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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

WASHINGTON — From Brussels to Boise, President Joe Biden has relied on the same line of Irish poetry to talk about a changing world.

Biden has quoted “Easter, 1916” by W.B. Yeats seven times since June, according to White House transcripts, including twice in one day this week in remarks focused on the wildfire response in Idaho and California.

“All changed, changed utterly: 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.

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

“I think we’re in the midst of terrible beauty having been born — a great shift in technology, a great shift in the development of the world, and it’s causing great anxiety in each our countries and uncertainty among many of our colleagues of what’s going to be their place in the world,” Biden said. “Are they going to be replaced by a new technology? Are they going to no longer have a job? And what are they going to do?”

This week in Boise with Republican Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Biden used it to illustrate how the strategy for combating wildfires had evolved since the 1988 Yellowstone fire.

“A terrible beauty has been born,” Biden said. “From the Yellowstone fire to today, all has changed in a drastic, drastic way.”

And just hours later in Mather, California, at an event with Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, Biden used the Yeats poem to discuss how his administration was responding to climate change, which he argued has exacerbated wildfires and other extreme weather events.

“And the truth is, all has changed. It’s changed in a way that it’s never going go back to what it was 10, 15 years ago. It’s simply not the case,” Biden said after quoting the line from Yeats, and promised that his administration would not reverse course on its climate strategy.

Andy Murphy, a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, said the president uses the line in a way that’s distinct from the meaning in the poem but which makes sense rhetorically.

“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.

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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©2021 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.