Will Hope And History Rhyme For Joe Biden?
Biden Has Quoted One Poem at the Biggest Moments Of His Career. What Does This Tell Us About The Man?
In the biggest speeches of Joe Biden’s political career — at the biggest moment of the speech — he has quoted one poem, The Cure At Troy.
I find this fascinating. Not in the least because it begs the following question — what can we learn, or already know, about a man if we study his favorite piece of poetry?
The Cure At Troy, The Cure For Us All?
‘The Cure At Troy’ is part of poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ Ancient Trojan War Poem ‘Philoctetes.’
According to the Nobel website, the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
It’s safe to say that Heaney won the Nobel prize, in no small part, for having written these four stanzas of poetry.
I’m not the first writer to report Joe Biden likes to quote Heaney. And by now, it’s well known that Biden memorized poetry to help him overcome his stutter. It’s also worth noting that Bill Clinton was fond of quoting Heaney as well, along with many others. Indeed, Biden isn’t alone in his love for Heaney.
But Joe Biden’s been so consistent throughout his career with this piece of poetry, so insistent that hope and history can rhyme — that it warrants further investigation.
“The Sentiment That Resides in the Heart of Almost All Americans”
Let’s revisit some of the peak moments from his career when Joe Biden referenced Seamus Heaney shall we?
This is the first time I heard Joe Biden quote, ‘The Cure At Troy.’ He used it to close this speech at the 2007 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, IA.
I remember thinking at the time that Biden’s use of the Heaney poem felt similar to the verse of Aeschylus (another Greek poet) that Bobby Kennedy quoted in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The ‘07 Jefferson-Jackson speech is also where Biden revealed he thinks, “The Cure At Troy” is, “the sentiment that resides in the heart of almost all Americans.”
Here’s Joe Biden quoting “The Cure At Troy” during his acceptance speech at the Irish-American Hall Of Fame.
Here’s Biden quoting ‘The Cure at Troy’ during his acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Here’s Biden quoting Heaney after President Obama awards him the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. Tellingly, Biden references his ability to empathize with human suffering. Indeed, it appears to pain Biden to NOT quote ‘The Cure At Troy’ here.
Here is Biden’s final 2020 campaign advertisement. In it, he simply reads “The Cure At Troy.”
The “Dark Kinky Streak of Mick Jagger” in Joe Biden’s Soul?
Ok, we see the pattern. Joe Biden references Seamus Heaney when the stakes are highest. But what does that tell us?
Well, Hunter S. Thompson has a quote about presidential politics in, “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” that provides one way to look at it. Here it is:
“Bobby Kennedy called him (McGovern) ‘the most decent man in the Senate’, which is not quite the same thing as being the best candidate for President of the United States. For that, he would need at least one dark kinky streak of Mick Jagger in his soul.”
Bobby Kennedy also quoted ancient Greek poetry. RFK famously quoted Aeschylus in Indianapolis, IN the night Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. Bobby knew enough about the matter of assassination to convince Indy from rioting.
“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote:“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
In essence, I think Joe Biden’s dark kinky streak — that note of Mick Jagger swagger which makes one uniquely fit for office — is this: He believes, completely, that every single word in “The Cure At Troy,” is true, and possible. All of it.
Think about it. If that’s true it makes him a wild man. But wild in a way we haven’t exactly seen before.
Is The Other Shore Reachable From Here? On the Far Side Of Revenge?
2020 will be defined IMO as a year of peak cynicism. And flying directly in the face of that cynicism, is Biden’s long-held belief that hope and history will one day rhyme.
Despite the fact that no poem or song can fully right a wrong, Biden believes in miracles and cures and healing wells. Which is fitting, because the divisiveness we experience in this country might take a miracle to fix.
And the leader of the free world, (love him, hate him) Joe Biden cites a poem which calls forth the miracle of self-healing.
Self-healing, despite (or underscored by) all the self-help literature available, is a rare feat.
And yet, I don’t think Biden’s faith in this rare miracle of hope and history should be seen as naive. Instead, we might consider the idea that Biden looks at the world with the wisdom RFK talked about in that other Trojan War poem.
In a word, empathy. Empathy for the human struggle.
But also, I think Biden knows real healing begins within the individual. Because he’s experienced in terrible ways. He’s lost a son, a daughter, and a wife.
It’s safe to wager Biden knows the dark, twisting, difficult road of healing.
If that’s the goodest of human fights, Biden is battle-hardened.
This happens to everyone. Pain is feedback. Pain can have a hormetic effect. A bone heals stronger where it was broken. We get hurt and we get hard. But what’s rare is how Biden appears to tap deeper.
In other words, pain appears to be both Biden’s guide, and source of strength for the fight.
And if so, his belief in the mystical, Irish, poetic ethic, just might therefore be Joe Biden’s healing well.
Look for ‘The Cure at Troy’ to reappear as the North Star of his Presidency. Look for a certain lyrical beauty, ethical depth, exalted everyday miracles, and communion with the living past.
And if you’re looking for a North Star, go ahead and follow suit. Like Biden via Heaney said, “borrow someone else’s words if they said it better.” Whatever it takes to open a new dialogue in this country.
Read and discuss The Cure At Troy with your friends, family, and children. Come. Bring them, and yourself, to the well.