The poems of Abram J. Ryan, better known as Father Ryan, are unambitious. The poet modestly wished to call them only verses; and, as he tells us, they "were written at random,—off and on, here, there, anywhere,—just as the mood came, with little of study and less of art, and always in a hurry." His poems do not exhibit a painstaking, polished art. They are largely emotional outpourings of a heart that readily found expression in fluent, melodious lays. The poet-priest understood their character too well to assign them a very high place in the realm of song; yet the wish he expressed, that they might echo from heart to heart, has been fulfilled in no small degree. In Sentinel Songs he says:—
"I sing with a voice too low
To be heard beyond to-day,
In minor keys of my people's woe,
But my songs pass away.
"To-morrow hears them not—
To-morrow belongs to fame—
My songs, like the birds', will be forgot,
And forgotten shall be my name.
"And yet who knows? Betimes
The grandest songs depart,
While the gentle, humble, and low-toned rhymes
Will echo from heart to heart."
But few facts are recorded of Father Ryan's life. The memoir and the critique prefixed to the latest edition of his poems but poorly fulfill their design. Besides the absence of detail, there is an evident lack of taste and breadth of view. The poet's ecclesiastical relation is unduly magnified; and the invidious comparisons made and the immoderate laudation expressed are far from agreeable. But we are not left wholly at a loss. With the few recorded facts of his life as guide, the poems of Father Ryan become an interesting and instructive autobiography. He was a spontaneous singer whose inspiration came, not from distant fields of legend, history, science, but from his own experience; and it is not difficult to read there a romance, or rather a tragedy, which imparts a deep pathos to his life. His interior life, as reflected in his poems, is all of good report, in no point clashing with the moral excellence befitting the priestly office.
Abram J. Ryan was born in Norfolk, Virginia, August 15, 1839, whither his parents, natives of Ireland, had immigrated not long before. He possessed the quick sensibilities characteristic of the Celtic race; and his love for Ireland is reflected in a stout martial lyric entitled Erin's Flag:—
"Lift it up! lift it up! the old Banner of Green!
The blood of its sons has but brightened its sheen;
What though the tyrant has trampled it down,
Are its folds not emblazoned with deeds of renown?"
When he was seven or eight years old, his parents removed to St. Louis. He is said to have shown great aptitude in acquiring knowledge; and his superior intellectual gifts, associated with an unusual reverence for sacred things, early indicated the priesthood as his future vocation. In the autobiographic poem, Their Story Runneth Thus, we have a picture of his youthful character. With a warm heart, he had more than the changefulness of the Celtic temperament. In his boyhood, as throughout his maturity, he was strangely restless. As he says himself:—
"The boy was full of moods.
Upon his soul and face the dark and bright
Were strangely intermingled. Hours would pass
Rippling with his bright prattle—and then, hours
Would come and go, and never hear a word
Fall from his lips, and never see a smile
Upon his face. He was so like a cloud
With ever-changeful hues."
When his preliminary training was ended, he entered the Roman Catholic seminary at Niagara, New York. He was moved to the priesthood by a spirit of deep consecration. The writer of his memoir dwells on the regret with which he severed the ties binding him to home. No doubt he loved and honored his parents. But there was a still stronger attachment, which, broken by his call to the priesthood, filled all his subsequent life with a consecrated sorrow. It was his love for Ethel:—
"A fair, sweet girl, with great, brown, wond'ring eyes
That seemed to listen just as if they held
The gift of hearing with the power of sight."
The two lovers, forgetting the sacredness of true human affection, had, with equal self-abnegation, resolved to give themselves to the church, she as a nun and he as a priest. He has given a touching picture of their last meeting:—
"One night in mid of May their faces met
As pure as all the stars that gazed on them.
They met to part from themselves and the world.
Their hearts just touched to separate and bleed;
Their eyes were linked in look, while saddest tears
Fell down, like rain, upon the cheeks of each:
They were to meet no more. Their hands were clasped
To tear the clasp in twain; and all the stars
Looked proudly down on them, while shadows knelt,
Or seemed to kneel, around them with the awe
Evoked from any heart by sacrifice.
And in the heart of that last parting hour
Eternity was beating. And he said:
'We part to go to Calvary and to God—
This is our garden of Gethsemane;
And here we bow our heads and breathe His prayer
Whose heart was bleeding, while the angels heard:
Not my will, Father! but Thine be done!'"
The Roman Catholic training and faith of Father Ryan exerted a deep influence upon his poetry. His ardent studies in the ancient languages and in scholastic theology naturally withdrew his mind, to a greater or less degree, from intimate communion with Nature. His poetry is principally subjective. Nature enters it only in a subordinate way; its forms and sounds and colors do not inspire in him the rapture found in Hayne and Lanier. He not only treats of Scripture themes, as in St. Stephen, The Masters Voice, and A Christmas Chant, but he also finds subjects, not always happily, in distinctive Roman Catholic dogma. The Feast of the Assumption and The Last of May, both in honor of the Virgin Mary, are sufficiently poetic; but The Feast of the Sacred Heart is, in parts, too prosaically literal in its treatment of transubstantiation for any but the most believing and devout of Roman Catholics.
On the breaking out of the Civil War, Father Ryan entered the Confederate army as a chaplain, though he sometimes served in the ranks. In 1863 he ministered to the inmates of a prison in New Orleans during an epidemic of smallpox. His martial songs, The Sword of Robert Lee, The Conquered Banner, and March of the Deathless Dead, have been dear to many Southern hearts. He reverenced Lee as a peerless leader.
"Forth from its scabbard! How we prayed
That sword might victor be;
And when our triumph was delayed,
And many a heart grew sore afraid,
We still hoped on while gleamed the blade
Of noble Robert Lee.
"Forth from its scabbard all in vain
Bright flashed the sword of Lee;
'Tis shrouded now in its sheath again,
It sleeps the sleep of our noble slain,
Defeated, yet without a stain,
Proudly and peacefully."
After four years of brave, bitter sacrifice beneath the Confederate flag, words like the following appealed strongly to the men and women who loved The Conquered Banner:—
"Take that Banner down! 'tis tattered;
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered
Over whom it floated high.
Oh! 'tis hard for us to fold it;
Hard to think there's none to hold it;
Hard that those who once unrolled it
Now must furl it with a sigh.
"Furl that Banner! True, 'tis gory,
Yet 'tis wreathed around with glory.
And 'twill live in song and story,
Though its folds are in the dust:
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages—
Furl its folds though now we must."
Father Ryan's devotion to the South was intense. He long refused to accept the results of the war. The wrongs of the so-called Reconstruction period aroused his ardent indignation, and found expression in his song. In The Land We Love he says, with evident reference to those days:—
"Land where the victor's flag waves,
Where only the dead are the free!
Each link of the chain that enslaves,
But binds us to them and to thee."
But during the epidemic of yellow fever in 1878, his heart was touched by the splendid generosity of the North; and, surrendering his sectional prejudice and animosity, he wrote Reunited:—
"Purer than thy own white snow,
Nobler than thy mountains' height;
Deeper than the ocean's flow,
Stronger than thy own proud might;
O Northland! to thy sister land,
Was late thy mercy's generous deed and grand."
After the close of the Civil War, the restless temperament of the poet- priest asserted itself in numerous changes of residence. He was successively in Biloxi, Mississippi, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Augusta, Georgia. In the latter place he published for some three years the Banner of the South, a periodical that exerted no small influence on the thought of the state. In 1870 he became pastor of St. Mary's church in Mobile. Two years later he made a trip to Europe, of which we find interesting reminiscences in his poems. His visit to Rome was the realization of a long-cherished desire. He was honored with an audience by Pope Pius IX, of whom he has given a graphic sketch:—
"I saw his face to-day; he looks a chief
Who fears nor human rage, nor human guile;
Upon his cheeks the twilight of a grief,
But in that grief the starlight of a smile.
Deep, gentle eyes, with drooping lids that tell
They are the homes where tears of sorrow dwell;
A low voice—strangely sweet—whose very tone
Tells how these lips speak oft with God alone."
In Milan he was seriously ill. In his poem, After Sickness, we find an expression of his world-weariness and his longing for death:—
"I nearly died, I almost touched the door
That swings between forever and no more;
I think I heard the awful hinges grate,
Hour after hour, while I did weary wait
Death's coming; but alas! 'twas all in vain:
The door half opened and then closed again."
As a priest Father Ryan was faithful to his duties. But whether ministering at the altar or making the rounds of his parish, his spirit frequently found utterance in song. In 1880 he published a volume of poems, to which only a few additions were subsequently made. The keynote of his poetry is struck in the opening piece, Song of the Mystic. He dwelt much in the "Valley of Silence."
"Do you ask me the place of the Valley,
Ye hearts that are harrowed by care?
It lieth afar between mountains,
And God and His angels are there:
And one is the dark mount of Sorrow,
And one the bright mountain of Prayer."
The prevailing tone of Father Ryan's poems is one of sadness. His harp rarely vibrated to cheerful strains. What was the cause of this sadness? It may have been his keen sense of the tragic side of human life; it may have been the enduring anguish that came from the crucified love of his youth. The poet himself refused to tell. In Lines—1875, he says:—
"Go list to the voices of air, earth, and sea,
And the voices that sound in the sky;
Their songs may be joyful to some, but to me
There's a sigh in each chord and a sigh in each key,
And thousands of sighs swell their grand melody.
Ask them what ails them: they will not reply.
They sigh—sigh forever—but never tell why.
Why does your poetry sound like a sigh?
Their lips will not answer you; neither shall I."
Yet, in spite of the prevailing tone of sorrow and weariness, Father Ryan was no pessimist. He held that life has "more of sweet than gall"—
"For every one: no matter who—
Or what their lot—or high or low;
All hearts have clouds—but heaven's blue
Wraps robes of bright around each woe;
And this is truest of the true:
"That joy is stronger here than grief,
Fills more of life, far more of years,
And makes the reign of sorrow brief;
Gives more of smiles for less of tears.
Joy is life's tree—grief but its leaves."
Father Ryan conceived of the poet's office as something seerlike or prophetic. With him, as with all great poets, the message counted for more than do rhythm and rhyme. Divorced from truth, art seemed to him but a skeleton masque. He preferred those melodies that rise on the wings of thought, and come to human hearts with an inspiration of faith and hope. He regarded genuine poets as the high priests of Nature. Their sensitive spirits, holding themselves aloof from common things, habitually dwell upon the deeper mysteries of life in something of a morbid loneliness. InPoets he says:—
"They are all dreamers; in the day and night
Ever across their souls
The wondrous mystery of the dark or bright
In mystic rhythm rolls.
"They live within themselves—they may not tell
What lieth deepest there;
Within their breast a heaven or a hell,
Joy or tormenting care.
"They are the loneliest men that walk men's ways,
No matter what they seem;
The stars and sunlight of their nights and days
Move over them in dream."
With Wordsworth, or rather with the great Apostle to the Gentiles, he held that Nature is but the vesture of God, beneath which may be discerned the divine glory and love. The visible seemed to him but an expression of the invisible.
"For God is everywhere—and he doth find
In every atom which His hand hath made
A shrine to hide His presence, and reveal
His name, love, power, to those who kneel
In holy faith upon this bright below,
And lift their eyes, thro' all this mystery,
To catch the vision of the great beyond."
With this view of Nature, it was but natural that its sounds and forms— its birds and flowers—should inspire devotion. In St. Mary's, speaking of the songs and silences of Nature, he says:—
"God comes close to me here—
Back of ev'ry roseleaf there
He is hiding—and the air
Thrills with calls to holy prayer;
Earth grows far, and heaven near.
"Every single flower is fraught
With the very sweetest dreams,
Under clouds or under gleams
Changeful ever—yet meseems
On each leaf I read God's thought."
It can hardly be said that Father Ryan ever reaches far poetic heights. Neither in thought nor expression does he often rise above cultured commonplace. Fine artistic quality is supplanted by a sort of melodious fluency. Yet the form and tone of his poetry, nearly always in one pensive key, make a distinct impression, unlike that of any other American singer. "Religious feeling," it has been well said, "is dominant. The reader seems to be moving about in cathedral glooms, by dimly lighted altars, with sad procession of ghostly penitents and mourners fading into the darkness to the sad music of lamenting choirs. But the light which falls upon the gloom is the light of heaven, and amid tears and sighs, over farewells and crushed happiness, hope sings a vigorous though subdued strain." Having once caught his distinctive note of weary melancholy, we can recognize it among a chorus of a thousand singers. It is to his honor that he has achieved a distinctive place in American poetry.
His poetic craftsmanship is far from perfect. His artistic sense did not aspire to exquisite achievements. He delighted unduly in alliteration, assonance, and rhyming effects, all which he sometimes carried to excess. In the first stanza, for example, of The Conquered Banner, popular as it is, the rhyme effect seems somewhat overdone:—
"Furl that Banner, for 'tis weary;
Round its staff 'tis drooping dreary;
Furl it, fold it, it is best;
For there's not a man to wave it,
And there's not a sword to save it,
And there's not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it;
And its foes now scorn and brave it;
Furl it, hide it—let it rest."
Here and there, too, are unmistakable echoes of Poe, as in the following stanza from At Last:—
"Into a temple vast and dim,
Solemn and vast and dim,
Just when the last sweet Vesper Hymn
Was floating far away,
With eyes that tabernacled tears—
Her heart the home of tears—
And cheeks wan with the woes of years,
A woman went one day."
But in spite of these obvious defects, Father Ryan has been for years the most popular of Southern poets. His poems have passed through many editions, and there is still a large demand for them. They have something that outweighs their faults, and appeals strongly to the popular mind and heart. What is it? Perhaps it is impossible to answer this question fully. But in addition to the merits already pointed out, the work of Father Ryan is for the most part simple, spontaneous, and clear. It generally consists of brief lyrics devoted to the expression of a single mood or reflection. There is nothing in thought or style beyond the ready comprehension of the average reader. It does not require, as does the poetry of Browning, repeated and careful reading to render its meaning clear. It does not offend sensible people with its empty, overdone refinement. From beginning to end Father Ryan's poetry is a transparent casket, into which he has poured the richest treasures of a deeply sorrowing but noble Christian spirit.
Again, the pensive, moral tone of his poetry renders it attractive to many persons. He gives expression to the sad, reflective moods that are apt, especially in time of suffering or disappointment, to come to most of us. The moral sense of the American people is strong; and sometimes a comforting though commonplace truth from Nature is more pleasing than the most exquisite but superficial description of her beauties. How many have found solace in poems like A Thought:—
"The waving rose, with every breath
Scents carelessly the summer air;
The wounded rose bleeds forth in death
A sweetness far more rich and rare.
"It is a truth beyond our ken—
And yet a truth that all may read—
It is with roses as with men,
The sweetest hearts are those that bleed.
"The flower which Bethlehem saw bloom
Out of a heart all full of grace,
Gave never forth its full perfume
Until the cross became its vase."
Then again, the poet-priest, as was becoming his character, deals with the mysteries of life. Much of our recent poetry is as trifling in theme as it is polished in workmanship. But Father Ryan habitually brings before us the profounder and sadder aspects of life. The truths of religion, the vicissitudes of human destiny, the tragedy of death—these are the themes in which he finds his inspiration, and to which we all turn in our most serious moments. And though the strain in which he sings is attuned to tears, it is still illumined by a strength-giving faith and hope. When we feel weighed down with a sense of pitiless law, when fate seems to cross our holiest aspirations with a ruthless hand, he bids us be of good cheer.
"There is no fate—God's love
Is law beneath each law,
And law all laws above
Fore'er, without a flaw."
In 1883 Father Ryan, whose reputation had been established by his volume of poems, undertook a lecturing tour through the North in the interest of some charitable enterprise. At his best he was an eloquent speaker. But during the later years of his life impaired health interfered with prolonged mental effort. His mission had only a moderate degree of success. His sense of weariness deepened, and his eyes turned longingly to the life to come. In one of his later productions he said:—
"My feet are wearied, and my hands are tired,
My soul oppressed—
And I desire, what I have long desired—
* * * * *
"And so I cry a weak and human cry,
So heart oppressed;
And so I sigh a weak and human sigh
For rest—for rest."
At length, April 22, 1886, in a Franciscan monastery at Louisville, came the rest for which he had prayed. And in that higher life to which he passed, we may believe that he was welcomed by her to whom in youth he had given the tender name of Ullainee, and for whom, through all the years of a great sacrifice, his faithful heart had yearned with an inextinguishable human longing.