"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

1.22.2009

and hope and history rhyme...

My feelings about Vice-President Joseph Biden are fairly well known around here, I believe. Although he's certainly better than his predecessor (And thank-you, Tom Brokaw, for callin' it like you saw it. Dr. Strangelove he is.), we here at Texas in Africa are Not Fans of the Biden. This all dates to our experiences many years ago as a summer intern for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, during which then-Senator Biden assumed the chairmanship and our hearings doubled in length overnight because Mr. Chairman is incapable of filtering every thought that comes into his head that the new Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia might need to know.

Tuesday night, however, Biden did something that may cause me to reconsider. I was up late, watching the coverage of the inaugural balls, simmering with jealousy that T was flirting with John Cusack while I was answering undergraduate emails (Why, no, the presentation that counts for 5% of your grade is not extra credit, darling.), when Joe stepped up to the mike at the Mid-Atlantic ball. And quoted Seamus Heaney. From The Cure at Troy, to be specific.

Stinkin' Joe Biden! I love that poem. And I love Seamus Heaney. He's an Irish poet; I got to hear him read from his gorgeous translation of Beowulf at Yale. (It being Yale (motto: Anything Harvard can do, we can do better.), of course, there was a scholar of middle English who read the original with him. It was the most amazing responsive reading I've ever heard.) He speaks like he writes and he writes pure poetry, plain and simple. And Biden quoted it from memory, after midnight.

Here's a little more. Biden recited the second stanza of what's below, but to really understand it, you need the context. The poem is an interpretation of Sophocles' play Philoctetes. Philoctetes sailed for Troy with Odysseas, but was abandoned on an island after he was bitten by a snake on the journey, but the Greeks learn that they can't win against Troy unless they get Hercules' bow, which is with Philoctetes. This part is sung by the chorus at the very end, after Philoctetes has asked the chorus for a weapon with which he can kill himself. This is their response, and after they say this, Philoctetes says he sees Hercules' face. I love the line about the "far side of revenge." And I love the poem:

"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.

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 a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

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

That means someone is listening
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
It means once in a lifetime
That justice can rise up
and hope and history rhyme."

-Seamus Heaney, excerpt from The Cure at Troy (1990)

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