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John Boyle O'Reilly was an Irish-born poet and novelist who escaped to America from Western Australia, where he had been imprisoned for being a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or Fenians. One of his later poems, "Living" (1881) connotes a sense of world-weariness that seemingly reflects his experience among "the hurrying crowds" of his adopted Boston, but also suggests his continued belief in "a life worth giving to a cause," as well as his sympathy for the "laboring souls... [who]/Strive upward to the Freedom and the Truth."

To toil all day and lie worn-out at night;
To rise for all the years to slave and sleep,
And breed new broods to do no other thing
In toiling, bearing, breeding - life is this
To myriad men, too base for man or brute.

To serve for common duty, while the brain
Is hot with high desire to be distinct;
To fill the sand-grain place among the stones
That build the social wall in million sameness,
To life by leave, and death by insignificance.

To live the morbid years, with dripping blood
Of sacrificial labor for a Thought;
To take the dearest hope and lay it down
Beneath the crushing wheels for love of Freedom;
To bear the sordid jeers of cant and trade,
And go on hewing for a far ideal,
This were a life worth giving to a cause,
If cause be found so worth a martyr life.  

But highest life of man, nor work nor sacrifice,
But utter seeing of the things that be!
To pass amid the hurrying crowds, and watch
The hungry race for things of vulgar use;
To mark the growth of baser lines in men;
To note the bending to a servile rule;
To know the natural discord called disease
That rots like rust the blood and souls of men;
To test the wisdom's and philosophies by touch
Of that which is immutable, being clear,
The beam God opens to the poet's brain;
To see with eyes of pity laboring souls
Strive upward to the Freedom and the Truth,
And still be backward dragged by fear and ignorance;
To see the beauty of the world, and hear
The rising harmony of growth, whose shade
Of undertone is harmonized decay,
To know that love is life - that blood is one
And rushes to the union - that the heart
Is like a cup athirst for wine of love;
Who sees and feels this meaning utterly,
The wrong of law, the right of man, the natural truth,
Partaking not of selfish aims, withholding not
The word that strengthens and the hand that helps;
Who waits and sympathizes with the pettiest life,
And loves all things, and reaches up to God
With thanks and blessing - he alone is living.

Source | John Boyle O'Reilly, "Living," poem, in The Book of Irish American Poetry: from the Eighteenth Century to the Present , ed. Daniel Tobin (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
Creator | John Boyle O'Reilly
Item Type | Fiction/Poetry
Cite This document | John Boyle O'Reilly, “"Living",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 26, 2021,



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