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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

Stephanie Burt, a poet and professor of English at Harvard University, said Yeats’ poem is “about national pride at a moment of disunity and fear,” a theme that closely aligns with Biden’s political message in the United States.

“The hope that something new and beautiful will come out of what seemed a bloody mess is part of that poem and it’s certainly something Biden stands for,” Burt said.

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

“He saw the violence of national disunity and the way that America was in danger of standing only for 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 has that in common with Yeats as well.”

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

Biden’s use of the poem during a June speech in the United Kingdom caused a stir in British media because of its historical context and the current uncertainty about the long-term political future of Northern Ireland, the six counties that remained part of the U.K. after the rest of the island gained independence.


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

Parsons called it a provocative quotation for Biden to use on British soil, but he said the line’s use by an Irish American president on an official visit to the U.K. highlights how the relationships between all the three nations have evolved in the past century.

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


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