John Boyle O'Reilly

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

An Old Vagabond - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

HE was old and alone, and he sat on a stone to rest for awhile from the road:
His beard was white, and his eye was bright, and his wrinkles overflowed
With a mild content at the way life went; and I closed the book on my knee:
'I will venture a look in this living book,' I thought, as he greeted me.

And I said: ' My friend, have you time to spend to tell me what makes you glad?'
'Oh, ay, my lad,' with a smile; 'I'm glad that I'm old, yet am never sad!'

'But why?' said I; and his merry eye made answer as much as his tongue;
'Because,' said he, 'I am poor and free who was rich and a slave when young.
There is naught but age can allay the rage of the passions that rule men's lives;
And a man to be free must a poor man be, for unhappy is he who thrives:
He fears for his ventures, his rents and debentures, his crops, and his son, and his wife;
His dignity's slighted when he's not invited; he fears every day of his life.
But the man who is poor, and by age has grown sure that there are no surprises in years,
Who knows that to have is no joy, nor to save, and who opens his eyes and his ears
To the world as it is, and the part of it his, and who says: They are happy, these birds,
Yet they live day by day in improvident way—improvident? What were the words
Of the Teacher who taught that the field-lilies brought the lesson of life to a man?
Can we better the thing that is school-less, or sing more of love than the nightingale can?
See that rabbit—what feature in that pretty creature needs science or culture or care?
Send this dog to a college and stuff him with knowledge, will it add to the warmth of his hair?
Why should mankind, apart, turn from Nature to Art, and declare the exchange better-planned?
I prefer to trust God for my living than plod for my bread at a master's hand,
A man's higher being is knowing and seeing, not having and toiling for more;
In the senses and soul is the joy of control, not in pride or luxurious store.
Yet my needs are the same as the kingling's whose name is a terror to thousands: some bread,
Some water and milk,—I can do without silk,—some wool, and a roof for my head.
What more is possest that will stand the grim test of death's verdict? What riches remain
To give joy at the last, all the vanities past?—Ay, ay, that's the word—they are vain
And vexatious of spirit to all who inherit belief in the world and its ways.
And so, old and alone, sitting here on a stone, I smile with the birds at the days.'

And I thanked him, and went to my study, head bent, where I laid down my book on its shelf;
And that day all the page that I read was my age, and my wants, and my joys, and myself.


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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 21, 2012



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