When hope and history rhyme

Whatever political party one supports, we can all share in Joe Biden’s love for Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). When he was young, Biden memorized poetry by William Butler Yeats and Heaney in order to help him correct his stutter.

For those who watched his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden quoted from Heaney’s famous poem, “The Cure at Troy.” My favorite two stanzas are marvelous.

“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.’”

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

Heaney wrote these verses in 1991 in the wake of Northern Ireland’s apocalyptic conflicts — the lengthy, bloody sectarian clashes. Here are the stanzas in their context:

“Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

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.

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

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.”

 

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