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 songCan fully right a wrongInflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaolsBeat on their bars together. A hunger-striker’s fatherStands in the graveyard dumb. The police widow in veilsFaints at the funeral home.
History says, don’t hopeOn this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetimeThe longed-for tidal waveOf justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-changeOn the far side of revenge. Believe that further shoreIs reachable from here. Believe in miracleAnd cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing: The utter, self-revealingDouble-take of feeling. If there’s fire on the mountainOr lightning and stormAnd a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearingThe outcry and the birth-cryOf new life at its term.