Life of John Boyle O'Reilly/Chapter 21
KINDNESS was the fruit, courtesy the flower, of John Boyle O'Reilly's character. Its seed was that "sacrificial seed" of which he sings so often and so earnestly. While absolutely free from personal vanity or pride of intellect, no man could be more dignified on occasion than was this rare combination of bodily beauty and mental greatness. His courtly manners were neither the product of culture nor the garb of policy. They were born with him.
Even when a little child he was noted for his winning qualities. "His smile was irresistible," writes his sister, "but I think his greatest charm was in his manner. From earliest childhood he was a favorite with everybody, and yet the wildest boy in Dowth. If any mischievous act was committed in the neighborhood, John was blamed, yet everybody loved him and would hide him from my father when in disgrace."
The same was true of his life in barracks and in prison. The magnetism of the boyish soldier won more converts to treason than his fervid eloquence. Even the uncompromising loyalty and Protestantism of an Orangeman from the "black North" succumbed to his fascination and did not recover from the spell until the Fenian malgré lui found himself a life convict and wondered how it had come about. From a dozen letters written by O'Reilly to his heart-broken mother and family, while he lay in Arbor Hill prison, I quote:
In the same letter, while expressing his belief that his sentence would be less severe if the threatened Fenian uprising should fail to occur, he writes in confident expectation and hope that it will take place:
When the suspense was ended, he sent these brave words of comfort to his loved ones:
God bless you!
FACSIMILE LETTERS WRITTEN IN PRISON—ORIGINALS IN POSSESSION OF MRS. MERRY OF LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND.
"His was a practical religion; he, of all men, made the Divine injunction of unselfishness the rule of his daily life, and never have I seen a more self-sacrificing character, a more self-abnegating spirit, and a more watchful regard for the comfort and interests of others, than was exhibited in John Boyle O'Reilly."
Such was the impression left predominant in the mind of one not of his race or religion, after years of close association with O'Reilly. The least bigoted of men, he yet carried the sign of his Faith with him wherever he went, as simply and unostentatiously as he did that of his country; for he was unassumingly proud of both. A writer in the Atlantic Monthly quotes from O'Reilly's correspondence with a Western friend on the same theme:
His religion was expressed in deeds rather than in words. He forgave his enemies; he was the brother of all the poor and oppressed; he devoted his talents to the service of humanity; he preached and practiced the gospel of kindness.
The courtesy which won the hearts of strangers at their first meeting with him was not a garment put on for the occasion. It clothed his everyday life; it was as much a part of him as his breath or his blood. A Scotch lady living in Boston tells the following anecdote:
He was the ideal comrade for an outdoor holiday. His friend Moseley says:
Kindness, always kindness, was his watchword. In a letter to his friend, Mr. Michael Cavanagh, of Washington, written in July, 1878, I find the same note:
He inculcated the same principle in the many controversies inevitable to his journalistic career,—to fight a wrong or a wrong-doer until justice was attained, then to forget the quarrel as speedily as possible, and "be sure to say something kind" about the adversary at the first opportunity.
He laid down and followed another rule: "Never do anything as a "journalist which you would not do as a gentlemen." How faithfully that rule was obeyed his twenty years of editorial work attest.
It was O'Reilly's rare fortune to be appreciated and loved during his lifetime. If any side of his character was misunderstood by good people, it was the healthy, vigorous one which rejoiced in manly sport, especially in that of boxing. How such a gentle, kindly heart coald dwell within a lusty, combative body was a mystery not only to the narrow folk who mistake dyspepsia for piety, but even to truly religious people less generously endowed with natural appetites. As the Jesuit Father, John J. Murphy, wisely says of O'Reilly's love for the manly art, "He hated everything in it but the higher essence—the game spirit, the heroic endurance, the plucky heart." But once engaged in a friendly encounter he fought gallantly, as if fighting for life itself. It was the qualities of courage and endurance, prime essentials of the boxer, which made O'Reilly first dare the rebel's fate, and afterward bear the penalty with fortitude. But for the brave heart within him he would never have joined the Fenian ranks; but for it he would have despaired and died in a felon's cell.
He never hesitated to employ the ultimate argument if a needed lesson had to be given to some insolent bully. He would not seek what is euphemistically called a difficulty, on his own account; but when the rights of the weak needed a champion, most assuredly he never shunned one.
This healthy, natural man could not but love nature with a deep love, although the passion finds little expression in his poetry. On that subject Mr. Moseley again writes:
To illustrate to a certain extent this feature of his character, I can tell an incident which happened a number of years ago, but which is still fresh in my memory. We were in the habit, one summer, of going down Boston Harbor in our canoes almost every pleasant afternoon, and had found much enjoyment in the companionship, the respite from business, and the cool sea breezes at the entrance to the bay. It happened that I had been prevented from going for several days, when Boyle came to me one afternoon and insisted that I must drop everything and go with him that day, for he had something down there to show me,—something which I must see. Curious to see what had so aroused his enthusiasm, and anxious for the pleasure which such an expedition with him always brought, I started at once, and after a hard paddle down the harbor we reached one of the islands on which, under Boyle's guidance, we landed, and hauled our canoes upon the beach.Mounting the barren clay bank with the impetuosity of a child, he shouted: " here it is, Ned! Look at it! And God put it there for me!" Following his outstretched hand I saw, growing alone upon, the arid soil, the tiniest, prettiest little tuft of green clover which, it seemed, my eyes had ever seen. And then he told me how he had come down there alone, feeling lonely and despondent (his family being away), and worried by those little annoyances of life which none Can escape. His mind was dwelling for the moment upon the barrenness and emptiness of this world, the whole scene by which he was Surrounded seeming perfectly in accord with his own thoughts, when suddenly he spied this little bunch of clover. "And when I saw," said he, "that emblem of God's all-pervading presence, which He had, I believe, put there for me, which He had sent His rain and dew to nourish and His sunlight to strengthen, and which He had made grow in this little desert as a sign of His far-reaching power—a realization of His wonderful goodness and protecting care rolled over me like a wave from the ocean at my feet. I thought of all the blessings which I had to thank and praise Him for; and as the wave rolled back it bore with it the sense of loneliness and despondency which had oppressed me, and left me soothed and strengthened, and with a renewed faith in the nearness of God to all. His creatures. Standing there on that rocky coast, the fresh wind of heaven blowing around him and the rolling ocean stretching out to the horizon, he apostrophized that little bunch of clover in a strain which I have never heard equaled. It was a poem of sublime faith in God and His love for man, and I listened spellbound to his matchless eloquence.
He loved nature and he loved art, but he better loved mankind. Thai; love was given freest expression to those near him, his wife and little daughters. Without entering into the sacredness of his domestic life, it is enough to say that there he was truly at his best. He was infinitely patient, tender, and considerate. He would read for hours every evening to his little ones from the book, which he cherished and taught them to understand, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Shelley, Byron, Keats, and all the masters of English verse. One summer, when his wife was away at Nantucket, he read the Arabian Nights through to his little girls, taking a boyish delight in breaking all rules of wise conduct by prolonging the entertainment away into the unhallowed hours of morning, and enjoining secrecy on his fellow-culprits.
Here is a letter, one of many, written to his daughters, Bessie and Agnes, at their convent home in Elmhurst, Providence.
Boston, November 19, 1889.
Dear Old Bess:
At last I am out of the wood of hard work that has shut me in for two months. The first pleasure I take is to write to my dear brown hen and my dear blue pigeon. I have never been so busy in all my life as I have been since Mammie and I came from the mountains. I have literally not had a leisure hour for fifty days. I long to go to Elmhurst and see you— I wish you and I could go away in my canoe, down a long, sunny, beautiful river, and camp on the banks for weeks and weeks, till we were rested, rested, and had forgotten the busy, noisy cities and all the work and trouble that are "out in the world." Last night a little boy, ten years old, came to play the violin for mamma and me. He has been playing in public for two years; but he plays rudely and carelessly, though I think he has talent, and would be a good musician if carefully trained—like a dear old fiddler that I want to kiss this moment. I suppose Mollie has sent you the poem I read at the University. It was well received by the Cardinals and Bishops; and they were a very grand audience, filling the whole large room with their crimson and purple robes.
But Mamsey and I were glad to get back, and we have rested well since Sunday night. We shall soon go to Providence to see our dear girls. Mrs. Weller particularly asked for you; they were very kind to us in Washington. We saw some great and wonderful things in many cities while away; but we saw one little work by a great man that made us forget everything else—buildings, monuments, bridges, and cities. It was a picture—a little oil painting, eighteen inches square—"L' Angelus," by Millet, which is on exhibition in New York. It is in a great gallery where there are hundreds of other famous pictures—some of them world-famous. And, besides, there are in the lower rooms five hundred bronzes by the greatest genius in sculpture that has lived for two hundred years,—Barye, the animal sculptor. We thought, as we looked at his splendid grim lions and tigers and horses and elephants, that painting never could interest us any more. " Oh, painting is inferior to these glorious creatures," said Mamsey? as she stood before a great lion that held down a snake with his paws and roared at him. And then we went upstairs to the pictures.
At the head of the stairs was Millet's famous picture "The Sower," a tall, powerful young French peasant sowing seed in the dusk of the evening. It is a wonderful picture (Mr. Quincy Shaw of Boston owns it; he paid $30,000 for it, years ago). This made Mammie stop and look long. Then came a river and a young wood by Corot, and a fairy-like landscape with golden clouds by Diaz; and then we forgot the bronzes, as canvas after canvas, of indescribable beauty and enormous value, came before us. At last we turned and looked down the long gallery. There was a little group of people standing on one side near the other end. And on the wall, alone, hung a little picture—"The Angelus"—that was to all the others as a diamond is to its setting. It was sold in Paris a few months ago, the price being $129,000 (the largest sum ever paid for a painting), and the duty on it when brought here was $30,000 more. But it was worth more. You know the picture from the engraving; it is the same size; but the coloring is like the very touch of God Himself in the sweet, flushing sunset. Far away on the fields is the church spire. The sun is very low, and is not seen; but the most exquisite gentle flush that ever was painted by man touches the bowed head and crossed hands on the breast of the praying woman and the back of the head and shoulders of the man. It is not a man and woman praying—it is a painted prayer. You can hear the Angelus bell filling the beautiful air; you can see the woman's lips moving; you pray with her. One looks at the lovely picture with parted lips and hushed breath. And so great is art that all who see it feel the same sweet influence—Protestant as well as Catholic. It was bought by Protestants; probably Mammie and I were the only Catholics in the building that day. We could hardly go away from it; and as we did go, we looked at nothing else there. Everything else had lost value. We passed "The Sower" with a glance (because it was Millet's, too), but we never looked at the bronzes. All day and ever since I keep saying at times to Mammie, "I can see the reddish flush on those French peasants"; and she says: "I can hear the Angelus bell whenever I think of the picture."
And yet the genius who painted this treasure sold it for a few hundred francs. He lived all his life in a little French village. He was not regarded as a great man; and he died very poor. His brother is now in Boston, a very poor old man, a sculptor; he wanted to make a bust of me last year. But Francois Millet was no sooner dead than France knew that she had lost an illustrious son. Foreigners were buying up his pictures at enormous prices. Fortunately for Boston, Mr. Shaw had recognized the genius many years ago, and had bought all the pictures he could get; so that we now have in this collection in Boston the best pictures he ever painted, except "L' Angelus."
Now, good-by, dear Bess and dear Agnes. When I get something to tell, I shall write a long letter to my dear little fiddler. Love and kisses.
The place in literature of John Boyle O'Reilly will be fixed by time. When we study his poems and speeches, and even his necessarily hasty editorial work, the one conspicuous quality evident in them is their author's steady growth—higher thought, finer workmanship, and, surest test of advancement, condensation in expression. Compare his first volume of poems with his last, and mark the wonderful growth of thirteen years. Had he been granted twenty years more of life, with the leisure which he had well earned and hoped to enjoy, it is no partial praise to say that he might have attained the foremost place in the literature of America, if not of the world.
His growth was perceptible year by year—almost day by day. But he was hampered by the daily cares of his professional life. He had no leisure for calm thought or continuous work. That he should have achieved so much, under such conditions, is the highest proof of the great possibilities that lay behind, awaiting but time and opportunity for perfect development. He disdained the dilletante's work in letters, the elaborate polishing of trifles which he satirizes in his "Art Master," as "carving of cherry-stones." He always held the thought far above the language in which it might be clothed. Yet he has given evidence in a score of perfect songs, of his ability to handle rhyme, rhythm, and melody with a masterly skill.
To the kindness of his sister, Mrs. Merry, of Liverpool, England, I am indebted for a copy of his first poetical effort, written when he was eleven years old. Its subject was the death of Frederick Lucas, the great-hearted English friend of Ireland. Very crude and childish, yet not without a suggestion of originality, are the eight lines of this ambitious elegy:
He is gone, he is gone, to a world more serene
Than the one in which our most true friend has been.
He is pale as the swan, he is cold as the wave,
And his honored head lies low in the deep, hollow grave.
His death has caused sorrow throughout our green isle,
For now he is gone, he'll no more on us smile.
And now is his poor brow as cold as the lead.
Because our beloved Frederick Lucas is dead.
It is a far cry from this to "Wendell Phillips"; but the spirit is the same in the doggerel of the child and the threnody of the man,—sorrow for the loss of a friend of humanity inspires both.
He left several unfinished poems, which appear in this volume, and one completed prose work, unpublished, entitled, "The Country with a Roof," an allegorical satire on the existing social condition.
O'Reilly would not have been true to his Irish nature had he not known how to sing the song of mourning. The bards of Ireland have enriched the language with some of its noblest elegies, a work for which the education and traditions of centuries had only too well prepared them. And what a range these songs cover! From the martial movement of the "Burial of Sir John Moore" and the "Bivouac of the Dead," to the heart-breaking caoine of Thomas Davis's "Lament for Owen Roe," and the mad "Hurrah for the Next that Dies," of Bartholomew Dowling. Whoever would understand the deepest depth of Irish grief, the mingling of love, wrath, and despair following the loss of a leader, will find it all compressed in the thirty odd lines of Davis's "Lament," with its closing wail:
Your troubles are all over, you're at rest with God on high;
But we're slaves and we're orphans, Owen!—why did you die!
O'Reilly's elegiac poems are Irish, too, in their warmth and sadness, but they are keyed to a higher note of philosophy and hope. His own death evoked touching verses from his countrymen and others,—Henry Austin, Edward King, Katharine E. Conway, Homer Greene, Arthur Forrester, William D. Kelly, Mrs.Whiton Stone, Rose Cavanagh, John E. Barrett, Katharine Tynan, and many more; for
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
His was the ideal Celtic character, made up of sunshine and tears,—only, alas! his life had seen little of the sun.
There was a touch of sadness underlying all his thought. It is present almost everywhere in his writings. It comes to the surface most unexpectedly even in the lightest and gayest of his Papyrus poems. "We are growing old;" "grim Death beckons to us all." This is the burden of his song; sad, but never gloomy. He had supped too often with sorrow to be a pessimist: he had drunk too freely of pleasure to be an optimist. He had no illusions, because he believed in God and his fellow-man.
He bestowed charity with a generous hand, but his name was seldom seen in print among those of contributors to public benefactions. Privately, he gave liberally to half a score of worthy charities, while the needy individuals who received his bounty might be literally counted by the hundred. Some of them were his perpetual pensioners. Their names appear at regular and frequent intervals in the columns of a little private expense-book now in my possession, which he kept for some years before his death. One of them, an Englishman and a Protestant, was supported by his bounty for years, sent to a hospital in his declining days, and buried at last at the cost of his kindly benefactor. Most of them, however, were needy people of his own race and religion, for these came to him most readily.
Almost every second entry on the pages of that little book, intended for no eyes but his own, records a charity or a loan, which was substantially the same thing. Now it is an entry, "Sisters Good Shepherd, $5." Then another, "Colored school, S. C," the same amount. Again, "Sisters from the South, $10." Amid names recurring again and again, there is an occasional entry like "Catholic editor, $5"; old publisher, $5"; "deaf mute, $3," etc.,—persons whose very names he had not learned, or had forgotten before he could note the expenditure. "Benefits" of all sorts for theatrical people, policemen, waiters, letter-carriers, coachmen, etc., etc., found in him a regular patron.
To his employees he was always kind, considerate and liberal. He hated to discharge anybody, and seldom or never did so until he had secured him a new situation. "I'd give So-and-so five hundred dollars," he once said, "if he would only tender his resignation; but he wont," he added, in whimsically sorrowful tone, "and of course I can't tell him to go."
When he had a serious literary task to do, such as the preparation of a great poem or speech, he would engage a room in a hotel in which he would shut himself up, and say to himself: "Boyle O'Reilly, you have got this task before you, and you shall not play, you shall not see your dear wife and children, you shall not go to your home until it is finished; you shall stay right here, in this room, until you have done it." And sometimes days would go by, while he would subject himself to this strain, doing nothing in this room where he had immured himself but waiting for the inspiration to come to him. When the task was finished he would come forth looking like a man who had suffered a week's severe illness, and would ask his friends for their criticism, not their eulogy, of his work.
Mr. Moseley has noticed a peculiarity which, as he shrewdly guessed, was the result of O'Reilly's prison life.
It was literally the only outward and visible legacy of that sad experience,—an experience which had chastened and molded the whole soul of the man. In twenty years of acquaintance and more than seven years of close personal intimacy, in the abandon of the club or the café I have never heard fall from his lips a word which might not be spoken in a lady's drawing-room. He was neither a saint nor a prude, but he was a man of clean mind and tongue, and foul language revolted him like the touch of carrion.
Another thing which he hated almost as much as vulgar speech was the recounting of so-called "Irish" stories and all imitations of "the brogue." He loved his country and its people with a tenderness almost incomprehensible to anybody who did not share that love. Anything tending to make either ridiculous was to him as jarring as the mimicry of one's mother would be to another man. One had to be Irish, not only in blood but also in heart and soul, before he ventured to amuse O'Reilly with any jest, however harmless, at the foibles of his countrymen.
But how gladly he welcomed any praise of their virtues, how eagerly he jumped at the least extenuation of their faults, how unreservedly he took to his heart the man who championed their cause! "He could not hate any man who loved Ireland," says Count Plunkett. I will add, he could embrace his bitterest personal enemy, if that enemy only served Ireland.
To a nature such as his there was every reason why he should love his native land. She was poor, oppressed, suffering; and he had suffered with her and for her. He loved America with both heart and head; for it had given him freedom, home, and an honorable career. Moreover, he was a republican in all his instincts and principles, a believer in the People and their right to self-government, an unsparing enemy of caste and class distinctions in every form. Nobody has better understood or paid truer tribute to that which is highest and best in the American character, its courage, magnanimity, self-governing instincts, and love of justice.
The life of John Boyle O'Reilly teaches anew the lesson that the man just and firm of purpose can conquer circumstances. The failure of his youthful patriotic dream did not discourage his brave heart; the degradation of the prison did not contaminate his pure soul; poverty did not debase nor prosperity destroy his manly independence. He remained throughout all his life a brave, honorable, Christian gentleman, a loyal friend, a generous foe, a lover of God and of his fellow-men.
It is not easy to write the last word of a lost friend so dear as this. Let the simple tribute of "a child, to John Boyle O'Reilly," written after his death, speak the love and grief of the many who hold his name in grateful memory:
You saw my leaf and praised it,
Until it grew a tree.
You saw my heart and raised it
To love and grow—for thee.
I bring, dear poet, all I have,—
My tree's leaf and my heart's love.