When Joe Biden quoted from a poem about the 1916 Easter Rising in his first public address in Britain as US president, it raised eyebrows.
Was this “world-class trolling”, as a Guardian columnist wrote?
The phrase used is from WB Yeats’s Easter, 1916: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
Biden quoted it while addressing US Air Force personnel and their families stationed at a base in Suffolk, and repeated it at the opening of a summit with the European Union in Brussels, when he elaborated on his choice to use it.
“My friends would kid me in the United States Senate in the years I served there for always quoting Irish poets,” Biden said. “They think I quoted Irish poets because I’m Irish. That’s not the reason. I quoted them because they’re the best poets in the world, that’s why I quoted them.”
Communicating an Irish identity to his audience is a routine part of Biden speeches, alongside folksy references to his family and upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania that establish him as an “ordinary Joe”.
Given that Yeats died in 1939, it’s possible that he confused him with the more recently departed Seamus Heaney
Biden used the “changed utterly” quote some 21 times in speeches as vice-president, according to the White House archives. He has quoted it in Washington, Istanbul, Beijing, Singapore, New Zealand and Ireland, the European Parliament and twice at the Munich Security Conference – sometimes accompanied by the same “best poets” quip.
Almost every time, he explained that the poem was about the Easter Rising. It’s “something Indians and Irishmen hold in common, trying to rise with the British”, he told a Mumbai audience in 2013.
But in Bidenesque slips, he has tended to call the rebellion the “first Rising”, and give the poem’s title as Easter Sunday 1916 – it took place on a Monday, of course.
He made a couple of such slips on his Europe trip, misattributing the phrase “they also serve who only stand and wait” to “a famous Irish poet” – it was English poet John Milton.
In Brussels, he described the Yeats quote as “a stanza from a poem of an Irish poet who we’ve just lost”. Given that Yeats died in 1939, it’s possible that he confused him with the more recently departed Seamus Heaney – another poet who Biden and his predecessor Barack Obama have both liked to quote.
Biden uses the “changed utterly” phrase to describe challenging epochal change. “I think we’re in the midst of a terrible beauty having been born, a great shift in technology, a great shift in development in the world, and it’s causing great anxiety in each of our countries,” he explained this week.
The phrase sounds nice, but it doesn’t work particularly well as a literary reference. (Yeats’s The Second Coming, which is about threatening epochal change, would be a better fit). Easter 1916 is Yeats’s confession that he previously didn’t take seriously his acquaintances who were to go on to take part in the rebellion. It describes the change in Yeats’s perception of them and the broader radical nationalist movement, which suddenly revealed itself to be in deadly earnest.
This was part of a broader shift in public attitudes at the time, which were hardened by the brutal crackdown and executions after the Rising away from moderate nationalism. The poem reflects on the personal cost for ordinary people who become political martyrs – they’re like stones in a landscape, Yeats writes, immovable amid the whirl of life around them. They have given up their ordinariness, their lives, for a place in history. That is the change and the terrible beauty described.
Biden’s “terrible beauty” is the new, emerging world. In his various speeches over the years, he has used it to describe economic crisis, technological transformation, the rise of China, the role of non-state actors in warfare, climate change – broadly, the challenges to the US-led global order built in the aftermath of the second World War.
No literary investigation was needed to find a quip about British history in the Suffolk speech. Biden made an explicit one: “If our British friends will excuse me quoting the Declaration of Independence...” which got a laugh from the troops.
This kind of banter, along with hints and nudges about Irish sympathies in the midst of a sensitive dispute over Northern Ireland, is possible because the US is the bigger partner in a relatively untroubled alliance with Britain that transcends the personalities in power. The greater meaning of the speech was about confirming the transatlantic military alliance: that is why he was visiting an airbase, and speaking at length about military co-operation going back to the second World War.
As Biden told the troops: “You are the essential part of what makes up this special relationship between Great Britain and the United States.”