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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Boyle O’Reilly (1844–1890)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)
 
FEW men had a more romantic or picturesque life than John Boyle O’Reilly; and few men have lived more consistent lives, though consistency is not generally looked upon as an attribute of romance. From the beginning to the end of his career he showed high qualities, illumined by that glow which not even the poet Wordsworth could describe, when he called it the “light that never was on sea or land.” And at no time did the actor in so many thrilling incidents fall below the elevation that one expects in a hero of romance. His thoughts, his moods, his quality, his temperament,—all are thoroughly expressed in the pages of his poetry. If the essence of literature is personality and the exact expression of it, Boyle O’Reilly’s work will live when the old wrongs that wrung his heart are gone, and the liberty he loved blesses the spots which to his eyes were made desolate by tyranny. The effects of that work can never be estimated; they were felt by youth and age, by men of every religious opinion and none; they made for righteousness, for peace with honor, for toleration, sympathy, and the highest patriotism.  1
  He was born June 28th, 1844, at Dowth Castle, near the town of Drogheda, in Ireland. Mr. James Jeffrey Roche, the closest friend of the poet, who understood him by experience and intuition, gives in his ‘Life, Poems, and Speeches of John Boyle O’Reilly’ (New York: Cassell Publishing Co.), a description of the traditions and surroundings of this beautiful spot. They helped to develop the passionate, chivalrous love of his native country and of liberty in the boy. He was brought up in an atmosphere of legend and story; and his father, a schoolmaster of the higher type, joined with a clever mother in laying the foundation of his literary success. He began his life work as a compositor in a printing-office in Ireland; and continued it in the same vocation at Preston, in Lancashire, where he made many warm friends. His experience in the British army, his connection with the Fenian movement, his imprisonment, his Australian exile, the thrilling details of his escape, supplied material for his romance of ‘Moondyne,’ and helped to add riches to an imagination which turned all that it touched into new and rare forms. If there were space here for a detailed biography, one could not do better than to quote from Mr. Roche’s ‘Life’; but this paper must concern itself with the reflection of that life as expressed in literary form. In the United States, after adventures by sea and land, and tortures and suffering borne with a heroism that was both Greek and Christian, he found the spirit of freedom in concrete form. Our country satisfied his aspirations for liberty; he loved Ireland not less, but America more; he was exiled from the land of his birth, yet he found ample consolation in the country he had chosen. An Irishman and a Catholic, he made an epoch in the history of his people in the United States; and he was, as editor of the Boston Pilot, enabled to do this through the support and encouragement of one of the most eminent prelates of his church, Archbishop Williams.  2
  In the hundreds of paragraphs and leaders that came from his pen during his connection with the Pilot (1870–90), there is the plasticity and strength which show in ‘Moondyne’ (1878), and in his part of ‘The King’s Men’ (1884).  3
  ‘The King’s Men’ was written by him in collaboration with Robert Grant, “J. S. of Dale,” and John F. Wheelwright. It had as a precedent ‘Six of One and Half a Dozen of the Other,’ done by six writers, marshaled by the author of ‘The Man Without a Country.’ It appeared in the Boston Globe, and achieved great success. The plan of the book was a “projection” into the reign of George V. George, during a revolution of his subjects, had found an asylum in America, in the thirty-third year of the German Republic and in the seventieth of the French. O’Reilly’s part in this romance is not difficult to discover in the picture of life in Dartmouth Prison, and in those luminous touches which the writer’s love of liberty and heart-breaking experience enabled him to give. All O’Reilly’s prose, even in its most careless form, shows the gift of the writer born with the power of so welding impression and expression that thought and style become as closely united as soul and body. And as he grew older, his power as a prose writer increased. As with most poets, his prose shows qualities entirely different from his verse. In his verse his forte is not in description; in his prose he describes minutely and with the keenness of an etcher. His poetry is especially transparent: the man is plain; he scarcely needs a biographer who can give himself as he is to the world.  4
  ‘Moondyne’ has glowing pages; there are things in it that remind us of the fervor of Victor Hugo. It is not as a writer of prose that O’Reilly lives, however, but by that lyrical force which obliges us to retain in our memories the song of the singer, whether we will or not. He was more than what we call a lyrist; he was a bard in the Celtic sense,—a prophet, a seer, the denouncer of wrong, the interpreter of love, the inspirer of valor, of awe, of hope. And he had the respect of the bard for a mission that was his as his heart was his; no poet was ever less self-conscious and no poet more personal. His lines written under a bust of Keats interpret the thought of many that remember him:—
  “A godlike face, with human love and will
  And tender fancy traced in every line;
A godlike face, but oh, how human still!
  Dear Keats, who love the gods their love is thine.”
  5
  O’Reilly’s first volume, ‘Songs of the Southern Seas,’ was made up of narrative poems; it appeared in 1873. ‘Songs, Legends, and Ballads’ (1878) contained the ‘Songs’ with additions. There was a new flavor in the ballads,—for they were veritable ballads. The taste of the public for color and the fundamental emotions in stirring musical narrative was fully gratified in these poems. Above all, they were original in the sense that they contained impressions taken from a personal view of life. They had the pathos of the mind that had possessed only itself for years, and the nobility which comes to a great soul which prison walls help to larger freedom. Critics and readers recognized the strength and beauty of ‘The Amber Whale,’ ‘The King of the Vasse,’ and ‘Ensign Epps’; and though lacking the depth of thought of his later song, they have kept their place in the hearts of the people. In remote towns and villages, in places the most unexpected, the family scrap-book has these swinging poems; and there are few anthologies arranged for the popular taste without at least ‘The Dukite Snake’ or ‘The Day Guard.’  6
  Of his lyrics,—the singing poems, expressing a reflection, a thought, a mood,—‘In Bohemia’ is probably the general favorite. But the place of a poet is not settled by the one poem read and re-read, quoted and re-quoted. The surface indications do not manifest the strength or the grasp of the poet; there are depths into which his nobler thought sinks. In a time of crisis, if freedom were threatened, there are poems of O’Reilly’s which would serve to fire the hearts in which they live with the fervor that came at the sound of Julia Ward Howe’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or Father Ryan’s ‘Conquered Banner.’ ‘The Cry of the Dreamer,’ clinging to the heart and memory, is not one of these, but it has virility in it,—and this quality is never lacking in the slightest of his lyrics. O’Reilly’s lines ‘An Art Master’ express his view of merely technical skill in verse:—

  “He gathered cherry-stones and carved them quaintly
  Into fine semblances of flies and flowers;
With subtle skill he even imaged faintly
  The forms of tiny maids and ivied towers.
  
“His little blocks he loved to file and polish;
  An ampler means he asked not, but despised.
All art but cherry-stones he would abolish,
  For then his genius would be highly prized.
  
“For such rude hands as dealt with wrongs and passions
  And throbbing hearts, he had a pitying smile;
Serene his way through surging years and fashions,
  While Heaven gave him his cherry-stones to file.”
  7
 
  His genius and manliness had been recognized by America when he was cut off from this life, August 10th, 1890. It seemed to him and his friends that there was much to do in the sunlight of kindliness which shone about him; but to use his own words in ‘The Dead Singer,’—
  “The singer who lived is always alive: we hearken and always hear.”
  8
  It is too early to estimate O’Reilly’s place among the poets of his chosen land,—if indeed a poet’s place can be settled by the rough comparisons of the critic. All that can be done is to indicate certain pieces of his that have acquired the approval of the critics and the enthusiasm of the people.  9
 
 
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