Joe Biden is not the first nor is he likely to be the last politician to summon political spirits with poetry, but choosing verse from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for his Democratic party nomination acceptance speech on Thursday had scholars of the poet’s work and the political class eating out of his hand.
Biden pulled out Heaney’s lines close to the end of an address that also won over conservative pundits and Fox News anchors – “an enormously effective speech”, said Chris Wallace – and left Donald Trump, for once, without response on Twitter. Biden quoted Heaney saying: “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.”
Then, the former vice president added: “This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme.”
The leading Irish historian and literary critic Robert Fitzroy Foster, author of a much anticipated study of the poet, On Seamus Heaney, published on 25 August) by Princeton University Press, says that often when Irish politicians use the quote it feels learned from Bill Clinton and Mary Robinson, who both used it at the time of the Good Friday agreement.
“Biden apparently is a reader of poetry, and read Yeats and Heaney to improve his stutter,” Foster said. “He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”
Sophocles’ play, first performed in 409BC, is about how a bitter division was overcome between the archer Philoctetes, left on Lemnos with a festering wound – a snake bite – and Odysseus, who needed his help in the Trojan War. Heaney’s 1991 translation speaks directly to Northern Ireland – his birthplace – and its conflicts.
“Heaney altered the weight of the play to place great emphasis on Neoptolemus, the go-between figure, an honourable, decent man, so the play is in many ways about negotiation,” Foster said. The former senator has quoted it at least five times before, including at the tail end of his nomination campaign, when he again turned to Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice”.
Biden was deliberately using it as a reconciliatory metaphor, Foster said, adding: “America is an immensely divided society at the moment. So for him to use it as what – for some Americans – will be an arcane poetic tag is an interesting, highly literate and culturally ambitious approach. It was unexpected from him.”
To Robert McCrum, the Observer’s former literary editor, the accolades attached to politicians for their use of verse – “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” as the dictum goes – are little more than “footnotes to Shelley’s famous observation that poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ .”
Politicians, McCrum said, know this. He added: “Clinton was close to Heaney on the same basis. What is it about poets? They’d probably make terrible presidents or leaders, but the best of them have this quasi-innocent vision of humanity in the world that gives their insights special meaning, and force.”
Heaney, whose chosen pseudonym was Incertus, or “not sure of himself”, recognised as much.
“Poetry’s special status among the literary arts,” Heaney suggested in a celebrated lecture, “derives from the audience’s readiness to … credit the poet with a power to open unexpected and unedited communications between our nature and the nature of the reality we inhabit.”
McCrum pointed out that Biden bucked a trend by not reaching for Shakespeare – “the market leader among poets with a spooky intuition”. He said: “Americans turn to poets like Shakespeare in extremis because he seems always to be one jump ahead of the commentariat, and at the same time – owing nothing to anyone but his muse – because he will always speak truth to power.”
According to Edward Hirsch, author of A Poet’s Glossary, the premise of political poetry is that poetry carries information crucial to the populace.
In the English tradition, he writes, there is Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591); John Milton, who wrote a series of pro-Cromwellian short poems; John Dryden’s two-part political satire Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682); William Wordsworth’s sonnet To Toussaint L’Ouverture (1803); Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy (1819); and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows (1850) and Poems Before Congress (1860).
He pointed out that political poetry has always seemed somewhat suspect in American literary history, adding: “I don’t know how well Joe Biden knows this, but Heaney himself is reaching for Greek tragedy and calling for a collective, natural wisdom.”
“The interesting thing about the passage Joe Biden quoted is that it’s spoken by a chorus. That’s part of the summary feeling you’re getting, that it’s not just one person saying this but a whole collection, a kind of choral element, coming in and instructing individual people to hope in a great sea-change.”
But Hirsch doubted politicians would now be more inspired in their choice of verse, saying: “I’m going to vomit if anyone uses Invictus again or Rudyard Kipling’s If. Politicians revert to cliches and use poetry the way you might use a proverb. They try to instil a feeling by using something people already know.
“What’s remarkable about this is it’s not trite or overly familiar. It’s a moment of genuine poetry that reaches back to the Greeks, is filtered through Heaney’s Irish-tinged English, and comes to us in the American idiom.
“It’s an important moment of cross-cultural knowledge.”