Hope and History and the "Long Defeat"

I loved Joe Biden’s Seamus Heaney quote from his DNC speech last night. It’s apparently from Heaney’s verse adaptation of a Sophocles play, A 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.

This reminds me of Alan Jacobs’ essay on “The Long Defeat.”. He draws the phrase from Galadriel in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and quotes a letter from Tolkein explaining what it means:

I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’–though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.

Heaney’s quote seems to be getting at the same thing. History is messy, and viewed through Heaney’s lens, it teaches us not to hope. But–every once in a while–”justice can rise up,” giving us “samples or glimpses of final victory.” ‘Tis a beautiful idea, and I thank Joe Biden for bringing it to my remembrance.

Bryan Sebesta @bsebesta