There’s a certain power in poetry – the beauty of words, allusions, associations that can so resonate with us, sometimes subconsciously, and move us deeply, awakening the soul.
Memorising chunks of poetry has played an important role in the lives of President Joe Biden and the youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, helping them overcome a problem with stuttering. I was glued to the inauguration ceremony this week and found the speeches, the poem, the music and spread of cultural representation truly inspirational.
Biden loves his Irish roots and often quotes their poets. He especially enjoys Seamus Heaney and lines from his poem ‘The Cure at Troy’.
‘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.’
Heaney’s poem is based on a play by Sophocles written in 5BC. The story is about a character, Philoctetes, from Greek mythology during the siege of Troy.
Philoctetes sets out for the Trojan War with a band of men led by Odysseus. On the way to Troy they pull into an island where Philoctetes is bitten by a venomous snake; his constant, painful wailing and the putrid smell from the wound that won’t heal result in Odysseus abandoning him on the desert island and sailing off to war. Now, before he died the great hero Heracles (Hercules) had given Philoctetes a magic bow and for ten years he uses it on the island to hunt for food while the battle for Troy rages on. Odysseus then learns of a prophecy that only the magic bow of Heracles can bring victory to the Greeks, so he returns to the island to persuade Philoctetes to come and help them.
This man has physical and emotional wounds that have been festering all this time. Can he forgive? Can he let go of his bitter, vengeful spirit? After ten years of isolation in a cave is reconciliation possible? Can he trust? Can he hope? It takes a vision of Heracles, now a god, to convince him. He goes to Troy, ends the war and is healed in the process!
Seamus Heaney in writing his poem brings echoes of modern challenges to reconciliation from around the globe. He himself was an Irish Catholic. Past history is full of misery and dashed hopes making it hard to look forward in this life with any sense of optimism. But then, sometimes goodness and justice do prevail making a new history and ground for future hope.
Often when wonderful times of reconciliation have happened God’s people have played a significant role – like the Peace Prayer Rallies that grew to 300,000 protestors in East Germany; within a month the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Or there was the incredible commitment to forgiveness and non-violence of Nelson Mandela that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa. Every victory for reconciliation is a sign of the blessings of Christ’s coming kingdom, when there will be no more hatred, war or death and hope and history will truly rhyme.
Meanwhile, we as Christians can stay in our caves keeping our ‘magic bow’ of prayer and love to ourselves, or we can be the agents of reconciliation the church is called to be (2 Corinthians 5:11-12), living out the God story of promise and hope – peace with God, each other and even the planet. In so doing, like Philoctetes, we’ll find healing for our fractured souls.
In the words of Amanda Gorman, ‘For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.’
Today is January 25th, and we in Scotland are celebrating our national bard, Robert Burns. Let’s take the advice of his song ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and reach out a hand to ‘a trusty fiere’ and ‘tak a cup o’ kindness’. Let’s be brave, denounce the darkness of offences taken, so that reconciliation may help ‘hope and history rhyme’.