense moral courage to confront its futility. In Field Work, he writes as a Catholic and a critic of British rule. The death of his pub acquaintance, he precisely tells us, happened shortly after Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers “shot dead / The thirteen men in Derry”. In the same poem he describes attending their funeral, watching the coffins “float from the door / Of the packed cathedral”, feeling the power of shared grief “Till we were braced and bound / Like brothers in a ring.”

It wasn’t easy for Heaney to preach reconciliation. The profundity of his poems about the Troubles lies precisely in his ability to understand that Ugolinesque urge to gnaw on your enemy’s skull.

There is a depth in Biden’s response to Heaney that clearly goes beyond mere political convenience. He has suffered terrible losses in his life and perhaps he finds particular solace in this poet who voyages into the underworld and speaks with the departed. This appreciation of one of the wisest and subtlest of poets marks out Biden as a truly rare politician.

In general it is a good thing that poets are not, as Shelley claimed, the true legislators of the world. Would you want the antisemitic TS Eliot, Mussolini-supporting Ezra Pound or petty racist Philip Larkin influencing politics? But Heaney was that truly rare thing: a great imaginative artist who was also a wise and noble human being.

And the greatest thing about him was his voice – so conversational, so slowly seductive, somehow as easy to listen to as a talker at the bar while he takes you to hell and back. It comes across in every line. I heard him read when I was a student, shyly sought his autograph, and the rare richness of that voice has never left me. Patient, reasonable, and full of unmistakable human compassion, Biden too has heard it.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Seamus Heaney: readers' tributes and reactions

Readers, poets, authors and celebrities pay tribute to the Nobel-winning poet who died today

Guardian readers and Hannah Freeman

30, Aug, 2013 @1:31 PM

Article image
John Sutherland: Seamus Heaney deserves a lot more than £40,000

John Sutherland: The paltry awards we give our best poets is a sign of how little we value poetry – and that's got to change

John Sutherland

19, Mar, 2009 @12:01 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney reads his poems on video – which is your favourite?

Ireland's Nobel laureate, the poet Seamus Heaney, has died after a short illness. Here we round up some videos of him reading his poems. Which is your favourite?

30, Aug, 2013 @12:16 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney obituary

Irish poet and Nobel laureate whose lines of love and loss took inspiration from his childhood in Derry

Neil Corcoran

30, Aug, 2013 @2:16 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney remembered
Seamus Heaney was a writer of great power, a brilliant intellect – and the best of company. Roy Foster pays tribute to a giant of world literature

Roy Foster

31, Aug, 2013 @11:07 PM

Article image
Seamus Heaney – an appreciation
In Seamus Heaney's poetry, ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a satchel, the sound of rain – are sanctified. But it has edge and politics, too. Blake Morrison recognises an astonishing poetic achievement

Blake Morrison

06, Sep, 2013 @1:00 PM

Article image
Joe Biden picks Seamus Heaney to add to his appeal
Presidential frontrunner quotes Irish wordsmith in his nomination acceptance speech

Edward Helmore

23, Aug, 2020 @7:06 AM

Article image
Poem of the week: The Ash Plant by Seamus Heaney
Written in memory of his cattle-farming father, this tribute lends him a kind of mythical power as a guide to knowing both life and death

Carol Rumens

23, May, 2016 @10:54 AM

Seamus Heaney: Bags of enlightenment
Two decades ago, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes collaborated on a landmark poetry anthology. Six years ago - a year before Hughes died - they renewed their partnership. Together, Heaney says, they hoped to wake the sleeping poet in every reader, and to combine learning with pleasure

Seamus Heaney

25, Oct, 2003 @1:56 AM

Article image
'Treasure trove' of unseen Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney writing found
Affectionate friendship between the two poets and artist Barrie Cooke, united by a love of fishing, revealed in a collection of correspondence that was believed lost

Alison Flood

14, Nov, 2020 @3:47 PM