Buried in a recent news story about the presidential election campaign was a nugget I'd never seen: Democratic candidate Joe Biden loves to quote poetry, especially a certain line by the Irish literary giant William Butler Yeats.
It's from a poem called "Easter, 1916," about a brief and bloody uprising against British rule in Ireland. Goes like this: "All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born."
Biden has been using this quote for years to describe upheavals in politics, international affairs — you name it. But so far he doesn't seem to have used it for the upheaval currently roiling the country.
That would be our new preoccupation with racial injustice. We've ignored it for decades, but the recent uproar over police killings and racism in general seems to have grabbed the national imagination and won't let go.
In 2,000 cities, people of all colors have been marching in protest — in most cases peacefully, sometimes not. Whole teams of athletes are kneeling in support. Bestseller lists are suddenly dominated by books on race. Two out of three Americans tell pollsters they support the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Surprisingly, Biden has not been waxing poetic about this development. He has talked, with quiet pragmatism, about police reform, voting rights and income disparity. But he has not deployed the Yeats quote, even though it's getting difficult to deny that a "terrible beauty" is being born: a surge of emotion every bit as powerful and durable as the clamor for Irish independence.
Poetry and politics have a long, complicated partnership. Plato insisted poets be banned from his ideal Republic because they have the power to make falsehoods sound true. Generations of literary critics have dismissed politics as a poor subject for poets, inferior to, say, courage, nature or beauty. W.H. Auden, in a 1939 elegy for Yeats, dismissed his fellow poet's literary efforts for Irish independence, saying "poetry makes nothing happen."
Really? One stirring line from Scottish poet Robert Burns, "A man's a man for a' (all) that," may have advanced the cause of equality as much as any 18th century politician did. The poems of Walt Whitman and James Greenleaf Whittier helped turn their 19th century compatriots against slavery, as did those of Galway Kinnell and Denise Levertov against the Vietnam War a century later.
Even Auden did not shy from the political. His "September 1, 1939," a chilling premonition of the global conflict to come, echoes Yeats' "Easter, 1916" in structure, mood and astuteness. Lyndon Johnson quoted it in both a speech and a 1964 presidential campaign commercial.
Yes, politicians know the power of poetry. John F. Kennedy cultivated poets, especially New England's own Robert Frost, and penned the odd ode himself. (From a 1956 effort: " if more politicians knew poetry/ and more poets knew politics/ I am convinced the world/ would be a little better place to live.") Ronald Reagan's memorable address to the nation after the 1986 Challenger disaster leaned heavily on Antoine Saint-Exup ry: " they `slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God'."
The best political leaders (and their speechwriters) can slip the bonds of oratory to touch the face of poetry: "Four score and seven years ago ," "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ," "Ask not what your country can do for you ," "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." It's how great statesmen get us to do great things.
I just reread Yeats' masterpiece (easy to find online). He wrote it immediately after the 1916 uprising. I was stunned by his passionate support for the rebels, since he had long insisted that armed protest was madness. Yeats seems to have changed his mind even as he was writing his stanzas.
I wonder if Biden, too, will change his mind. He has been circumspect about Black Lives Matter and the recent protests, rejecting calls to "defund" the police and promising to choose a female running mate but not necessarily a black one. All that is no doubt politically wise.
But where's the passion? After all, this is the guy who essentially bludgeoned President Obama into endorsing same-sex marriage by unexpectedly declaring his own support. If Biden could birth that "terrible beauty," why not this one?
Like Irish independence in 1916, racial equality in America is an idea whose time is now. And even though the Easter rising was suppressed, it — and Yeats' words — stirred minds and hearts so deeply that Ireland became free just a few years later.
That honorary Irishman Mario Cuomo famously said about politics: "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose." William Butler Yeats, a master of both those art forms, would say there really isn't much difference.
Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and advisory board member.