Joe Biden's Love of Irish Poet Seamus Heaney Dates Back to His Teenage Years

Chloe Foussianes
·2 min read
Photo credit: Win McNamee - Getty Images
Photo credit: Win McNamee - Getty Images

From Town & Country

In some of his most important speeches over the course of a long career, Joe Biden has repeatedly quoted the work of Seamus Heaney, an Irish, Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright. And while Heaney's words—heavily influenced, and sometimes directly referencing, the Troubles—are good fodder for political addresses, and have been previously quoted by the likes of Bill Clinton, Biden's interest in Heaney goes deeper.

"My colleagues always kid me about quoting Irish poets all the time," he once said. "They think I do it because I’m Irish. I do it because they’re the best poets." He's also a fan of William Butler Yeats, dating back to the days when he used to recite Yeats' words in the mirror, working to overcome his stutter. But still, he's said that Heaney is his favorite.

The President-elect is so enamored with Heaney, in fact, that his daughter quoted the poet's words back to him when she learned that he'd join Obama's ticket. "She said, you know how you're always quoting Seamus Heaney about hope and history rhyming? And I said, yeah," Biden recalled in 2016. "She said, this is hope and history. I'm history, here's hope."

The particular passage his daughter was referencing is from The Cure at Troy, a 1991 play Heaney adapted from Sophocles' Philoctetes, using the Greek classic's depiction of the final days of the Trojan War to address the ongoing strife in Northern Ireland. It reads:

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 has referenced these lines again and again over the years, in addresses delivered in the Republic of Cyprus, at the 2015 Munich Security Conference, in a statement mourning the death of Nelson Mandela... the list goes on. Most recently, he recited the verse while accepting his nomination at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. "This is our moment," Biden added in the latter speech, "to make hope and history rhyme."

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