Politicians quoting poetry is not always a good idea but it seems to work for US president-elect Joe Biden. In his nomination speech and throughout his election campaign, Biden frequently cited Irish poet Seamus Heaney (pictured), particularly his line on how “hope and history rhyme” from The Cure at Troy, the late Nobel Laureate’s version of Sophocles’s drama Philoctetes. A clip from Ireland’s national broadcaster, showing the president-elect in a post-victory speech reading his favourite passage that calls for “...a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge” went viral on social media, clocking up more than 10 million views.
Heaney wrote those lines long before the 1998 peace agreement that brought the 30-year conflict in his native Northern Ireland to an end. But when I lived in post-agreement Belfast, references to The Cure at Troy were everywhere. Its verses peppered speeches, inspired book titles and newspaper headlines, and helped gird difficult conversations on reconciliation. Biden’s own love for Heaney and other Irish poets – he once quipped that “they’re the best poets” – springs from his Irish ancestry. As a teenager, Biden recited WB Yeats in his bedroom to help ease his stutter. Biden the politician discovered that Heaney’s work and message of reconciliation has the power to resonate deeply with audiences far beyond Ireland.
The fact that Biden speaks often and fondly of his Irish roots is something that UK officials should also bear in mind as negotiations over a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU come down to the wire this week. It was telling that Biden’s first round of calls to international leaders last week included a conversation with Ireland’s prime minister, Micheál Martin. Biden has already warned Boris Johnson not to do anything in negotiations with the EU that could threaten peace in Northern Ireland. Perhaps Johnson should start reading up on Irish poetry too.
Mary Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist and regular Monocle contributor.