John Boyle O'Reilly

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

The City Streets - Poem by John Boyle O'Reilly

A CITY of Palaces! Yes, that's true: a city of palaces built for trade;
Look down this street—what a splendid view of the temples where fabulous gains are made.
Just glance at the wealth of a single pile, the marble pillars, the miles of glass,
The carving and cornice in gaudy style, the massive show of the polished brass;
And think of the acres of inner floors, where the wealth of the world is spread for sale;
Why, the treasures inclosed by those ponderous doors are richer than ever a fairy tale.
Pass on the next, it is still the same, another Aladdin the scene repeats;
The silks are unrolled and the jewels flame for leagues and leagues of the city streets!

Now turn away from the teeming town, and pass to the homes of the merchant kings,
Wide squares where the stately porches frown, where the flowers are bright and the fountain sings;
Look up at the lights in that brilliant room, with its chandelier of a hundred flames!
See the carpeted street where the ladies come whose husbands have millions or famous names;
For whom are the jewels and silks, behold: on those exquisite bosoms and throats they burn;
Art challenges Nature in color and gold and the gracious presence of every turn.
So the winters fly past in a joyous rout, and the summers bring marvelous cool retreats;
These are civilized wonders we're finding out as we walk through the beautiful city streets.

A City of Palaces!—Hush! not quite: a, city where palaces are, is best;
No need to speak of what's out of sight: let us take what is pleasant, and leave the rest:
The men of the city who travel and write, whose fame and credit are known abroad,
The people who, move in the ranks polite, the cultured women whom all applaud.
It is true, there are only ten thousand here, but the other half million are vulgar clod;
And a soul well-bred is eternally dear—it counts so much more on the books of God.
The others have use in their place, no doubt; but why speak of a class one never meets?
They are gloomy things to be talked about, those common lives of the city streets.

Well, then, if you will, let us look at both: let us weigh the pleasure against the pain,
The gentleman's smile with the bar-room oath, the luminous square with the tenement lane.
Look round you now; 'tis another sphere, of thin-clad women and grimy men;
There are over ten thousand huddled here, where a hundred would live of our upper ten.
Take care of that child: here, look at her face, a baby who carries a baby brother;
They are early helpers in this poor plane, and the infant must often nurse the mother.

Come up those stairs where the little ones went: five flights they groped and climbed in the dark;
There are dozens of homes on the steep ascent, and homes that are filled with children—hark!
Did you hear that laugh, with its manly tones, and the joyous ring of the baby voice?
'Tis the father who gathers his little ones, the nurse and her brother, and all rejoice.
Yes, human nature is much the same when you come to the heart and count its beats;
The workman is proud of his home's dear name as the richest man on the city streets.

God pity them all! God pity the worst! for the worst are reckless, and need it most:
When we trace the causes why lives are curst with the criminal taint, let no man boast:
The race is not run with an equal chance: the poor man's son carries double weight;
Who have not, are tempted; inheritance is a blight or a blessing of man's estate.
No matter that poor men sometimes sweep the prize from the sons of the millionaire:
What is good to win must be good to keep, else the virtue dies on the topmost stair;

When the winners can keep their golden prize, still darker the day of the laboring poor:
The strong and the selfish are sure to rise, while the simple and generous die obscure.
And these are the virtues and social gifts by which Progress and Property rank over Man!
Look there, O woe! where a lost soul drifts on the stream where such virtues overran:

Stand close—let her pass! from a tenement room and a reeking workshop graduate:
If a man were to break the iron loom or the press she tended, he knows his fate;
But her life may be broken, she stands alone, her poverty stings, and her guideless feet,
Not long since kissed as a father's own, are dragged in the mire of the pitiless street.

Come back to the light, for my brain goes wrong when I see the sorrows that can't be cured.
If this is all righteous, then why prolong the pain for a thing that must be endured?
We can never have palaces built without slaves, nor luxuries served without ill-paid toil;
Society flourishes only on graves, the moral graves in the lowly soil.

The earth was not made for its people: that cry has been hounded down as a social crime;
The meaning of life is to barter and buy; and the strongest and shrewdest are masters of time.
God made the million to serve the few, and their questions of right are vain conceits;
To have one sweet home that is safe and true, ten garrets must reek in the darkened streets.
'Tis Civilization, so they say, and it cannot be changed for the weakness of men.
Take care! take care! 'tis a desperate way to goad the wolf to the end of his den.
Take heed of your Civilization, ye, on your pyramids built of quivering hearts;
There are stages, like Paris in '93, where the commonest men play most terrible parts.
Your statutes may crush but they cannot kill the patient sense of a natural right;
It may slowly move, but the People's will, like the ocean o'er Holland, is always in sight.

'It is not our fault!' say the rich ones. No; 'tis the fault of a system old and strong;
But men are the makers of systems: so, the cure will come if we own the wrong.
It will come in peace if the man-right lead; it will sweep in storm if it be denied:
The law to bring justice is always decreed; and on every hand are the warnings cried.
Take heed of your Progress! Its feet have trod on the souls it slew with its own pollutions;
Submission is good; but the order of God may flame the torch of the revolutions!
Beware with your Classes! Men are men, and a cry in the night is a fearful teacher;
When it reaches the hearts of the masses, then they need but a sword for a judge and preacher.
Take heed, for your Juggernaut pushes hard: God holds the doom that its day completes;
It will dawn like a fire when the track is barred by a barricade in the city streets.

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Poem Submitted: Monday, May 21, 2012

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