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Best Famous Oliver Wendell Holmes Poems

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by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Last Leaf

I saw him once before, 
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o'er the ground
With his cane.
They say that in his prime, Ere the pruning-knife of Time Cut him down, Not a better man was found By the Crier on his round Through the town.
But now he walks the streets, And looks at all he meets Sad and wan, And he shakes his feeble head, That it seems as if he said, "They are gone.
" The mossy marbles rest On the lips that he has prest In their bloom, And the names he loved to hear Have been carved for many a year On the tomb.
My grandmamma has said— Poor old lady, she is dead Long ago— That he had a Roman nose, And his cheek was like a rose In the snow; But now his nose is thin, And it rests upon his chin Like a staff, And a crook is in his back, And a melancholy crack In his laugh.
I know it is a sin For me to sit and grin At him here; But the old three-cornered hat, And the breeches, and all that, Are so queer! And if I should live to be The last leaf upon the tree In the spring, Let them smile, as I do now, At the old forsaken bough Where I cling.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Two Streams

 Behold the rocky wall 
That down its sloping sides 
Pours the swift rain-drops, blending, as they fall, 
In rushing river-tides! 
Yon stream, whose sources run 
Turned by a pebble's edge, 
Is Athabasca, rolling toward the sun 
Through the cleft mountain-ledge.
The slender rill had strayed, But for the slanting stone, To evening's ocean, with the tangled braid Of foam-flecked Oregon.
So from the heights of Will Life's parting stream descends, And, as a moment turns its slender rill, Each widening torrent bends, -- From the same cradle's side, From the same mother's knee, -- One to long darkness and the frozen tide, One to the Peaceful Sea!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Old Man Dreams

 OH for one hour of youthful joy!
Give back my twentieth spring!
I'd rather laugh, a bright-haired boy,
Than reign, a gray-beard king.
Off with the spoils of wrinkled age! Away with Learning's crown! Tear out life's Wisdom-written page, And dash its trophies down! One moment let my life-blood stream From boyhood's fount of flame! Give me one giddy, reeling dream Of life all love and fame! .
.
.
.
.
My listening angel heard the prayer, And, calmly smiling, said, "If I but touch thy silvered hair Thy hasty wish hath sped.
"But is there nothing in thy track, To bid thee fondly stay, While the swift seasons hurry back To find the wished-for day?" "Ah, truest soul of womankind! Without thee what were life ? One bliss I cannot leave behind: I'll take-- my-- precious-- wife!" The angel took a sapphire pen And wrote in rainbow dew, The man would be a boy again, And be a husband too! "And is there nothing yet unsaid, Before the change appears? Remember, all their gifts have fled With those dissolving years.
" "Why, yes;" for memory would recall My fond paternal joys; "I could not bear to leave them all-- I'll take-- my-- girl-- and-- boys.
" The smiling angel dropped his pen,-- "Why, this will never do; The man would be a boy again, And be a father too!" .
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And so I laughed,-- my laughter woke The household with its noise,-- And wrote my dream, when morning broke, To please the gray-haired boys.


More great poems below...

by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Chambered Nautilus

 THIS is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,--
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl; Wrecked is the ship of pearl! And every chambered cell, Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell, As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell, Before thee lies revealed,-- Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed! Year after year beheld the silent toil That spread his lustrous coil; Still, as the spiral grew, He left the past year's dwelling for the new, Stole with soft step its shining archway through, Built up its idle door, Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee, Child of the wandering sea, Cast from her lap, forlorn! From thy dead lips a clearer note is born Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn! While on mine ear it rings, Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:-- Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, As the swift seasons roll! Leave thy low-vaulted past! Let each new temple, nobler than the last, Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast, Till thou at length art free, Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

A Parody on “A Psalm of Life”

 Life is real, life is earnest, 
And the shell is not its pen –
“Egg thou art, and egg remainest”
Was not spoken of the hen.
Art is long and Time is fleeting, Be our bills then sharpened well, And not like muffled drums be beating On the inside of the shell.
In the world’s broad field of battle, In the great barnyard of life, Be not like those lazy cattle! Be a rooster in the strife! Lives of roosters all remind us, We can make our lives sublime, And when roasted, leave behind us, Hen tracks on the sands of time.
Hen tracks that perhaps another Chicken drooping in the rain, Some forlorn and henpecked brother, When he sees, shall crow again.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Old Ironsides

 Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! 
Long has it waved on high, 
And many an eye has danced to see 
That banner in the sky; 
Beneath it rung the battle shout, 
And burst the cannon's roar; -- 
The meteor of the ocean air 
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck, once red with heroes' blood, Where knelt the vanquished foe, When winds were hurrying o'er the flood, And waves were white below, No more shall feel the victor's tread, Or know the conquered knee; -- The harpies of the shore shall pluck The eagle of the sea! Oh, better that her shattered hulk Should sink beneath the wave; Her thunders shook the mighty deep, And there should be her grave; Nail to the mast her holy flag, Set every threadbare sail, And give her to the god of storms, The lightning and the gale!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Sun and Shadow

 As I look from the isle, o'er its billows of green,
To the billows of foam-crested blue,
Yon bark, that afar in the distance is seen,
Half dreaming, my eyes will pursue:
Now dark in the shadow, she scatters the spray
As the chaff in the stroke of the flail;
Now white as the sea-gull, she flies on her way,
The sun gleaming bright on her sail.
Yet her pilot is thinking of dangers to shun,-- Of breakers that whiten and roar; How little he cares, if in shadow or sun They see him who gaze from the shore! He looks to the beacon that looms from the reef, To the rock that is under his lee, As he drifts on the blast, like a wind-wafted leaf, O'er the gulfs of the desolate sea.
Thus drifting afar to the dim-vaulted caves Where life and its ventures are laid, The dreamers who gaze while we battle the waves May see us in sunshine or shade; Yet true to our course, though the shadows grow dark, We'll trim our broad sail as before, And stand by the rudder that governs the bark, Nor ask how we look from the shore!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Flower of Liberty

 WHAT flower is this that greets the morn,
Its hues from Heaven so freshly born?
With burning star and flaming band
It kindles all the sunset land:
Oh tell us what its name may be,--
Is this the Flower of Liberty? 

It is the banner of the free,
The starry Flower of Liberty!

In savage Nature's far abode
Its tender seed our fathers sowed;
The storm-winds rocked its swelling bud,
Its opening leaves were streaked with blood,
Till lo! earth's tyrants shook to see
The full-blown Flower of Liberty! 

Then hail the banner of the free,
The starry Flower of Liberty!

Behold its streaming rays unite,
One mingling flood of braided light,--
The red that fires the Southern rose,
With spotless white from Northern snows,
And, spangled o'er its azure, see
The sister Stars of Liberty! 

Then hail the banner of the free,
The starry Flower of Liberty!

The blades of heroes fence it round,
Where'er it springs is holy ground;
From tower and dome its glories spread;
It waves where lonely sentries tread;
It makes the land as ocean free,
And plants an empire on the sea!

Then hail the banner of the free,
The starry Flower of Liberty!

Thy sacred leaves, fair Freedom's flower,
Shall ever float on dome and tower,
To all their heavenly colors true,
In blackening frost or crimson dew,--
And God love us as we love thee,
Thrice holy Flower of Liberty!

Then hail the banner of the free,
The starry FLOWER OF LIBERTY!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Height of the Ridiculous

 I WROTE some lines once on a time 
In wondrous merry mood, 
And thought, as usual, men would say
They were exceeding good.
They were so queer, so very queer, I laughed as I would die; Albeit, in the general way, A sober man am I.
I called my servant, and he came; How kind it was of him To mind a slender man like me, He of the mighty limb.
"These to the printer," I exclaimed, And, in my humorous way, I added, (as a trifling jest,) "There'll be the devil to pay.
" He took the paper, and I watched, And saw him peep within; At the first line he read, his face Was all upon the grin.
He read the next; the grin grew broad, And shot from ear to ear; He read the third; a chuckling noise I now began to hear.
The fourth; he broke into a roar; The fifth; his waistband split; The sixth; he burst five buttons off, And tumbled in a fit.
Ten days and nights, with sleepless eye, I watched that wretched man, And since, I never dare to write As funny as I can.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Under the Violets

 HER hands are cold; her face is white;
No more her pulses come and go;
Her eyes are shut to life and light;--
Fold the white vesture, snow on snow,
And lay her where the violets blow.
But not beneath a graven stone, To plead for tears with alien eyes; A slender cross of wood alone Shall say, that here a maiden lies In peace beneath the peaceful skies.
And gray old trees of hugest limb Shall wheel their circling shadows round To make the scorching sunlight dim That drinks the greenness from the ground, And drop their dead leaves on her mound.
When o'er their boughs the squirrels run, And through their leaves the robins call, And, ripening in the autumn sun, The acorns and the chestnuts fall, Doubt not that she will heed them all.
For her the morning choir shall sing Its matins from the branches high, And every minstrel-voice of Spring, That trills beneath the April sky, Shall greet her with its earliest cry.
When, turning round their dial-track, Eastward the lengthening shadows pass, Her little mourners, clad in black, The crickets, sliding through the grass, Shall pipe for her an evening mass.
At last the rootlets of the trees Shall find the prison where she lies, And bear the buried dust they seize In leaves and blossoms to the skies.
So may the soul that warmed it rise! If any, born of kindlier blood, Should ask, What maiden lies below? Say only this: A tender bud, That tried to blossom in the snow, Lies withered where the violets blow.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Union and Liberty

 FLAG of the heroes who left us their glory,
Borne through their battle-fields' thunder and flame,
Blazoned in song and illumined in story,
Wave o'er us all who inherit their fame! 

Up with our banner bright,
Sprinkled with starry light,
Spread its fair emblems from mountain to shore,
While through the sounding sky
Loud rings the Nation's cry,
UNION AND LIBERTY! ONE EVERMORE!

Light of our firmament, guide of our Nation,
Pride of her children, and honored afar,
Let the wide beams of thy full constellation
Scatter each cloud that would darken a star! 

Up with our banner bright,
Sprinkled with starry light,
Spread its fair emblems from mountain to shore,
While through the sounding sky
Loud rings the Nation's cry,
UNION AND LIBERTY! ONE EVERMORE!

Empire unsceptred! what foe shall assail thee,
Bearing the standard of Liberty's van?
Think not the God of thy fathers shall fail thee,
Striving with men for the birthright of man! 

Up with our banner bright,
Sprinkled with starry light,
Spread its fair emblems from mountain to shore,
While through the sounding sky
Loud rings the Nation's cry,
UNION AND LIBERTY! ONE EVERMORE!

Yet if, by madness and treachery blighted,
Dawns the dark hour when the sword thou must draw,
Then with the arms of thy millions united,
Smite the bold traitors to Freedom and Law! 

Up with our banner bright,
Sprinkled with starry light,
Spread its fair emblems from mountain to shore,
While through the sounding sky
Loud rings the Nation's cry,
UNION AND LIBERTY! ONE EVERMORE!

Lord of the Universe! shield us and guide us,
Trusting Thee always, through shadow and sun!
Thou hast united us, who shall divide us?
Keep us, oh keep us the MANY IN ONE! 

Up with our banner bright,
Sprinkled with starry light,
Spread its fair emblems from mountain to shore,
While through the sounding sky
Loud rings the Nation's cry,
UNION AND LIBERTY! ONE EVERMORE!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Voiceless

 WE count the broken lyres that rest
Where the sweet wailing singers slumber,
But o'er their silent sister's breast
The wild-flowers who will stoop to number?
A few can touch the magic string,
And noisy Fame is proud to win them:--
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them!

Nay, grieve not for the dead alone
Whose song has told their hearts' sad story,--
Weep for the voiceless, who have known
The cross without the crown of glory!
Not where Leucadian breezes sweep
O'er Sappho's memory-haunted billow,
But where the glistening night-dews weep
On nameless sorrow's churchyard pillow.
O hearts that break and give no sign Save whitening lip and fading tresses, Till Death pours out his longed-for wine Slow-dropped from Misery's crushing presses,-- If singing breath or echoing chord To every hidden pang were given, What endless melodies were poured, As sad as earth, as sweet as heaven!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Brother Jonathans Lament

 SHE has gone,-- she has left us in passion and pride,--
Our stormy-browed sister, so long at our side!
She has torn her own star from our firmament's glow,
And turned on her brother the face of a foe!

Oh, Caroline, Caroline, child of the sun,
We can never forget that our hearts have been one,--
Our foreheads both sprinkled in Liberty's name,
From the fountain of blood with the finger of flame!

You were always too ready to fire at a touch;
But we said, "She is hasty,-- she does not mean much.
" We have scowled, when you uttered some turbulent threat; But Friendship still whispered, "Forgive and forget!" Has our love all died out? Have its altars grown cold? Has the curse come at last which the fathers foretold? Then Nature must teach us the strength of the chain That her petulant children would sever in vain.
They may fight till the buzzards are gorged with their spoil, Till the harvest grows black as it rots in the soil, Till the wolves and the catamounts troop from their caves, And the shark tracks the pirate, the lord of the waves: In vain is the strife! When its fury is past, Their fortunes must flow in one channel at last, As the torrents that rush from the mountains of snow Roll mingled in peace through the valleys below.
Our Union is river, lake, ocean, and sky: Man breaks not the medal, when God cuts the die! Though darkened with sulphur, though cloven with steel, The blue arch will brighten, the waters will heal! Oh, Caroline, Caroline, child of the sun, There are battles with Fate that can never be won! The star-flowering banner must never be furled, For its blossoms of light are the hope of the world! Go, then, our rash sister! afar and aloof, Run wild in the sunshine away from our roof; But when your heart aches and your feet have grown sore, Remember the pathway that leads to our door!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Martha

 SEXTON! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
Her weary hands their labor cease;
Good night, poor Martha,-- sleep in peace!
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha 's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
For many a year has Martha said,
"I'm old and poor,-- would I were dead!"
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
She'll bring no more, by day or night,
Her basket full of linen white.
Toll the bell! Sexton! Martha's dead and gone; Toll the bell! toll the bell! 'Tis fitting she should lie below A pure white sheet of drifted snow.
Toll the bell! Sexton! Martha's dead and gone; Toll the bell! toll the bell! Sleep, Martha, sleep, to wake in light, Where all the robes are stainless white.
Toll the bell!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Daily Trials by a Sensitive Man

 Oh, there are times 
When all this fret and tumult that we hear 
Do seem more stale than to the sexton's ear 
His own dull chimes.
Ding dong! ding dong! The world is in a simmer like a sea Over a pent volcano, -- woe is me All the day long! From crib to shroud! Nurse o'er our cradles screameth lullaby, And friends in boots tramp round us as we die, Snuffling aloud.
At morning's call The small-voiced pug-dog welcomes in the sun, And flea-bit mongrels, wakening one by one, Give answer all.
When evening dim Draws round us, then the lonely caterwaul, Tart solo, sour duet, and general squall, -- These are our hymn.
Women, with tongues Like polar needles, ever on the jar; Men, plugless word-spouts, whose deep fountains are Within their lungs.
Children, with drums Strapped round them by the fond paternal ass; Peripatetics with a blade of grass Between their thumbs.
Vagrants, whose arts Have caged some devil in their mad machine, Which grinding, squeaks, with husky groans between, Come out by starts.
Cockneys that kill Thin horses of a Sunday, -- men, with clams, Hoarse as young bisons roaring for their dams From hill to hill.
Soldiers, with guns, Making a nuisance of the blessed air, Child-crying bellman, children in despair, Screeching for buns.
Storms, thunders, waves! Howl, crash, and bellow till ye get your fill; Ye sometimes rest; men never can be still But in their graves.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Cacoethes Scribendi

 If all the trees in all the woods were men; 
And each and every blade of grass a pen; 
If every leaf on every shrub and tree 
Turned to a sheet of foolscap; every sea 
Were changed to ink, and all earth's living tribes 
Had nothing else to do but act as scribes, 
And for ten thousand ages, day and night, 
The human race should write, and write, and write, 
Till all the pens and paper were used up, 
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup, 
Still would the scribblers clustered round its brink 
Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The September Gale

 I'M not a chicken; I have seen 
Full many a chill September, 
And though I was a youngster then, 
That gale I well remember; 
The day before, my kite-string snapped, 
And I, my kite pursuing, 
The wind whisked off my palm-leaf hat; 
For me two storms were brewing!

It came as quarrels sometimes do, 
When married folks get clashing;
There was a heavy sigh or two, 
Before the fire was flashing, 
A little stir among the clouds,
Before they rent asunder,--
A little rocking of the trees, 
And then came on the thunder.
Lord! how the ponds and rivers boiled! They seemed like bursting craters! And oaks lay scattered on the ground As if they were p'taters And all above was in a howl, And all below a clatter, The earth was like a frying-pan, Or some such hissing matter.
It chanced to be our washing-day, And all our things were drying; The storm came roaring through the lines, And set them all a flying; I saw the shirts and petticoats Go riding off like witches; I lost, ah! bitterly I wept,-- I lost my Sunday breeches! I saw them straddling through the air, Alas! too late to win them; I saw them chase the clouds, as if The devil had been in them; They were my darlings and my pride, My boyhood's only riches,-- "Farewell, farewell," I faintly cried,-- "My breeches! O my breeches!" That night I saw them in my dreams, How changed from what I knew them! The dews had steeped their faded threads, The winds had whistled through them! I saw the wide and ghastly rents Where demon claws had torn them; A hole was in their amplest part, As if an imp had worn them.
I have had many happy years, And tailors kind and clever, But those young pantaloons have gone Forever and forever! And not till fate has cut the last Of all my earthly stitches, This aching heart shall cease to mourn My loved, my long-lost breeches!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

The Opening of the Piano

 IN the little southern parlor of tbe house you may have seen
With the gambrel-roof, and the gable looking westward to the green,
At the side toward the sunset, with the window on its right,
Stood the London-made piano I am dreaming of to-night!

Ah me! how I remember the evening when it came!
What a cry of eager voices, what a group of cheeks in flame,
When the wondrous box was opened that had come from over seas, 
With its smell of mastic-varnish and its flash of ivory keys!

Then the children all grew fretful in the restlessness of joy,
For the boy would push his sister, and the sister crowd the boy,
Till the father asked for quiet in his grave paternal way,
But the mother hushed the tumult with the words, "Now, Mary, play.
" For the dear soul knew that music was a very sovereign balm; She had sprinkled it over Sorrow and seen its brow grow calm, In the days of slender harpsichords with tapping tinkling quills, Or carolling to her spinet with its thin metallic thrills.
So Mary, the household minstrel, who always loved to please, Sat down to the new "Clementi," and struck the glittering keys.
Hushed were the children's voices, and every eye grew dim, As, floating from lip and finger, arose the "Vesper Hymn.
" Catharine, child of a neighbor, curly and rosy-red, (Wedded since, and a widow,-- something like ten years dead,) Hearing a gush of music such as none before, Steals from her mother's chamber and peeps at the open door.
Just as the "Jubilate" in threaded whisper dies, "Open it! open it, lady!" the little maiden cries, (For she thought 't was a singing creature caged in a box she heard,) "Open it! open it, lady! and let me see the bird!"


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Æstivation

 An Unpublished Poem, by my late Latin Tutor.
In candent ire the solar splendor flames; The foles, languescent, pend from arid rames; His humid front the cive, anheling, wipes, And dreams of erring on ventiferous ripes.
How dulce to vive occult to mortal eyes, Dorm on the herb with none to supervise, Carp the suave berries from thc crescent vine, And bibe the flow from longicaudate kine! To me, alas! no verdurous visions come, Save yon exiguous pool's conferva-scum,-- No concave vast repeats the tender hue That laves my milk-jug with celestial blue! Me wretched! Let me curr to quercine shades! Effund your albid hausts, lactiferous maids! Oh, might I vole to some umbrageous clump,-- Depart,--be off,-excede,--evade,--crump!


by Oliver Wendell Holmes | |

Poem (Halleck monument dedication)

 SAY not the Poet dies!
Though in the dust he lies,
He cannot forfeit his melodious breath,
Unsphered by envious death!
Life drops the voiceless myriads from its roll;
Their fate he cannot share,
Who, in the enchanted air
Sweet with the lingering strains that Echo stole,
Has left his dearer self, the music of his soul!

We o'er his turf may raise
Our notes of feeble praise,
And carve with pious care for after eyes
The stone with "Here he lies;"
He for himself has built a nobler shrine,
Whose walls of stately rhyme
Roll back the tides of time,
While o'er their gates the gleaming tablets shine
That wear his name inwrought with many a golden line!

Call not our Poet dead,
Though on his turf we tread!
Green is the wreath their brows so long have worn,--
The minstrels of the morn,
Who, while the Orient burned with new-born flame,
Caught that celestial fire
And struck a Nation's lyre!
These taught the western winds the poet's name;
Theirs the first opening buds, the maiden flowers of fame!

Count not our Poet dead!
The stars shall watch his bed,
The rose of June its fragrant life renew
His blushing mound to strew,
And all the tuneful throats of summer swell
With trills as crystal-clear
As when he wooed the ear
Of the young muse that haunts each wooded dell,
With songs of that "rough land" he loved so long and well!

He sleeps; he cannot die!
As evening's long-drawn sigh,
Lifting the rose-leaves on his peaceful mound,
Spreads all their sweets around,
So, laden with his song, the breezes blow
From where the rustling sedge
Frets our rude ocean's edge
To the smooth sea beyond the peaks of snow.
His soul the air enshrines and leaves but dust below!