November 9, 2012

O'Reilly: Boston chastened by fire

The flames began in the early evening of Saturday, November 9, 1872, before raging out of control. Slightly delayed by a lack of horses, the fire brigades of Boston were slow to put out the fire, which soon became one of the greatest conflagrations of the century. The Great Boston Fire, as it came to be known, came only a year after a similar one in Chicago. The event laid to waste 65 acres with nearly 800 buildings destroyed, and an estimate $150 million in damage.

Boston emigrant John Boyle O'Reilly was particularly moved by the devastation. He wrote a poem simply titled "Boston" (he had already written a poem about Chicago and, even earlier, about the tragic flood in western Massachusetts), questioning the role God has played in using fire to teach Bostonians a lesson:

O Broad-breasted Queen among Nations!
     O Mother, so strong in thy youth!
Has the Lord looked upon thee in ire,
And willed thou be chastened by fire,
     Without any ruth?

Has the Merciful tired of His mercy.
     And turned from thy sinning in wrath,
That the world with raised hand sees and pities
Thy desolate daughters, thy cities,
     Despoiled on their path?

One year since thy youngest was stricken:
     Thy eldest lies stricken to-day.
Ah! God, was Thy wrath without pity,
To tear the strong heart from our city,
     And cast it away?

O Father! forgive us our doubting;
     The stain from our weak souls efface;
Thou rebukest, we know, but to chasten,
Thy hand has but fallen to hasten
     Return to Thy grace.

Let us rise purified from our ashes
     As sinners have risen who grieved;
Let us show that twice-sent desolation
On every true heart in the nation
     Has conquest achieved.

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