Joe Biden repeats the same line of Irish poetry. here’s why

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From Brussels to Boise, President Joe Biden relied on the same line of Irish poetry to speak of a changing world.

Biden cited WB Yeats’ “Easter, 1916” seven times since June, according to White House transcripts, including twice in one day this week in remarks focused on responding to wildfires in Idaho and California.

“Everything has changed, completely changed: a terrible beauty is born,” Yeats wrote in 1916 in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in Dublin, a six-day rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

In a speech to the Brussels European Council in June, Biden used the line to talk about technological change.

“I think we are in the midst of a terrible beauty that has arisen – a big change in technology, a big change in the development of the world, and it causes great anxiety in each of our countries and uncertainty among many. our colleagues in what’s going to be their place in the world, “Biden said.” Are they going to be replaced by new technology? Are they not going to have any more jobs? And what are they going to do? ”

This week in Boise with Republican Governor of Idaho Brad Little, Biden used it to illustrate the evolution of wildfire strategy since the Yellowstone fire in 1988.

“A terrible beauty is born,” Biden said. “From the Yellowstone fire to today, everything has changed drastically and drastically.”

And hours later in Mather, Calif., At an event with Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, Biden used Yeats’ poem to discuss how his administration was responding to climate change, which he said has exacerbated forest fires and other extreme weather events.

“And the truth is that everything has changed. It has changed in a way that will never return to what it was 10 or 15 years ago. That’s just not the case, ”Biden said after quoting Yeats’ line, and pledged his administration would not back down on his climate strategy.

Andy Murphy, an English professor at Trinity College Dublin, said the president used the line in a way that was distinct from the meaning of the poem but had a rhetorical meaning.

“Biden uses the lines quite loosely, without paying particular attention to what they mean in context. But it is not unusual in this. And, in the context of, say, forest fires, there is some logic in using the expression: natural disasters are tragic, but often the very power of nature impresses us deeply – and, in that sense, has a kind of beauty – although that power is tragically destructive, ”Murphy said in an email

Biden sometimes blurs the line as he did during a virtual call with Jewish leaders ahead of Rosh Hashanah earlier this month when he altered Yeats’s line to make it more optimistic, though less poetic. “Terrible beauty is born, but it can be made beautiful,” Biden said.

As vice president and presidential candidate, Biden frequently used poetry in his speeches. His appreciation of literary form dates back to his childhood reciting poetry as a way to overcome stuttering, as the Los Angeles Times and others noted during his presidential campaign.

One of his campaign ads featured Biden’s recitation of “The Cure at Troy,” written by another Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who, along with Yeats, is one of four Irish writers to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

The White House did not respond to a question about Biden’s repeated use of Yeats, but the president often offers his own explanation when he lines up.

“I always laughed at myself when I was a senator all these years because I always quoted Irish poets. And they thought I did it because I was Irish. I did it because they’re the best poets in the world, ”Biden said Monday in California.

Despite the nod to his heritage, Biden otherwise keeps the “Easter, 1916” line separate from its historical Irish context.

“Using these lines out of the context of the poem means that these lines mean everything and nothing,” said Cóilín Parsons, associate professor of English at Georgetown University and director of the university’s Global Irish Studies program.

“They capture a sense of political danger that has persisted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries,” Parsons said.

The poem is about a failed insurgency, striking for a president who saw Congress’ certification of his own election threatened by a failed insurgency on Jan.6.

Stephanie Burt, a poet and professor of English at Harvard University, said Yeats’ poem spoke of “national pride at a time of disunity and fear,” a theme that closely matches Biden’s political message to the United States.

“The hope that something new and beautiful will come out of what appeared to be a bloody mess is part of this poem and it is certainly something that Biden represents,” said Burt.

She pointed to media reports that traced Biden’s decision to run in 2020 to his horror at the deadly violence in Charlottesville in 2017 when white nationalists marched on the city to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

“He saw the violence of national disunity and how America risked representing only its worst parts. Biden decided he had to do something and that he had to do something to bring people together, ”she said. “I think he’s someone who is very attentive to symbolism and what cultural symbols do and he also has that in common with Yeats.”

Yeats’ poem is his meditation on the Easter Rising, which saw Irish rebels declare an Irish Republic, then occupy the Dublin General Post Office and other key buildings in the city. The uprising was quelled by the British army and 16 of the rebel leaders were executed by the British government, some of whom were personally known to Yeats.

Biden’s use of the poem during a UK speech in June caused a stir in UK media due to its historical background and the current uncertainty over Ireland’s long-term political future Northern, the six counties that remained in the UK after the rest of the island gained independence.

The Guardian asked if Biden was “dragging Britain with his choice of poetry.”

Parsons called it a provocative quote for Biden to use on British soil, but he said the use of the line by an Irish-born US president on an official visit to the UK highlighted the evolution of relations between the three nations over the past century.

“Every time Biden uses this, in a sense, the poem grows larger. He travels to a new location. He travels in new times and in new situations. And it won’t always work in all, but some of them like this in Britain allow us to stop and think, ”Parsons said.

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Bryan Lowry is White House Correspondent at McClatchy. He’s previously covered Congress for the Kansas City Star. He has also reported on state politics in Missouri and Kansas for The Star and The Wichita Eagle, contributing to The Star 2017 Project on State Government Secrecy in Kansas, a Pulitzer Prize finalist.


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