Father Leonard Feeney
This collection of poems and other literary works of Father Feeney is not a complete collection, but a large one nonetheless. It includes almost all of four of his best books: Survival Till Seventeen, Fish on Friday, In Towns and Little Towns, and You’d Better Come Quietly, as well as some of his other works. You will rarely encounter another modern Catholic poet and writer with such depth of faith and dramatic power with words as Father Leonard Feeney. Frank Sheed, of Sheed & Ward, his original publisher and a well-known Catholic writer himself, once labeled him “America’s Chesterton”. Coming from a Catholic Englishman, that is a grand compliment indeed for an American Irishman!
“The priest more than a member of any other profession, understands human nature profoundly, and when this is coupled with literary ability, wittily and tolerantly presented, the product is truly delightful.” —Commonweal
“Father Feeney has… revealed the playfulness of his wit, the keenness of his observing eyes, the tenderness of his Irish heart . . .
and above all the dramatic power which is his…” —America
“We need more like him. His laughter is as light as his faith is deep.” —Boston Evening Transcript: under the heading “Favorite Poet”
THE AMERICAN ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW, Feb, 1944.
The Leonard Feeney Omnibus - A Collection of Prose and Verse Old and New
Most of the material in this Omnibus has been printed before. Yet the publishers have done the cause of American letters a considerable service in bringing out this collection. Certainly the years to come will see more extensive editions of Father Feeney’s works. We are fortunate in having this much now. This Omnibus, small though it is, is far more effective than little books and scattered articles in bringing us to appreciate the foremost man of letters in Catholic America.
His trained and gifted mind has caught what is best in our own life scene. The Omnibus shows us Catholic loyalty in a barber shop, the theological virtues on the Boston and Albany, apologetics on the New York, New Haven and Hartford, and God’s charity in Lynn and Paris. The things he saw are the things we all might have seen, and which we know better because he has seen them.
Father Feeney as an author we reverence and acclaim. However we are considerably less enthusiastic about his prowess as an editor. It is difficult in the extreme to pardon a man who left “The Brown Derby” out of a Leonard Feeney Omnibus.
Msgr. JOSEPH CLIFFORD FENTON
Here is the Brown Derby
Father Leonard Feeney wrote this letter of consolation to Governor Al Smith of New York who had just lost his bid for the presidency as the Democratic candidate running against Herbert Hoover in 1928. Before he died in 1944, Alfred Emmanuel Smith bequeathed his brown derby to Father Feeney. It is still in the possession of Saint Benedict Abbey in Still River Massachusetts, where Fr. Feeney died in 1978 and where he is buried. The Jesuit’s America magazine received more requests for reprints of this article than any other in its history. As a side note, the Mrs. Willebrand mentioned here was the main enforcer of the Volstead Act for the Federal governent and was roundly hated by those who did not like Prohibition. She was promised a promotion by Hoover which she never received, and so she quit the government. She went into private practice as a lawyer and eventually converted to the Catholic religion.
You are still, officially, the Governor of the State of New York, and I should not address you with so much informality. I have a dread of being indecorous, and I generally speak of you as “Governor Smith” even to members of my own family. But I am sure you will allow me the privilege of calling you “DearAl” even though your term in the mansion at Albany has not yet expired, when I tell you that I come from Massachusetts.
It goes without saying,Al, that we Catholics were a tremendous liability to you in your recent campaign. Politically, it hurt you to be one of us. It ruined you. If you could only have disowned us somehow, if you had only soft-pedaled the fact that you go to Mass on Sundays, if you had only snubbed a few Catholic priests in public, or if you had come out with some diatribe against nuns and Religious Orders, or something of that sort, nice and compromising, you could have had the White House, garage and all, for the asking.
We are sorry that you have been so humiliated on our account. We are wholly to blame, Al, and we know it. But, if you remember, we told you it would be that way.We told you what it would cost to be a Catholic: the insults, the ingratitude, and the misunderstanding. We didn’t stand by you in the campaign. There wasn’t a word in your favor uttered in our pulpits. You stood by us. You wouldn’t desert or disown us no matter how much it cost you. You learned long ago in Sunday school the meaning of a little emblem we always carry close to our hearts. It is a crucifix, and on it is transfixed another Happy Warrior who was welcomed by the crowds in Galilee and Judea in His day. He had His Palm Sunday, too. But when they balloted to see whether He should live or die, all the votes were against Him.
We are not bitter,Al, over your defeat. If we were a bitter lot, you would have left us long ago, for you are yourself incapable of any bitterness. “It’s all right,” you said, “don’t mind me,” when they told you that the game was up and the solid South had been broken.
There are a number of incidents in connection with your defeat which I could enumerate in order to console you, if I thought you needed to be consoled.Maybe you didn’t hear about the band of little boys on our street who had saved all their fireworks from the Fourth of July, to celebrate your victory; and they had to throw them into the river because you weren’t elected President. Maybe you didn’t hear, either, about the man who tends our railroad crossing, who was found weeping in his shack the night you went down to defeat. I could tell you also about the convent of cloistered nuns who made a novena, not that you would be elected (for it doesn’t make much difference to them who is President, as long as he lets them say their prayers), but in order that you wouldn’t be assassinated. They were afraid someone would hurt you, Al, and even to their innocent and unworldly hearts you were utterly precious. I might mention, too, the old lady who stayed up till three o’clock, the morning after the election, saying her rosary and begging the Blessed Mother of God “not to let Al get broken-hearted.” The night of November sixth was a night of sixteen million tragedies, and it may cheer you, Al, to know that when you went to bed that night, you did not lie awake alone.
For all that we hurt you.Al; for all that we kept you out of the White House—and we did—there was one thing we gave you which we alone could give.We gave you the Brown Derby. That is our triumph, and that is our joy. The Brown Derby is ours, and if you were not a Catholic, you would never have thought of it in your hours of success. It was something more than a political slogan. It was an emblem of a heart touched by the light of Faith, of one who, in the sight of the God above him, refused to take himself too seriously. Because you are a Catholic, Al, you can fathom the Divine humor of the universe, and man’s rightful and puny place therein. Because you are a Catholic, you can see the ultimate purpose of things, the trivialities of time; and you were able to realize that life at its wildest and most exciting moment is nothing more than a bauble and a toy in relation to the eternal destiny for which we are intended.And when they made all but a god of you (and no man in the memory of man was ever heralded with such enthusiasm and wild acclaim as you were), you did not assume the seriousness of a Napoleon and swagger and lord it over the human masses cheering at your feet; you did not put on the heroic attitude of a Caesar and cry out “Bring me my crown; I feel immortal longings in me!”; in the simplicity of your heart you waved the Brown Derby in the face of the world. It was a Catholic’s appraisal of the greatness of this life, and his humble gesture to eternity.
There is something else, Al, for which we Catholics may take credit.You have probably forgotten the incident altogether, but the newspaper reporter at your elbow put it down in black and white. They say you do not read many books and are not overfamiliar with the works of great literature. Nevertheless,Al, you uttered the most poignantly tragic line I have ever read since the day I closed my Homer and left old Priam standing over the dead body of Hector, in the final tragedy of the Iliad. The newspaper says you were sitting at the radio and listening to the last reports of the balloting on election night. One by one, over the air, the returns kept coming in, and it finally dawned on you and all your friends about you that the Republican cyclone had burst and had dashed all your hopes to the ground. “I guess it’s all over, Governor,” said one mournful voice at your side. “Yes,” you said, “it’s all over as far as politics is concerned. But remember, this is Katie’s birthday. Let’s all go upstairs and cut the cake.” Al, that line is a masterpiece. It is tremendous, unforgettable, freighted with the poetry of Catholic life. “This is Katie’s birthday. Let’s all go upstairs and cut the cake.” For that one line at such a moment, when Napoleon might have gone mad, or Caesar taken his own life with a spear, Shakespeare would have taken you to his heart forever. For that one line we Catholics are proudest, and God Himself is most grateful. It is your title to greatness forever.
From now, Al, I hope you will be left alone.You have given your fellow countrymen enough free happiness; let them now find out how to be happy for themselves. From now on Dr. Cannon, Mrs.Willebrandt, the eruditeMr.Marshall, SenatorMoses, the Ku Klux Klan, the Anti-Saloon League, the Fellowship Forum,Mr.Will Rogers and hisVolsteadian1 humor (one-half of one per cent!), the Honorable Heflin, and everyone else who was so anxious to protectAmerica from you will let you live your life with your family in peace and contentment. There will be no more prying into the secrets of your household, no more scrutinizing of your literary, cultural, racial, social, political, and religious deficiencies. From now on there will be calm and comfort and peace.You can sing “The Sidewalks of NewYork” 2 at your own fireside with your own little family about you. If you choose to smoke cigars and spit into a cuspidor, that is your business.You can even wear suspenders if your comfort so dictates and “ain’t” and “don’t” will be forgiven among your friends. Nobody will hold the Fulton Fish Market against you; nobody will break into a guffaw at the mention of Oliver Street. You can dance and sing to your heart’s content, and next year on November sixth, there will be another cake for “Katie’s birthday.”
If sometimes you ever grow wistful, and there crowd back on you the memories of what might have been if you hadn’t been one of us; if there ever creeps into your heart the feeling of remorse and regret, put on the Brown Derby we gave you,Al, and go out and look up at the stars.
1 Andrew John Volstead was a ten-term U.S. representative from Minnesota. He was the originator of the Volstead Act, officially the National
Prohibition Act of 1919.
2 This was Al Smith’s campaign theme song.
This book contains the things I like best of all I have written up til 1943. It does not contain the things I hope to write from now
on. And so, though it is called an “omnibus,” it is not to be taken as an “obituary.”
My publishers have been very kind in letting me make my own choices. A number of things have been omitted, over protest of my friends. But a poet—if such I be—must ultimately be his own critic, his own chooser. It is one of the few freedoms left a man in this merciless age.
I am not, as one critic has kindly suggested, “a poet of many personalities.” I am a poet of one personality who has had many moods. I realize I could have made a much greater reputation for myself if I had written everything in one groove. But in this matter I took a cue from God the Father—who is the poet, the maker, in God—and who could have made a much greater reputation for Himself if He had made the lion and omitted the mosquito.
Other than this, I offer no apologies.
L. F. August 6th, 1943.
Fish on Friday
A Madonna of the Kitchen
Little Slipper Street
This Little Thing
Instructions for Meeting Mrs. Nolan
The Problem Mind
A Sympathetic Summary
You’d Better Come Quietly
The Blessed Sacrament Explained to Barbara
Do Not Go to Bethlehem to Find the Obvious
Dialogue With an Angel
The Blessed Trinity Explained to Thomas Butler
The Metaphysics of Chesterton
Two Who Should Be Friends
How You Lost Your Faith
The Catholic and His Priest
The Menace of Puns
Notes on Names
Water at Work
Fortitude et Laetitia
The Old Man
Survival Till Seventeen
Gentlemen With a Grudge
Design for a Grecian Urn
Lesson from the Little Mosquito
Wing Lee, Hand Laundry
Heaven in a Pond
The Poets and the Mystics
The Imagination Guy
Farewell Without Tears
The First Command
Sun and Moon
After the Shower
Four Apostrophes to Silence
I Burned My Bridges
Virgin Most Prudent
After the Little Elevation
Advice to Verse-Makers
In the Antiques Shop
Resignation at Midnight
Something Within Me
Song For A Listener
Metaphysics in the Marketplace
After This, Our Exile
Love Is a Loyalty
The Way of the Cross
The Creature Feature
The Devil’s Man
To an Infant
Stanzas for the Unastonishable
Reflection on a Flea
The Piano Tuner
A Prayer for Protestants
St. Joseph’s Christmas
Warning to Contemplatives
The Mistress of Novices
O Love Ave Verum Corpus Natum
Buzz, a Book Review
A few poems...
Perfume and petal
That test love’s mettle
With too much ease.
Bramble and briar
Will soon discover
Who is the liar
And who the lover.
I saw a donkey at a fair
When sounds and songs were in the air;
But he no note interpreted
Of what the people sang or said.
Hitched by a halter to a rail,
He twitched his ears and twirled his tail;
In every lineament and line
He was completely asinine.
Though I had heard in local halls
Some eulogies on animals,
I thought it would be utter blindness
To show him any sort of kindness.
It seemed to me that God had meant
To make him unintelligent,
And wanted us to keep our places,
I in my clothes, he in his traces.
And so I turned my mind to things
Like banners, balls, balloons and rings,
For which I had to pay my share
And went on purpose to a fair.
But down the mid-ways while I went
On all the pageantry intent,
I stopped, and started to remember
A little stable in December,
Battered by wind and swathed in snow,
Nearly two thousand years ago,
When one poor creature like to this
Saw Mary give her Child a kiss.
So back I sauntered to the rail,
And stared at him from head to tail,
And gave his cheek a little pat,
And simply let it go at that.
The Way of the Cross
Along the dark aisles
Of a chapel dim,
The little lame girl
Drags her withered limb.
And all alone she searches
The shadows on the walls,
To find the three pictures
Where Jesus falls.
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