It is a truth universally acknowledged that a politician in possession of a soapbox can always defer to a hackneyed literary device to lend them some credibility. And there seems a certain genre of leader inescapably drawn to trotting out a few lines of verse when inspiration strikes.
Last week before the G7 summit, Joe Biden reminded us he was among their ranks. Speaking to American troops stationed at an RAF base, he quoted William Butler Yeats: “The world has changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty has been born.” Probably apt for the times we live in but certainly not lacking in drama.
The source of the chosen lines is the most interesting thing about these theatrics, of course. Easter, 1916 concerns Yeats’s conflicting feelings about the Easter Rising, before ultimately commemorating the fallen revolutionaries. In the final stanza Yeats wonders whether England might “keep faith” on its commitments to Irish Home Rule.
None of this will be lost on the Irish-American president who is obsessive about his Irish-American heritage. As Biden watches British attempts to tear up the Northern Irish Protocol with dismay it is hard to see this as anything but deliberate: a rhetorical display of allyship; a warning sign that if they continue on this track then Britain may expect few courtesies from Washington; and a calculated signal that he is serious about making any trade deal contingent on the UK abiding by the principles of the Belfast Agreement.
Biden is by no means new to this game. When accepting the nomination as the Democrats’ presidential candidate last year, he opted then for Séamus Heaney: “But then once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.”
Eagle-eyed observers may remember then-president Bill Clinton shared the same lines with a crowd in Derry in 1995. Biden takes the legacy of the Democrats’ involvement in the Northern Irish peace process seriously, and he’s found a creative way of saying it.
And if there was anyone present at the G7 who would take kindly to this mode of bardic diplomacy it is Boris Johnson himself. Never has Britain boasted a leader so prone to a visit from the muses, so willing to brandish his literary credentials, and so unable to resist the lure of balladry no matter the occasion.
The prime minister has previously been keen to demonstrate, for example, his ability to reel off vast swathes of The Iliad from memory (original Greek, of course) – a party trick that manages to surprise and alienate all at once. And while in Myanmar as foreign secretary he was scolded for reciting a so-called “inappropriate” Rudyard Kipling poem by the British Ambassador.
If Johnson is hard to get through to via traditional channels, perhaps Biden is onto something. And if the NI protocol were written in limericks maybe we would not be in this mess.
The pair are not unique in their fondness for literary allusion, of course. Cicero – the blueprint of the lofty orator – was quoting Latin verse in the dying days of the Roman Republic. In levels of high-octane drama that modern statesmen can only aspire to, he declaimed Accius’ Atreus: Oderint dum metuant (let them hate so long as they fear).
More recently Mark Francois of the European Research Group fired his poetic warning signal: if the EU didn’t allow for an easy passage of Brexit they would soon be facing “perfidious Albion on speed” (which in the very least must earn him a few points for creativity), before reciting Tennyson’s Ulysses in full.
Leo Varadkar cited Heaney (“if we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”) as he announced further lockdown in April last year, just weeks after he quoted The Terminator (the literary equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight).
And the most powerful of them all must be Percy Bysshe Shelley. His poem The Mask of Anarchy, inspired the ubiquitous slogan of the Corbyn project: “For the many not the few.”
Poetry, then, serves plenty of functions for these politicians. It can lend legitimacy to their position (“the poets agree that my mode of thinking is the best”); it can, in rare moments, inspire and light up a whole movement; at its worst it can be a vehicle for status signalling (You can’t recite the Iliad?); and in the case of Biden it is a crafty diplomatic device.
If poetry is the art of concision and perfectly chosen language, then day-to-day political discourse is the exact inverse. There are times when poets can say it better than the politician. And if most diplomacy is conducted with crushing banality, then perhaps it could benefit from a bit of lyrical flair.
Of course we do not want to engender a rhetorical landscape which requires us to leaf through a dictionary to understand what our politicians are telling us. But sporadic and well-chosen moments are key to the successful poetic riff.
It may be an unorthodox way for Biden to signify how serious he is about his commitments to this island, but it needn’t be one we should be cynical of.