Remembering Seamus Heaney With ‘The Cure At Troy’


Credit: The Telegraph

The news this morning that Irish poet Seamus Heaney had passed away at 74 is tremendously sad, not least because it means we’ve lost a poet who, in deciding to be politically engaged with Ireland’s drive towards self-determination, did precisely what artists have the power to do, and provided new insights into the struggle rather than simply repeating a party line. Today, I’m remembering in particular The Cure at Troy, Heaney’s retelling of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the story of how Odysseus tricked Achilles’ son into joining the Greek forces at Troy towards the end of the Trojan War. The long work, particularly a couple of lines of it, is a particular favorite of Vice Presiden Joe Biden’s, and I heard him recite some of it the night he was inaugurated in 2009. He’s invoked it multiple times since, and while it’s a perfect invocation of both the sense of hope and hard work that was present when the administration came into office, it’s also a reminder that one of the tasks of art is to help us manage pain, not simply to chronicle temporary euphoria.

Today, I’ll leave you with a section of The Cure At Troy as a reminder of that, but I highly recommend the whole thing:

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.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

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 further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

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

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.