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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Why the Seamus Heaney lines Joe Biden quoted are specially relevant today

A recurring theme in Biden’s campaign has been him quoting from the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles' Philoctetes.

By: Express Web Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 8, 2020 10:15:25 pm
US elections, Joe Biden, Donald trump, Biden in white house, biden presidency, trump legal challenges, trump challenge election result, US election recount which states, express explained, indian expressPresident-elect Joe Biden gestures to supporters on Saturday, November 7, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo: AP)

As Joe Biden is declared the winner of the US presidential elections, his speeches during the campaign and after have been praised for the uniting, healing note they have struck, as opposed to the often provocative and divisive rhetoric of incumbent President Donald Trump.

A recurring theme in Biden’s campaign has been him quoting from the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes’. On October 29, Biden tweeted:

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.”

Biden had quoted the same lines during his Democratic party nomination acceptance speech in August. He went on to add: “This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme.”

Biden has Irish roots. According to Reuters, his great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt grew up Ballina in Ireland, from where he emigrated after the Irish potato famine of the 1840s to Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the USA. Biden has also spoken about his love for Irish poetry, and would read Heaney, along with another Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in front of a mirror to improve his stutter.

Also Read | Explained: What does President-elect Joe Biden mean for India and its relationship with the US?

However, it is the beauty and power of Heaney’s words that made them resonate specially in a campaign as bitterly polarised as the recent US elections. Another of the poem’s paragraphs read:

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells”

The poem talks of justice not as a vague ideal, but specifically of working towards reconciliation and justice when they seem most impossible, to keep the hope alive in the face of belying circumstances, to believe in the innocence and power of miracles in a world seemingly full of nothing but cruel realities.

Also Read | Explained: What obstacles potentially stand between Joe Biden and the presidency?

Sophocles’s play, on which the poem is based on, talks about how Philoctetes’s trust was won and he was convinced to participate in the Greeks’ war against the Trojans —and eventually help them win – even after the Greeks had abandoned him on an island due to a foul-smelling wound in his leg. Heaney had written this poem in 1990, because to him, it resonated with the Northern Ireland conflict, and with what was then happening in South Africa — the apartheid regime had fallen and Nelson Mandela was out of jail after nearly three decades.

In 1995, Bill Clinton had quoted the poem in his remarks in Derry, Ireland, during the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Over the decades — as the US elections show — the appeal of Heaney’s “hope for a great sea-change/On the far side of revenge”, remains as strong, and the need to believe in it stronger.

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