John Boyle O'Reilly to a Friend


WE were speaking at the Club of O’Reilly, just after the shock of his sudden death had come upon us, and J., who had received a letter from the poet which must have been written on the very eve of his death, impulsively showed its dosing passage, because it seemed like a message straight from the man, summing his worldly experience. “ My experience of life,” he wrote, makes me sure of one truth, which I do not try to explain : that the sweetest happiness we ever know, the very wine of human life, comes not from love, but from sacrifice, — from the effort to make others happy. This is as true to me as that my flesh will burn if I touch red-hot metal.”

The hastiest survey of O’Reilly’s life shows that this was no emotional expression of the moment, but a doctrine testified to by numberless acts of devotion. We begged J. to let us see more of his letters ; for the friendliness of the man could not fail to make the. notes which he flung off in the midst of a busy life carry the impression of his eager personality, his vivid realization of passionate dreams, his chivalrie devotion to ideals. Out of a number of notes J. read these passages, hesitating for a moment over the more direct attacks which the writer made, but bravely risking our uplifted eyebrows : —

“ Sympathy is a balm, even for acute pain. The mourner takes part of the pain. ' So are we bound by gold chains,’ not only ‘to the feet of God,’ but to each other.”

“ And yet your letter makes me smile. Puritan you, with your condemnation of the great old art-loving, human, music-breathing, color-raising, spiritual, mystical, symbolical Catholic Church! ... [A] great, loving, generous heart will never find peace and comfort and field of labor except within her unstatistical, sun-like, benevolent motherhood. J., I am a Catholic just as I am a dweller on the planet, and a lover of yellow sunlight, and flowers in the grass, and the sound of birds. Man never made anything so like God’s work as the magnificent, sacrificial, devotional faith of the hoary but young Catholic Church. There is no other church; they are all just way-stations.

“ Your M.s and S.s and C.s and B.s are playing at belief, and polishing the outer brass-work of faith. Child, child, there are scales on your eyes and a crust on your sympathetic springs, — the scales and crusts of inheritance. Puritan you ! — poor rich Puritan ! I wish I could go and preach to you in your home, with its pagan and diseased Burne-Joneses and Rossettis. You to love Burne-Jones, — you, natural as the wind from the pine woods of your own Wisconsin ! You don’t love that sort of thing, J.: you love Indian men and women and children, and woodsmen handsome and brown and strong ; and big scarlets of autumn hills ; the sea, and shoreless lakes as awful as seas ; and closer still, strong, brave, great-hearted men and women, lovers of justice and doers of good to the poor and the criminal. . . . Life henceforth shall be a rich harvest, if you simplify it and make it earnest. But for God’s sake, J., and your own, search till you find a field of unconventional work; nothing else has peace in it; all else is for effect, and not for itself, — art, not natural. You must idealize. The world is not taught or trained by ideals, but by precept and precedence, — more s the pity. We are all crusted over with conventions, customs, false tastes and false fears. The soul, the sentiment, is within, like the milk in a cocoanut: the shell of habit must be riven, the husk cut and torn, before it can be reached. But it is there. Humanity is never fiendish: it loves and sympathizes only with the good and true. . . .

“ About growth I am not. sure : I grow rapidly toward complete dislike of the thing called ‘Society,’ but this must be moral rather than mental development. Society is a barren humbug, fruitful only of thistles and wormwood. Home life is the sweetest and noblest in enjoyment and production. . . . How much peace can you get out of small things ? There is a peace from the duty of doing which fine natures know, but it is thin food for the soul. I wish you had something to do that would take all the earnestness in you to do well. You could be splendidly happy then.

. . . “ To return to A. I think you are wrong in thinking some one. unhappiness has changed him. He was born changed, as you will allow me to say. He is unhappy and unhopeful for the best of reasons, — because he is unhealthful, over-developed ; he has gone by a generation beyond the great heart-beat of mankind. His culture theory is not a hope, but a resort, an excuse.

“True culture is the culture of strength, not of weakness. Who cares to bridle and teach the incomplete, the effete, the thin blooded and boned ? Do not be deceived. Pat your ear down to the rich earth, and listen to the vast, gurgling blood of Humanity, and learn whither it strives to flow, and what and where are its barriers. This is the culture worth getting, the culture that wins the love and shout of millions instead of the gush and drivel of tens. Love and hope and strength and good are all in the crowd, J., and not in the diluted blood of æsthetic critics. A.’s poetry will die before he dies. He could not, I believe, comprehend such noble poems as Emerson’s Problem or Each and All. He is an interesting, good, and, so far as intellect goes, an able man. But he is not a great man, and he is, I believe, a most unhealthy influence, because he directs the mind to artificial resources. The strength of a man is in his sympathies : it is outside himself, as heat is outside fire, the aroma outside the flower. A man without sympathies for all that is rude, undeveloped, upheaving, struggling, suffering, man-making, as well as for what has been shaken to the top and is out of the pressure, is not a full, and must be an unhappy man. He is an Australian flower, either over or under developed, scentless, — selfish as a living fire without heat for the cold hands of children.

“ Nearly all good women grow by time into a kind of nobility or instinctive greatness of soul. But few women grow great in youth. Greatness is individuality, — the opposite of the conventional.”