John Boyle O'Reilly

(28 June 1844 - 10 August 1890 / Dowth Castle, County Meath)

A Nation's Test - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

A NATION'S greatness lies in men, not acres;
One master-mind is worth a million hands.
No royal robes have marked the planet-shakers,
But Samson-strength to burst the ages' bands.
The might of empire gives no crown supernal—
Athens is here—but where is Macedon?
A dozen lives make Greece and Rome eternal,
And England's fame might safely rest on one.

Here test and text are drawn from Nature's preaching:
Afric and Asia—half the rounded earth—
In teeming lives the solemn truth are teaching,
That insect-millions may have human birth.
Sun-kissed and fruitful, every clod is breeding
A petty life, too small to reach the eye:
So must it be, with no man thinking, leading,
The generations creep their course and die.

Hapless the lands, and doomed amid the races,
That give no answer to this royal test;
Their toiling tribes will droop ignoble faces,
Till earth in pity takes them back to rest.
A vast monotony may not be evil,
But God's light tells us it cannot be good;
Valley and hill have beauty—but the level
Must bear a shadeless and a stagnant brood.

I bring the touchstone. Motherland, to thee,
And test thee trembling, fearing thou shouldst fail;
If fruitless, sonless, thou wert proved to be,
Ah, what would love and memory avail?

Brave land! God has blest thee!
Thy strong heart I feel,
As I touch thee and test thee—
Dear land! As the steel
To the magnet flies upward, so rises thy breast,
With a motherly pride to the touch of the test.

See! she smiles beneath the touchstone, looking on her distant youth,
Looking down her line of leaders and of workers for the truth.
Ere the Teuton, Norseman, Briton, left the primal woodland spring,
When their rule was might and rapine, and their law a painted king;
When the sun of art and learning still was in the Orient;
When the pride of Babylonia under Cyrus' hand was shent;
When the sphinx's introverted eye turned fresh from Egypt's guilt;
When the Persian bowed to Athens; when the Parthenon was built;
When the Macedonian climax closed the Commonwealths of Greece;
When the wrath of Roman manhood burst on Tarquin for Lucrece—
Then was Erin rich in knowledge—thence from out her Ollamh's store—
Kenned to-day by students only—grew her ancient Senchus More;
Then were reared her mighty builders, who made temples to the sun—
There they stand—the old Round Towers—showing how their work was done:
Thrice a thousand years upon them—shaming all our later art—
Warning fingers raised to tell us we must build with rev’'rent heart.
Ah, we call thee Mother Erin! Mother thou in right of years;
Mother in the large fruition—mother in the joys and tears.
All thy life has been a symbol — we can only read a part:
God will flood thee ,yet with sunshine for the woes that drench thy heart.
All thy life has been symbolic of a human mother's life:
Youth's sweet hopes and dreams have vanished, and the travail and the strife
Are upon thee in the present; but thy work until to-day
Still has been for truth and manhood—and it shall not pass away:
Justice lives, though judgment lingers—angels' feet are heavy shod—
But a planet's years are moments in th' eternal day of God!

Out from the valley of death and tears,
From the war and want of a thousand years,
From the mark of sword and the rust of chain,
From the smoke and blood of the penal laws,
The Irishmen and the Irish cause
Come out in the front of the field again!

What says the stranger to such a vitality?
What says the statesman to this nationality?
Flung on the shore of a sea of defeat,
Hardly the swimmers have sprung to their feet,
When the nations are thrilled by a clarion-word,
And Burke, the philosopher-statesman, is heard.
When shall his equal be? Down from the stellar height
Sees he the planet and all on its girth—
India, Columbia, and Europe—his eagle-sight
Sweeps at a glance all the wrong upon earth.
Races or sects were to him a profanity:
Hindoo and Negro and Kelt were as one;
Large as mankind was his splendid humanity,
Large in its record the work he has done.

What need to mention men of minor note,
When there be minds that all the heights attain?
What school-boy knoweth not the hand that wrote
'Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain'
What man that speaketh English e'er can lift
His voice 'mid scholars, who hath missed the lore
Of Berkeley, Curran, Sheridan, and Swift,
The art of Foley and the songs of Moore?
Grattan and Flood and Emmet—where is he
That hath not learned respect for such as
Who loveth humor, and hath yet to see
Lover and Prout and Lever and Maclise?

Great men grow greater by the lapse of time:
We know those least whom we have seen the latest;
And they, 'mongst those whose names have grown sublime,
Who worked for Human Liberty, are greatest.

And now for one who allied will to work,
And thought to act, and burning speech to thought;
Who gained the prizes that were seen by Burke—
Burke felt the wrong—O'Council felt, and fought.

Ever the same—from boyhood up to death:
His race was crushed—his people were defamed;
He found the spark, and fanned it with his breath,
And fed the fire, till all the nation flamed!

He roused the farms—he made the serf a yeoman;
He drilled his millions and he faced the foe;
But not with lead or steel he struck the foeman:
Reason the sword—and human right the blow.

He fought for home—but no land-limit bounded
O'Connell's faith, nor curbed his sympathies;
All wrong to liberty must be confounded,
Till men were chainless as the winds and seas.

He fought for faith—but with no narrow spirit;
With ceaseless hand the bigot laws he smote;
One chart, he said, all mankind should inherit,—
The right to worship and the right to vote.
Always the same—but yet a glinting prism:
In wit, law, statecraft, still a master-hand;
An 'uncrowned king,' whose people's love was chrism;
His title—Liberator of his Land!

'His heart's in Rome, his spirit is in heaven'—
So runs the old song that his people sing;
A tall Round Tower they builded in Glasnevin—
Fit Irish headstone for an Irish king!

Oh Motherland! there is no cause to doubt thee:
Thy mark is left on every shore to-day.
Though grief and wrong may cling like robes about thee,
Thy motherhood will keep thee queen alway.
In faith and patience working, and believing
Not power alone can make a noble state:
Whate'er the land, though all things else conceiving,
Unless it breed great men, it is not great.
Go on, dear land, and midst the generations
Send out strong men to cry the word aloud;
Thy niche is empty still amidst the nations—
Go on in faith, and God must raise the cloud.

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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 21, 2012

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