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'A terrible beauty': Here's why Biden keeps coming back to the same Yeats poem

Bryan Lowry, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

“Biden uses the lines rather loosely, without paying careful attention to what they mean in context. But he’s not unusual in that. And, in the context of, say, the forest fires, there is a certain logic to using the phrase: natural disasters are tragic, but oftentimes the sheer power of nature makes a deep impression on us — and, in that sense, has a kind of beauty —even if that power is tragically destructive,” Murphy said in an email.

Biden occasionally flubs the line as he did during a virtual call with Jewish leaders before Rosh Hashana earlier this month when he changed Yeats’ line to make it more optimistic, if less poetic. “A terrible beauty has been born, but it can be made beautiful,” Biden said.

As vice president and as a presidential candidate, Biden frequently used poetry in speeches. His appreciation for the literary form can be traced back to his childhood when he recited poetry as a way to overcome a stutter, 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 didn’t respond to a question about Biden’s repeated use of Yeats, but the president often offers his own explanation when he transitions to the line.

“I always got kidded when I was a senator all those years because I’d always quote 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 on Monday in California.

 

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

“To use these lines out of the context of the poem means these lines come to mean everything and nothing,” said Cóilín Parsons, an 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 century,” Parsons said.

The poem is about a failed insurrection, striking for a president who saw the congressional certification of his own election threatened by a failed insurrection on Jan. 6.

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