President Biden’s address to U.S. troops stationed in England on his way to the recent G-7 Summit referenced lines from a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats to emphasize the need for multilateralism in a rapidly changing world.
“To quote another Irish poet … the world is changed, changed utterly,” Biden told the troops. “A terrible beauty has been born.”
Biden has, in fact, quoted the exact same line out of context on at least 16 other occasions over the past 12 years on occasions ranging from campaign events to commencement addresses to the Munich Conference on Security Policy (twice). As one reporter put it, “You could say that all changed, changed utterly apart from Biden’s speeches.”
Biden’s looped emphasis on change, however — while in line with the progressive agenda — dilutes the richness of a nuanced poet and misuses the words of a conservative statesman who sought change with caution.
Yeats has been described as an “Irish Revolutionary Conservative.” Though he had an Anglo-Irish background, he became wholly devoted to the cause of Irish independence from Britain as a member of the conservative Tory party. Co-founder of the Abbey Theater with Lady Gregory, Yeats was a key figure in the Gaelic Revival, a movement of Irish cultural nationalism in the arts and education that nurtured the sentiments of many Free State revolutionaries.
Even as he supported Irish independence, however, Yeats expressed Burkean reticence to endorse radical revolution and cautioned against the extremes of political zeal.
The poem “Easter 1916,” from which Biden draws his go-to quotation, commemorates a bloody Irish rebellion against the British government. But it doesn’t feature the warm patriotism and grateful affirmation of heroics that one might expect from a man who supported the cause. Instead, Yeats says each man was “changed in his turn,” and wonders, “And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?”
Instead of applauding those who died in violent conflict during the Easter Rising, Yeats proposes that the revolutionaries became so enchanted with their cause that their hearts grew hardened to everything else:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
Yeats’s poem asks, in essence, a highly conservative question: At what cost? It is a question that Biden, and liberals in general, would do well to consider carefully. Good causes like civil rights and care for the under-privileged have become for many the basis of an enchanting political ideology that hardens them to all competing considerations and prompts an outraged, frenetic push for sweeping and immediate reform, whether that’s restructuring the Supreme Court, forcing the LGBTQ+ ideology on those who disagree with it through the Equality Act, or bringing Marxist concepts into the classroom.
As the cause of social justice becomes the justification under one of the most lefist presidential administrations in history for increasingly radical actions and the dismantling of norms that have provided stability for decades, experts are concerned what the costs and unanticipated consequences will be in areas such as education, health care, religious freedom, and the economy.
Yeats knew well the chaos of extreme social upheaval and portrays a world uncannily similar to ours in his most well-known poem, “The Second Coming.” Indiana University scholar Mark Franke notes that when it was published in 1919, millions of deaths had resulted from World War I, revolutions in Ireland and Bolshevik Russia, and the influenza pandemic. The first stanza accurately captures the prevailing feeling:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Anarchy? The drowning of innocence? In our democracy? Surely not, some might say.
Yet the sexual revolution — which Biden perpetuates with federal funds for abortions both domestically and abroad — has “freed” us from moral constraints on pursuing any and every physical pleasure. The casual acceptance of divorce and single parenthood and the left’s enthusiastic validation of any and every type of relational union has “freed” us to pursue whatever we think will make us happy. The transgender movement for which Biden is broadening legal support has “freed” us from biological constraints to be whatever we want to be. America is facing moral anarchy.
We are more free than we have ever been. But by cutting the ties that restrain our passions and bind us to ways of life that accord with reality, Americans have become more aimless, lonely, bored, depressed, and suicidal, than they have ever been.
Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.
Perhaps it is time for our culture to take a cue from Yeats, because even if Biden is repeatedly using a single line to serve his own progressive ends, the wise poet has much more to offer. While Yeats’ poetry provides a powerful warning that even good causes are complex and extremist actions can be dangerous, the progressive agenda that leftists under Biden are aggressively pushing demonstrates that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” and radical liberalism is accelerating the country’s spin out of control.
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