Fr. Abram J. Ryan Archive
........Essay: Poetics, Politics, and the Fr. Abram J. Ryan Archive

To appreciate the unusual legacy of Fr. Abram J. Ryan, consider the following questions: How many 19th century American poets continue to be discussed both in doctoral dissertations and in the popular press? How many wrote poems that are read today on the floors of state legislatures, and quoted in the course of political debate? How many have had their names turned into active domains on the World Wide Web? How many are memorialized in multiple cities and states by plaques, statues, high schools, and even a bed & breakfast inn? Few American poets ever attract such a following. But Fr. Abram J. Ryan has and does.

Fr. Ryan’s life (1838-1886) and literary reputation became entangled in the complex knot of issues and emotions that surrounded the fate of the Confederacy. For the whole of his career, Fr. Ryan was principally known as the "Poet-Priest of the South." By contrast, poets of late 19th century New England enjoyed a relatively genteel support system, backed by Ivy League scholarship. While the South had its own early bastions of literary tradition, from Charleston to Chapel Hill, the evils of slavery and the travails of civil war seem for a time to have made poetry subservient to politics, scholarship subordinate to survival. Even by the time of Fr. Ryan's death, no college or university had been formally designated to house the poet's papers and shepherd his literary reputation.

Despite this, Fr. Ryan's readership has persisted. Now, more than a century after his death, the poet-priest's most famous poem, "The Conquered Banner," has re-entered public discourse through political debate over controversial decisions to fly or not fly the Confederate flag over southern state capitols. Partisans on both sides have invoked Fr. Ryan in support of their positions. A leader of the faction to fly the flag in South Carolina credited a reading of "The Conquered Banner" with having stirred his passion to spearhead the political cause. By contrast, Wallace K. Tomlinson, an Associate Dean at Tulane University, wrote to the New Orleans Clarion-Herald (a Catholic newspaper) on June 7, 2001, pointedly quoting some of the many lines from Ryan's poem that clearly called for the flag to be furled, not flown.

While scholarly discussion of Ryan and his works has also continued, there has been a long-standing dearth of Ryan scholarship based on original source material. But some material from Fr. Ryan’s life did survive in the form of an almost forgotten archive: a modest but interesting selection of the poet's handwritten letters, unpublished poems, autobiographical notes, and other memorabilia. These materials were first assembled by Sr. Mary Josephine Donnallan, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a young nun working on charitable causes, Sr. Donnallan met Fr. Ryan and corresponded with him until his death in 1886. Later, she gathered further items from Ryan's friends and relatives, especially his sister Eliza Ryan. Toward the end of her own life, Sr. Donnallan turned her collection over to Fr. Joseph McKey (probably around 1920) who further enlarged it through his own independent research. At some undetermined date, probably in the early 1930's, this archive was transferred to the campus of Belmont Abbey College (near Charlotte NC) where it remains to this day, in the Rare Books Collection of the Abbot Vincent Taylor Library.

The archive presents the researcher with a variety of resources, but also with a number of problems. Sr. Donnallan and Fr. McKey were energetic collectors, to be sure, but were not trained archivists. Their notebooks and scrapbooks contain a wide assortment of newspaper and magazine article clippings, for example, most of which were neatly trimmed so that no evidence of original dates, credits, or sources can be determined. Of those still carrying discernable dates, however, all appear to fall between 1880 and 1933. (Persons browsing this website who feel they have information about sources of articles, photographs, or other references are invited to contact the editor.) Thankfully, Sr. Donnallan never brought her scissors to bear on Fr. Ryan's original letters. Though only ten of his handwritten letters survive in this archive, at least they appear to have survived intact. However, Sr. Donnallan was also a tireless transcriber, and without her notebooks of handwritten transcriptions many of Fr. Ryan's unpublished poems and lectures would have been lost. In several instances we have been able to compare Sr. Donnallan's transcriptions with Fr. Ryan's original manuscripts, and in each case, her transcription has proven to be accurate and complete.

The core of the archive’s contents consists of letters, unpublished poems, articles, lectures, sermons, and autobiographical notes. Many appear to have the potential to shed significant new light on Abram J. Ryan the man, and to provide a more balanced and nuanced view of his poetics and politics. Through the assistance of an LSTA Digitization Starter Grant, our scanning of these archives is proceeding on two levels. First, every item in the archive is being inventoried and saved as a high-quality scan on CD-ROM. In addition, a fraction of these images are being converted to downloadable size for this exhibition website. Preference will be given to documents that appear to provide significant new information about Fr. Abram J. Ryan’s life and work.

Our website priorities include: 1. Documents that relate to Fr. Ryan’s writing, including unpublished poems, comments about poets and poetry, descriptions of his approach to writing, and contemporary accounts of his lectures and readings. 2. Documents that relate to Fr. Ryan’s wartime experiences, such as letters to family and friends, discussion of his political views, and excerpts from lectures and sermons that recount social concerns or historical events. 3. Documents that provide other biographical or philosophical content previously overlooked. Let me briefly illustrate with a few examples that may show how items scanned for this website relate to these priorities, and how they may in turn reshape future views of Fr. Ryan.

Partisans of the "Southern cause" have often portrayed Ryan in one-dimensional terms as a booster of all things Confederate. The following blast of rhetoric delivered by one admirer is typical:

"The blood of patriots filled the Ryan's veins. When the South called her sons to arms, they were among the first to answer her appeal. David [Fr. Ryan's brother] girt his sword to battle for her honor and right. Abram donned cassock and stole--chaplain to the Eighth Tennessee! And never during that long and bloody struggle did either swerve from duty's path…"

But the reality appears to have been more subtle and complex, though perhaps more humanly inspiring. Researchers browsing this website will find a brief but memorable letter to his mother and sister written well after the onset of hostilities (Sept. 19, 1864), from Edgefield, Tennessee:

"This country is in an awful state. We had a battle eight miles from here a few weeks ago & Confederate soldiers swarm through the state. They are going to arm everybody here & put them in the union army next week. Of course priests are not exempt. But a great many Catholic young men are going south to join the Rebels. They ask me to go with them. I may go as chaplain. But I shall wait to see what will be the result of the draft here."

These lines convey a mixed and complex set of motivations, but hardly a boundless enthusiasm to enlist. Fr. McKey, in years of research, was unable to find documentation of Ryan's formal enlistment or conscription into the army of the Confederacy. Fr. Ryan most definitely had "free-lanced" as a semi-official chaplain for the Eighth Tennessee before the above letter was written, and in November 1863 had witnessed the defeat of Bragg's army at Missionary Ridge (described below). Bragg's main force had then retreated southward to regroup near Dalton, Georgia, but various Confederate units still fought rear-guard skirmishes against the Union army in Tennessee. These events set the stage for the confused situation Ryan describes in his letter of Sept. 1864. And how much was he motivated by a ministerial sense of duty to those Catholic young men who were already heading south and imploring him to join them?

Other letters to his mother and sister give us glimpses into Ryan's personal bravery, spiritual resilience, and depth of faith. Fr. Ryan writes of his hardships from unflinching personal experience, as in his note of April 7, 1865:

"I have had an accident lately on a train down here…The train was flung from the track by guerillas and then attacked by them. Many were shot--several hurt--nearly all robbed. I was neither shot - hurt - or robbed. They never hurt me- I am enjoying very good health-- at last it is final that I must go to Knoxville--We expect days of terror in Tennessee this spring and summer--You must excuse my haste-My love to all-"

The days of terror did indeed arrive in Tennessee and elsewhere, as the miseries of war never really ended but merely flowed into the miseries of postwar privation. These were times of pestilence--especially cholera and yellow fever. Through it all Fr. Ryan preached his sermons, administered the rites and rituals of his faith, and wrote his poetry.

Life is a burden; bear it:
Life is a duty; dare it:
Life is a thorn-crown; wear it,
Though it break your heart in twain;
Though the burden crush you down;
Close your lips and hide the pain,
First the cross, and then the crown.

These lines frame a persistant aspect of Fr. Ryan's personality: he constantly assured friends and relatives (particularly his mother) that he enjoyed excellent health. But all the objective evidence points toward repeated bouts with one or more chronic serious ailments, starting just after the war and lasting until his death. A Boston reporter who interviewed him in the early 1880's wrote that Fr Ryan, known then to be in his forties, looked older than sixty. Ryan's ministerial duties certainly had exposed him to cholera and yellow fever. His letter of August 3, 1866, describes a ride from Knoxville to Chattanooga (112 miles) on a sick call, arriving just in time to administer sacraments to a dying man. He then writes of his plans for the following day:

"Tomorrow evening I must go on horseback 26 miles to baptize two babies. And after my return I must go by Rail-Road 132 miles to Bristol in Virginia to say Mass and preach on Sunday…Times are very hard. Crops have failed--there is scarce any money--Many are suffering great want--and there the country is becoming again very troubled--robberies-- murders--riots are again the order of the day."

The archive gives evidence of the privation in images as well as words. The sequence of photographs and prints assembled on this website shows his life’s transformation: a sensitive but composed young priest in Image 1; a haggard witness to human suffering in Image 5; a seemingly robust but somber man of letters in Image 8. Much of that sobriety no doubt grew from his experiences as battlefield chaplain, where he literally waded through carnage and death. Again, the archive gives unique insights, especially through an article printed in an 1890's (ca.) edition of The New World, an early Catholic journal. (We know this source because Sr. Donnallan scissored away only the top half of the journal title). The article was written retrospectively by a correspondent sent from London to cover the American Civil War. Identified only by the initials M.B.G., he encountered Fr. Ryan at the Battle of Lookout Mountain, (and Missionary Ridge) Tennessee:

"All afternoon the terrible battle raged. The thickets, the slopes, were covered with the dead and the dying. At last God in His mercy let the curtain of night fall on this horrible scene. What a terrible sight! The living men were resting within a few rods from each other on the line of battle, waiting till the sun will tinge with gold the eastern clouds to begin the work of destruction again. All around them lay the ghastly faces of their dead comrades. Their ears were smitten with the piteous moans of the wounded…From an ambulance squad I learned that Father Ryan was administering to the wounded in the battlefield. I found him…I approached and grasped his hand. He did not recognize me. He appeared as if he had lost the human, that the spiritual alone had possessed him. "Oh! Gracious God!" he exclaimed, "will not this sacrifice satisfy thy wrath. Look with pity on thy erring people."

The same article affords further insight into the poet-priest's evolving political sensibilities. Fr. Ryan’s own poems tell us very little about his views on slavery, for example, and the subject is conspicuously absent from those letters that found their way into Sr. Donnallan's notebooks. But the London correspondent took special notice in his battlefield reporting:

"Father Ryan's name was on the lips of every soldier in Bragg's army and it was always coupled with a benediction. Protestant, infidel, and Jew, all loved this benevolent Catholic priest. They knew, though he opposed the system of human slavery, he dearly loved the southland."

The evidence indicates that Fr. Ryan opposed slavery, and made no secret of his opposition, even among soldiers in a Confederate battle-camp. But he also opposed what he apparently saw as the North's prosecution of the war, either as a method of abolition or to thwart seccession, and he seems to have deeply resented the powers in Washington DC responsible for waging it. The letters in our archive predating Lincoln's presidency were signed with Fr. Ryan's given name of "Abraham." But the wartime and post-war correspondence--even to his own mother— usually carried the altered version "Abram," or simply "A. J."

The same article contains a deeper hint, perhaps, into one source of Fr. Ryan's sympathies toward the South. When the London correspondent first came to the Lookout Mountain camp, just prior to the battle described above, he was escorted to the chaplain's tent:

"...Two men were seated inside on a rough bench. One …arose to greet me and I grasped the hand of the poet priest of the South-- Father Ryan. His companion also arose, he was strong of stature, with eyes whose darkness could flash with defiance, and on his lips, scorn had made permanent abode. It was John Mitchell, the Irish patriot, and English felon."

The story of John Mitchell, the "English felon," is too long to recount here. But other hints of a long-standing acquaintance between Fr. Ryan and the Irish patriot Mitchell can be found elsewhere, both within and beyond the archive. For example, when a lecture by John Mitchell on the Irish situation was published in a book called "Froude's Crusade: Both Sides" in 1872, it was accompanied by a poem from Fr. Ryan entitled "Erin's Flag." The date is significant, because Ryan's first poetry collection would not be published until 1879, meaning that Mitchell may have first learned of the poem from Ryan himself, perhaps even at the Lookout Mountain camp. This poem describes a battle for Ireland in imagery strikingly similar to Ryan's depiction of the battles for the South in "The Conquered Banner."

That never! no, never! that banner should yield
As long as the heart of a Celt was its shield:
While the hand of a Celt had a weapon to wield
And his last drop of blood was unshed on the field.
Lift it up! wave it high! 'tis as bright as of old!
Not a stain on its green, not a blot on its gold,
Tho' the woes and the wrongs of three hundred long years
Have drenched Erin's sunburst with blood and with tears!
Though the clouds of oppression enshroud it in gloom,
And around it the thunders of Tyranny boom.

Fr. Ryan's parents were natives of Limerick, Ireland, and for many years a popular legend persisted that the poet-priest himself had hailed from Limerick. But the archive convincingly establishes that Abraham J. Ryan was born after his parents had emigrated to America. The weight of evidence indicates that he was born in Norfolk VA, and taken to St. Mary's Church in Hagarstown MD for baptism.

After the war, regardless of political motivations or personal bitterness, Fr. Ryan reached for, preached for, and wrote about reconciliation between North and South. This was not an easy transition. The bitterness stemmed from the battlefield death of his brother, David. The political motivations grew from his efforts after the war to justify and legitimize the ideology of the "Lost Cause." But a gradual but steady sea-change clearly began with his collection of poems. First published in Mobile, Alabama in 1879, the book met with widespread popularity beyond the south, and was repeatedly reprinted in Baltimore, including the editions of 1880, 83, 87, and 96 illustrated on this website, earning an estimated $1,300,000 in royalties. By the end of the century President William McKinley was reading Ryan's poetry aloud in the White House, and Joseph Pulizter had written a check to build a Ryan memorial. Several of Ryan's poems were set to music, and at least four were published nationally as popular songs.

By his early forties, Fr. Ryan had become an immensely popular lecturer, travelling to speaking engagements and religious occasions across the Northeast and Midwest, even venturing to Canada and Mexico. One Canadian witness to a Ryan appearance in 1883 describes the experience thus:

Father Ryan is a man apparently fifty years of age. He allows his hair to grow long. His eye is clear, bright, and penetrating; his carriage erect and commanding; his voice musical, plaintive, and pathetic, when not roused to express a feeling of severity. The lines of his mouth denote firmness of character; his head is well-shaped, and his brow is expressive of intelligence. Dressed in the cassock and surplice of the priesthood, he moved deliberately to and fro in front of the altar, inside the railings, and from the moment his first words were heard until the close of the lecture, the utmost interest was manifested by his audience. His style of delivery is not of that order which is ever surprising by glowing climaxes, but, on the contrary, is of that calm, dispassionate, conversational order, which wins by its simplicity and convinces by its earnestness. His language is replete with poetic imagery and well-chosen epigrams.

Both the sermons and unpublished poems in the archive give ample evidence of Fr. Ryan's long search for spiritual and national healing. Perhaps the most poignant is an unpublished poem written two years before his death, "Requiem Chant to the Federal Dead." Like many poems of Ryan's later years, it was written for public ceremony. But this seems to have held special significance for Fr. Ryan, perhaps because the ceremony was the 1884 Memorial Day placing of a wreath on graves of Union soldiers. The archive contains two slightly different versions of the poem, one transcribed by Sr. Donnallan in her own handwriting, and another typed by Fr. McKey from an original not yet located. The existence of two versions indicates that Ryan, who often dashed out improvised verses from the top of his head, attached special importance to this poem, and spent time revising and polishing it. By Memorial Day, Fr. Ryan had become too ill to attend the ceremony, and his poem was recited by Miss Nannie Brown. In the following excerpt from this last poem of reconciliation and national unity (Fr. McKey's version), Ryan significantly recast the imagery of "The Conquered Banner:"

Wearers of Blue who rest in the grave,
I of the Gray today chant your dirge.
In the battle's red surge your bright lives were wrecked;
Never a wave that hath not been flecked
By the whitest of foam a-crowning its crest.
The banner is furled that waved o'er the Gray;
The banner still waves that flashed o'er the Blue!
And this sacred day you bring to still graves
Sweet flowers of May to crown the dead braves
Who saved from the Gray the Union for you.
Both the Blue and the Gray. Each grave is so calm!
Their still voices blend in a beautiful psalm:
"Let all hatreds end! From the bright golden shore
We cry to the world, Be brothers once more!
One banner is furled, the other still waves
O'er us and the braves; and from far away
We, the Blue and the Gray-- ah, together we pray
Let never hand sever from the Flag a bright star.
We pray from afar that every red bar
Forever shall float,--- aye, forever!"

We are left with a final question: what is Ryan's ultimate stature among American poets? I am tempted to avoid the issue altogether, for it is a question no archive or archivist can finally resolve. But I feel I should offer at least an informed opinion, if only so that the reader of these archives should be aware of the editor's personal viewpoint.

Ryan's poetry is uneven, and their uneven quality seems apparent within many poems as well as among them. There are unquestionably lines, and often entire stanzas, of undeniable beauty and strength, intermingled with lines and stanzas that seem prosaic and repetitive. Ryan's own preface to his collection declares that his verses "were written at random.—off and on,—here,—there,—anywhere,—just when the mood came, with little of study and less of art,—and always in a hurry.”

Ryan's least effective poems, perhaps a third of his total output, seem typical of the sentimental versification that filled 19th century popular journals. These poems remind me of the lesser work of the Carey sisters-- Alice and Phoebe. One stanza from Alice's poem "Pictures of Memory" should suffice to describe the genre:

Of all the beautiful pictures
That hang on Memory's wall,
Tis one of a dim old forest
That seemeth the best of all.

For more than a century, it has been fashionable to denigrate this sort of "Victorian greeting card" verse. But perhaps we judge it too harshly. Sitting in the high-tech comforts of 2003, it is easy for us to forget the hardships our 19th century forbears struggled through, and overlook the emotional solace they must have drawn from reading comforting verses by candlelight. Fr. Ryan's poem "Sorrow and the Flowers" (actually a sequence of shorter poems) is one of his finest of this type, with two sections in particular rising above the mundane:

Wild Flower

I would not live in a garden,
But far from the haunts of men;
Nature herself was my warden,
I lived in a lone little glen.
A wild flower out of the wildwood,
Too wild for even a name;
As strange and as simple as childhood,
And wayward, yet sweet all the same.

White Rose

Her grave is not a grave; it is a shrine
Where innocence reposes,
Bright over which God's stars must love to shine,
And where, when Winter closes,
Fair Spring shall come, and in her garland twine,
Just like this hand of mine,
The whitest of white roses.

Fr. Ryan wrote another group of poems composed of sterner stuff. This group includes his most famous martial poems like "The Conquered Banner," where he composes urgent rhetoric encased in strident verse. While sometimes bombastic, the poems nevertheless succeed because Ryan's strong sense of meter conveys the drumbeat of his witness to authentic military campaigns, while his priest's heart stays attuned to the realities of human pain and sacrifice. Gordon Weaver, in his introduction to a 1974 edition of Ryan's poetry, described Ryan's skilled use of prosody in "The Conquered Banner." Another especially interesting poem, "In Rome," brings the Roman martial tradition back full circle to Fr. Ryan's religious and historical frame of reference. This poem, excerpted below, also includes one of his very few poetic references to slavery:

There soldiers stood with armor on,
In steel-clad ranks and serried,
The while their red swords flashed upon
The slaves whose rights they buried.
Here pagan pride, with sceptre, stood,
And fame would not forsake it,
Until a simple cross of wood
Came from the East to break it.
That Rome is dead -- here is the grave --
Dead glory rises never;
And countless crosses o'er it wave,
And will wave on forever.
Beyond the Tiber gleams a dome
Above the hill-tops seven;
It arches o'er the world from Rome,
And leads the world to Heaven.

There is yet another group of poems that give voice to an entirely different sensibility, where Fr. Ryan the priest muses on the mysteries of consciousness, death, and divinity. One of these poems, "The Song of the Mystic," became almost as famous in Ryan's lifetime as "The Conquered Banner," but other poems of this type have remained neglected. This is unfortunate, because these poems include some interesting variations on his normal use of imagery, meter, and form. To be sure, these experiments are still very traditionalist. In his prosody, Fr. Ryan is never as adventurous as Whitman, or as subversive as Dickinson. But these departures still show that Fr. Ryan could be more than a competent versifier. One example is "The Seen and the Unseen," a poem almost Emersonian in tone, but with a pastoral voice that may remind one of William Cullen Bryant:

Nature is but the outward vestibule
Which God has placed before an unseen shrine,
The Visible is but a fair, bright vale
That winds around the great Invisible;
The Finite -- it is nothing but a smile
That flashes from the face of Infinite;

As the poem proceeds, Ryan mutes the dominant iambic meter just enough to hear subtler resonances in the language. In normal iambic pentameter, phrase structure is arranged so that weakly stressed and strongly stressed syllables fall into an alternating pattern: w s w s w s w s w s, as epitomized by the first line of Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. But in the following lines from Fr. Ryan's poem, notice how every reference to God features a strongly stressed syllable in a weak position: His word, His voice, His name, His holy. This structural hiding of stressed syllables in unstressed positions of the meter beautifully plays to the poem’s theme of immanent divinity subtly residing within the very fabric of reality:

For nature is His word so strangely writ
In heav'n, in all the letters of the stars,
Beneath the stars in alphabets of clouds,
And on the seas in syllables of waves,
And nature is His voice; who list may hear
His name low-murmured every -- everywhere.
In songs of birds, in rustle of the flowers,
In swaying of the trees, and on the seas
The blue lips of the wavelets tell the ships
That come and go, His holy, holy name.

In conclusion, I would agree with Robert Bain, whose 1996 anthology "Whitman and Dickinson's Contemporaries: An Anthology of Their Verse" places Fr. Ryan among a group of poets that included Emerson, Bryant, and Whittier. But his poetic vision was lofty and his life, though troubled and sometimes controversial, was lived to an ultimately noble end. These facts, plus his unique historical role in the arena of our greatest national struggle, will give his best verse a measure of endurance, I suspect, that may outlast many of his contemporaries.

Donald Beagle
Director of Library Services
Belmont Abbey College