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The Cure at Troy is Seamus Heaney's translation and adaptation of Sophocles's Philoctetes set during the Trojan War. It seems to be very often quoted by politicians: most recently by British prime minister candidate Rory Stewart, but also according to Wikipedia:

The passage was quoted by Bill Clinton in his remarks to the community in Derry in 1995 during the Northern Ireland Peace Process, and by Joe Biden at the memorial service for Sean Collier, a campus police officer who was killed in the line of duty during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The passage in question is as follows:

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.

What is it about this work, or passage, that makes it so eminently quotable by politicians? Was Sophocles's play, or Heaney's translation of it, overtly political or clearly lending itself to such? Was it just that Bill Clinton knew the poem and others copied the idea from him?


I'm trying to approach this question from the point of view of literature, considering the play to see why it's used in this way, rather than considering the politicians to see why they used it. Hence posting here and not on Politics SE.

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Philoctetes versus The Cure at Troy

In Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the action goes straight from Neoptolemus’ farewell (line 1407) to the appearance of Heracles (line 1408). But Heaney inserts a speech by the chorus (pp. 77–78), which includes the quoted passage, and this does not correspond to anything in Sophocles. It’s here that Heaney overtly links the play to the Troubles, calling out suffering and injustice:

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.

Seamus Heaney (1991). The Cure at Troy, p. 77. New York: Noonday Press.

and then suggesting that there can be justice “on the far side of revenge”. The image of justice as a wave of water comes from the Bible:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:24, English Standard Version.

Does Heaney’s message in this speech fit the play of Sophocles? Well, it does in some ways and not in others. The main plot of Philoctetes is the moral arc for Neoptolemus: at the beginning he is complicit in Odysseus’ plan to deceive and manipulate Philoctetes into giving up the bow and going to Troy, but by the end Neoptolemus is moved to pity by Philoctetes’ suffering, reveals the deception, and returns the bow. So the play’s main theme is the importance of doing right by people who have suffered.

But to make a further allegory requires a considerable stretch, for at the conclusion of the play, Philoctetes goes down to Neoptolemus’ ship, not for the purpose of peace and reconciliation, but to “sack the towers of Troy” (line 353), “force it to the ground” (line 998), and “receive from the army the spoils of supreme valor” (line 1428). This is not such an apropos message, and perhaps for that reason Heaney tends to soften these lines in translation, for example he writes, “take just spoils” (p. 79, my emphasis).

Quotations in political speeches

There’s an implication in the question is that a politician like Bill Clinton might be using the quotation in order to allude to the ideas in Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, or even those in Sophocles’ Philoctetes. But this is obviously a non-starter: an allusion can only have this kind of effect if the audience knows the work alluded to, whereas politicians are usually trying to speak to a whole constituency, most of whom cannot be expected to have this kind of knowledge. Let’s take a look at what Clinton actually said:

Your great Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote the following words that some of you must know already, but that for me capture this moment. He said: “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.”

Bill Clinton (30 November 1995). Remarks by the President to the Citizens of Londonderry. Conflict Archive on the Internet.

I could not say it better than your Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, has said: We are living in a moment when hope and history rhyme. In Dublin, if there is peace in Northern Ireland, it is your victory, too. And I ask all of you to think about the next steps we must take.

Bill Clinton (1 December 1995). Remarks by the President to the Community in Dublin. The American Presidency Project.

You can see that Clinton’s speechwriter was not under the illusion that the communities of Derry and Dublin would know The Cure at Troy; indeed the speech took care to introduce Heaney as “your great Nobel Prize winning poet” so that if there were any audience members who had not heard of Heaney, they would have been informed of his eminence (as well as flattered by the wording “your great poet”).

So why do politicians and their speech-writers use quotations? It’s because they need poetry and other elevated languages to move the audience:

[F]or a speechwriter, more important than the actual points you’ll make are the stories, details, examples, quotes—and, yes, sometimes even poetry—that make speeches inspire, excite, and move audiences. […] Sometimes other staffers roll their eyes. But as you will see, the “poetry” some view as useless ornament is what audiences remember. It’s what moves audiences to march.

Robert A. Lehrman & Eric Schnure (2019). The Political Speechwriter′s Companion, 2nd edition, §4.4.3. London: Sage.

How do speechwriters get these quotations? From many sources, but primarily from dictionaries of quotations!

Some look down their noses at quote books, arguing that they allow speakers to fake erudition. Within limits, using such books is ethical and useful. Without quote books, you sacrifice the best way to find the wealth of pithy, insightful, and witty things others have said, or the moving—and often true—accounts of people whose stories can move, inspire, or illustrate your points.

Lehrman & Schnure, §4.4.3.

So if, in 1995, Clinton’s speechwriter Alan Stone had looked up “justice” in the subject index of The Penguin Dictionary of Twentieth-century Quotations (1993), he would have found, on p. 519, Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave”. Another plausible way in which Stone could have come across this quotation was by looking at other political speeches: in particular, Mary Robinson’s inauguration speech as President of Ireland used the quote five years previously:

May God direct me so that my Presidency is one of justice, peace and love. May I have the fortune to preside over an Ireland at a time of exciting transformation when we enter a new Europe where old wounds can be healed, a time when, in the words of Seamus Heaney “hope and history rhyme”. May it be a presidency where I the President can sing to you, citizens of Ireland, the joyous refrain of the 14th Century Irish poet as recalled by W. B. Yeats: “I am of Ireland… come dance with me in Ireland.”

Mary Robinson (3 December 1990). Address on the Occasion of her Inauguration as President of Ireland. Office of the President of Ireland.

This was some fast work by Robinson’s speechwriter, since The Cure at Troy was first performed on 1 October 1990 at the Guildhall, Derry.

Clinton’s confabulation

In 2000, Bill Clinton gave a remarkable interview about the meaning of The Cure at Troy, which I will quote in full.

The President I mean, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, you know. I mean, I just can’t—and then we went to Dublin. There were over 100,000 people in the streets in front of Trinity. We set up on the bank, you know, in front of the Bank of Ireland building—it was just amazing; there were a lot of interesting people—and quoted Seamus Heaney’s poem, you know, from the “Cure of Troy,”1 for which the next year I took a phrase and made it the title of the book [Between Hope and History] I put out in ’96.

And when I got to Dublin, Seamus came over to the Ambassador’s residence and had handwritten out the section of the poem that I quoted. It’s what the chorus says, “History says don’t hope on this side of the grave. But once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.” I have it on the wall in my private office on the second floor, and I look at it every day.

And so he wrote it out in his hand, and then at the end he said, “To President Clinton: It was a fortunate wind that blew you here,” and that line is also from the “Cure of Troy,”1 which I would have every person involved in any of these kinds of things read.

It’s only about 90 pages long, and it’s a play written in the form of a Greek tragedy2 so that the chorus speaks for the collective wisdom of the people. It’s a play about Philoctetes, who was a Greek warrior with Ulysses.3 He had the magic bow, and whenever the Greeks have Philoctetes in the Trojan Wars, they always won.4 They never lost a battle when he was there.

And they were in a battle, and he was badly wounded.5 And they thought he was certain to die. His leg was horribly wounded,6 and they were afraid to carry him.7 And they were trying to make a quick getaway.8 So they dumped him on this tiny island in the Aegean, which was just basically rock and shrub. And he didn’t die, and his leg never fully healed. It just sort of became a stump.

And for 10 years, he was alone on the island. He became this sort of wild feral creature, just hair everywhere and his stump leg. And Odysseus got a message for the gods—Ulysses3 did—that Philoctetes was alive and that he had to have him to win the final battle of the Trojan War with the famous Trojan Horse.9

So, he—Ulysses3 devised this ruse to try to con him back into the deal. He took a very nice young man with him on a boat, and they found this island, and he sent the young guy up to see him. And he had some line he put on him about—he figured out there was something wrong; this didn’t make sense; this guy appears after 10 years.

So finally Ulysses3 kind of fessed up, went up and said, “I left you. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry, but we need you. Will you come?” And he forgives him, and he comes.10 He gets his magic bow, and he limps down to the boat, and they go off, and they win the Trojan War.

So, it’s a story about how this guy is living alone on this God-forsaken rock while his leg never heals, and yet somehow what happened to him over those 10 years, he just gives it up. And he goes on. And when he is leaving, as he is pulling out of the—you know, away from the island, the three of them in the boat11—Philoctetes looks back at the island and says, “It was a fortunate wind that blew me here.”12

But he somehow, in that 10 years, just purged his soul. I mean, it’s really—all the things Seamus ever wrote for the peace process in Northern Ireland and for people struggling with tribal wars in Africa or any of these conflicts, or people that are still mad at each other—you know, when I got to Washington, there were Members of Congress still mad at each other over things that happened in the 1970’s, literally, still mad. And you know, there were times when I felt like a piñata in somebody else’s ballgame.

So you know, when I read this—I remember I read it one night in the Presidential guest residence in Cairo. I had been carrying it around with me, and you know, my body clock was all messed up, and I couldn’t sleep. So Hillary went to sleep, and I just sat up and read it. And I thought, “Wow, this is really—I wish I could just get everybody to read this.”

Bill Clinton (14 December 2000). Exchange with Reporters Aboard Air Force One. In Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton, book III, pp. 2709–2710. Washington: United States Government Printing Office.

For someone who had read the play recently (Clinton says he read it in Cairo, hence on one of his state visits to Egypt in 1994, 1996 or 2000), he did not seem to remember it very well:

  1. The title of Heaney’s play is The Cure at Troy, not “of Troy”.

  2. Clinton seems not to know here that The Cure at Troy is a translation and adpatation of an actual Greek tragedy.

  3. The character is called “Odysseus” by Heaney.

  4. Philoctetes was abandoned on Lemnos “when the first fleet was voyaging to Troy” (p. 17), that is, at the beginning of the war, and so he did not go to Troy until after the events of the play.

  5. Philoctetes was not wounded in battle, but by a “snake-bite at the shrine” (p. 17), in Sophocles the shrine of a nymph on the island of Chryse.

  6. Philoctetes was wounded in the foot, not the leg. Odysseus says, “I am the one that dumped him, him and his cankered foot” (p. 3).

  7. They were not afraid to carry him, but disgusted by the “bad smell” (p. 57) of the wound and disturbed by his “howling fits” (p. 3).

  8. The Greeks were not trying to make a quick getaway, but “voyaging to Troy” (p. 17).

  9. Helenus’ prophecy said nothing about the Trojan Horse, only that “unless they can coax Philoctetes to leave this island—of his own accord—they are never going to take the town of Troy” (p. 33).

  10. There’s no indication in the play that Philoctetes forgives Odysseus. His last interaction with Odysseus in the play is when he tries to kill him with the bow, but Neoptolemus gets in the way and Odysseus flees for his life (p. 71). Philoctetes goes to Troy because he hears the demigod Heracles telling him to go (pp. 78–79).

  11. There is no scene set aboard ship: the play ends with Philoctetes about to go down to the shore (pp. 80–81).

  12. This line does not belong to Philoctetes, but to the chorus (p. 81).

I point out these mistakes not to criticize Clinton—he is a politician, not a scholar—but to demonstrate the way in which he was able to transform the work in his memory. Clinton described in this interview what the play ought to have been, in order to fit the use he made of it in the 1995 speeches, imagining plot points and even whole scenes if necessary.

This is a kind of political myth-making: Clinton’s message in 1995 was that although many people had been hurt by the Troubles, to achieve lasting peace it was necessary to abandon the cycle of revenge, and so when explaining this in his interview in 2000, he took the story of The Cure at Troy and moulded it into a parable with a corresponding message: Philoctetes was wounded in battle, and to win the Trojan War it was necessary for him to forgive Odysseus.

Most likely, I think, Clinton did not know consciously that he was doing this—in telling and retelling it, he transformed The Cure at Troy into what he needed it to be. He had the politician’s skill of projecting sincerity by believing whatever he was saying in the moment. You have to respect his ability to do this, even as you realise that you had better check everything he says!

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