The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) sounds like the Buddha himself in the first line of his poem, “Doubletake,” published in 1991. “Human beings suffer,” it begins, and we suspect we are in for it now, another journey through melancholia borne of downtroddenness as only the Irish can express it. The second line elaborates on one form that suffering takes: “they torture one another…”
And so they do.
The poem’s 39 lines go on for a couple more stanzas in that vein, which you can read in full below. But fear not: Heaney doesn’t stay submerged in the dark depths for long.
This is a “Doubletake,” after all, which will involve a reconsideration, a reframing, an elaboration that takes an “On the other hand…” approach to chronicling the vicissitudes of the human heart.
The poem is from the volume, “The Cure at Troy,” in which Heaney adapted Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes,” written in the fifth century BC, to verse. Philoctetes was a mythical Greek archer and hero who was banished to an island for a decade because of an odious, festering wound on his foot. His bow had become highly coveted, however, due to a prophecy that the Greeks need it to finally triumph in the Trojan War.
Problem was that Philoctetes had become almost feral in his isolation, so the Greek warriors assigned the task of obtaining his bow have to be very careful in how to proceed. They manage to seize it via trickery, but then, with help from the god Heracles, who journeys down from Olympus to assure Philoctetes his foot would be healed, convince him to return with them to fight the Trojan War, where he performed many heroic deeds.
That’s the larger backdrop for “Doubletake,” with the poem spending two stanzas on imagery detailing human misery of the kind we have always endured: war, torture, imprisonment, hunger strikes, widows and funeral homes.
And then it turns. Read it now, see if the third stanza rings any bells for you, and we’ll pick it up on the other side.
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 a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the 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.
Heaney said he had Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, torture, seemingly miraculous release and eventual elevation to the South African presidency in mind with this poem. Shunned and removed from society only to have his near magical powers of healing brought back in triumph and an unexpected peace, Mandela was a hero like Philoctetes, but very much in the flesh, real as could be.
His endurance and grace under appalling circumstances represented “a great sea-change on the far side of revenge…a further shore” that is, crucially for us in 2020, “reachable from here.”
And that sea-change occurred because a “tidal wave of justice” rose up where “hope and history rhyme.”
If those lines do sound at least vaguely familiar, perhaps it’s because you noted them in Joe Biden’s acceptance speech at the recently concluded Democratic National Convention.
Biden, bless his beating and empathic heart, is fond of reciting excerpts from the poem. Bill Clinton did the same in ceremonies honoring the Northern Ireland peace process in 1995.
Imagine: someone occupying the Oval Office who appreciates, reads and recites poetry—why, it’s been maybe four years since we beheld anything of the sort!
After the true “American carnage” of these past four years, it may be a bit nerve-wracking to “hope on this side of the grave,” particularly after the unexpected, shocking burial of 2016. But hope we must, always, if we are to survive.
A hope underscored by dogged work, fearlessness and intention, so that justice can rise up and roll down like proverbial waters, unabated, clearing a path, where “hope and history rhyme.”
It’s almost like Nelson Mandela co-wrote these lyrics—or certainly could have…
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Archer by Alireza Sahebi https://unsplash.com/@alirzasahb
Reaching hand by Marc-Olivier Jodoin, Ottawa, Canada https://unsplash.com/@marcojodoin