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A Brief About Oliver Wendell Holmes

by Francis H. Underwood

Abraham Lincoln, it is said, was one day talking with a friend about favorite poems, and repeated with deep feeling the well-known classic stanza:

"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."

"That verse," he said, "was written by a man by the name of Holmes." If the manner of referring to the authorship was little flattering, the honest admiration of the great-hearted President might atone for it. An attorney in a country town in Illinois might well have been unacquainted with the reputation of a poet away in Massachusetts, whose lines, perhaps, he had seen only in the newspapers.

No reader of feeling ever passed that simple stanza unmoved. It is for all time not to be forgotten. Not a word could be changed any more than in "The Bugle Song." Its pathos is all the more surprising in connection with the quaint humor in the description of the old man who is the subject of the poem. There is a delicious Irish character in this, as in many other pieces of Holmes, reminding us of the familiar couplet of Moore—

"Erin, the smile and the tear in thine eyes
Blend like The rainbow that hangs in thy skies."

"The Last Leaf," from which the stanza is quoted, was written over fifty years ago, when the author was a little more than twenty-one. There are a few others of the same period which may have been considered trifles at first, but which seem to have slowly acquired consistence, so that while they are still marvels of airy grace, they are as firm as the carved foliage on a Gothic capital.

Not many writers live long enough to see themselves recognized as classics; the benign judgment is more frequently tardy; and then it happens, as De Musset says, that "Fame is a plant which grows upon a tomb." It takes years of repetition to impress new ideas in literature into the hearts and memories of men; and, as literary cycles move, the age of Holmes is still new. The noblest poetry in the language, from the unborrowed splendor of Shakespeare to the sparkling reflections of Gray, doubtless gave to contemporaries a sense of strangeness at first. Time was needed to harden the fresh lines, as well as to win for them a place among the elder and accepted models.

Holmes's father was minister to the Congregational church in Cambridge, a man of ability and author of some historical works. He lived in a venerable house of the ante-Revolutionary period which stood near the college grounds, and was demolished a few years ago to make room for a new academic building. One of Holmes's most characteristic articles is his description of "The Old Gambrel-roofed House." In the time of his youth there were people in Cambridge who remembered the march of the British troops on their way to Lexington and Concord in 1775. The speech and the manners of the colonists long retained the old English stamp, and the earliest of them had been contemporaries of Bunyan and almost of Shakespeare; and so Holmes must have heard, as I when a boy heard in another county, phrases and tones which could not have differed much from those of Shakespeare's common people. The influence of this is seen in his mastery of what is called the Yankee dialect, development of old chimney-corner English. For the same reason there is visible in his writings also some of that homely astuteness which seems to have died out with the polish of modern manners.

After completing his classical and medical studies, Dr. Holmes spent two years in Europe, principally in Paris, and then settled in Boston as a practising physician. Later he became a professor of anatomy, and remained in service until within a few years. Thus his duties took him away from his native Cambridge—although his heart never migrated—and turned him from the pursuit of poetry, except as a recreation. His recreation, however, must have been quite steadily indulged in, since his occasional poems had grown to a goodly volume before he was forty years of age. The great popularity of his later works has somewhat overshadowed the early poems, but there is ample evidence of genius in these first-fruits. None of them are meant to be thrilling or profound, but they all have some characteristic grace, some unexpected stroke of wit, some fascinating melody. I do not know any poems of a similar class which afford such unfailing delight. It is true they are mundane and their wit has often a satiric, "knowing" air; but the pleasantry is never mocking or malevolent; and the exuberance of spirit is contagious. Such a poem as "Terpsichore" (1843) is inimitable in its suggestions. The lines have a springing movement, an elastic pose. To appreciate it the reader must "wait till he comes to forty year." "Urania" has also many fine passages, grave as well as gay; many of its hints were developed later with brilliant effect in the "Autocrat." This "rhymed lesson" touches with felicity the prevailing vulgarities and solecisms in manners, dress, and pronunciation, and suggests, by anticipation, the jovial reign of a monarch who at his breakfast-table lays aside his robes of majesty and sometimes plays the role of his servitor, the merry philosopher in motley.

Naturally our author's reputation and his well-known brilliancy in conversation made him a great favorite in society. For many years he was virtually the laureate of Boston and Cambridge, and produced a great number of odes and hymns for public occasions. He of all men seemed to have the invention, the dash, and the native grace which give to occasional verse its natural and spontaneous air. This facility is surely not a cause for reproach. Such verse may seem easy, but it is easy only for a genius. In the lightest of his odes there is stuff and workmanship far removed from the negligent ease of vers de société.

A reputation for wit may be as injurious to a poet as to a would-be bishop. People could hardly be persuaded to take Sydney Smith seriously, and the world has been slow in recognizing the solid qualities, the keen insight, the imagination, and poetic feeling of Holmes. It is only one of the facets of his brilliant mind.

At the dinner where the twelve original contributors of the Atlantic Monthly met, the part which Holmes was to take was a matter of lively anticipation. The magazine had been projected for the purpose of uniting the literary forces of the North in favor of universal freedom; but Holmes had no part in its direction. Lowell prophesied at the time that the doctor would carry off the honors. In the first number there was an article by Motley, a fine poem by Longfellow, one by Whittier, a piece of charming classic comedy by Lowell, a group of four striking poems by Emerson, some short stories, articles on art and finance, and the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." What would not modern philosophers give for a similar combination to-day! Still, the enterprise might have failed but for the immediate interest awakened by the original thought and style of Holmes. The sensation was new, like that of a sixth sense. The newspapers quoted from the "Autocrat;" it was everywhere talked about, and in a short time its fame went through the nation.

The "Autocrat" was succeeded by the "Professor" and the "Poet." The talk of the "Professor" was somewhat more abstruse, though equally interesting to cultivated readers. The "Poet" attacked the dogma of the endless duration of future punishment. The "Autocrat" was easily superior in freshness as in popularity.

Two novels also appeared—"Elsie Venner" and "The Guardian Angel." They have undoubted merits, showing the keen thought, the descriptive power, and the play of fancy which are so characteristic of the author, and each has a subtle motive to which the characteristic incidents are made subservient. But Dr. Holmes is not great as a novelist as he is great in other things. The stories in one aspect are ambulatory psychological problems, rather than fresh studies of characters conceived without favoritism, with blended good and evil, wisdom and weakness—as God creates them. To produce new types, of universal interest, is given to few novelists. There have been scarcely more than a score of such creators since Cadmus.

It was with some surprise that I read lately a lament that Dr. Holmes had not written "a great novel"—a task which would have been as unsuitable to him as to Dr. Johnson or to Montaigne. It is not a question of a greater or less talent, but of a wholly different talent—as distinct as metaphysics and portrait-painting. The same critic complains because Holmes has not been "in earnest" like Carlyle. While the genius of that great writer is indisputable, I submit that one Carlyle in a generation is enough; another is impossible. That rugged Titan did his appointed work with fidelity. But is every author to lay about him with an iron flail? Is there no place for playful satirists of manners, for essayists who dissolve philosophy and science, who teach truth, manliness, and courtesy by epigram, and who make life beautiful with the glow of poetry? The magnolia cannot be the oak, although unhappy critics would have a writer be something which he is not. It is enough that Holmes has charmed myriads of readers who might never have felt his influence if he had been grimly in "earnest," and that he has inculcated high ideals of taste, character, and living.

By the time Holmes had reached his fiftieth year he was nearing the summit of fame. His readers were the cultivated classes of the whole English-speaking world, and he was not merely admired, his genial humor had won for him universal love; his unique personality was as dear as his writings. There is not room in the limits allowed me to dwell on the style of the "Autocrat;" fortunately neither analysis nor eulogy is necessary. The variety of topics, the sure, swift touches in treatment, the frequent gleam of imagery, and the lovely vignette of verse, altogether form an attraction for which there are few parallels in literature.

From the gay and jaunty verse of the poet's youth to his strong and passionate lyrics of the war there was a surpassing change, and it will be interesting to trace it in his life, and in the course of historic events.

In his early manhood he took the world as he found it, and did not trouble himself about reforms or isms. He had only good-humored banter for the Abolitionists, just as he had for non-resistants and spirit-rappers. When progressive people were in a ferment with the new transcendental philosophy (deduced from the preaching of Channing and the essays of Emerson), and were fascinated by the monologues of Alcott and the sibylline utterances of Margaret Fuller; when young enthusiasts, in their socialistic home at Brook Farm, dreamed of the near reign of human brotherhood; when Lowell was writing "The Present Crisis," a poem glowing with genius as with apostolic zeal; when feebler brethren, blown upon by new winds of doctrine, imagined themselves spiritual and profound, and felt deep thrills in pronouncing the words Soul and Infinite with nasal solemnity. Holmes, fully master of himself, and holding instinctively to his nil admirari, trained his light batteries on the new schools, and hit their eccentricities and foibles with a comic fusillade.

From this bellicose time it was nearly forty years to the appearance of Holmes' admiring and reverent life of Emerson, and in that long and stirring period there was much for him to learn, and something to unlearn. Who does not learn much in forty years? For one thing, the character and mind of the poet-philosopher were at length clearly revealed, and the uneasy swarm of imitators had shrunk out of sight. And as to slavery, the eyes of all men had been opened. Not only Holmes, but the majority of well-meaning men, hitherto standing aloof, were taught by great events. Many who admitted the wrong of slavery had believed themselves bound to inaction by the covenants inserted in the Federal Constitution. Some had felt the weight of party obligations. Some resented the fierce denunciation of the Church for its indifference to a vital question of morals. But I believe more were deterred from siding with the Abolitionists by reason of their intimate connection with other causes. They were nearly all believers in "woman's rights," and at that time those "rights" were chiefly to wear short hair and loose trousers, and talk indefinitely. Everything established was attacked, from churches and courts to compulsory schools and vaccination. The most vivid of my recollections of forty years ago are the scenes at the anti-slavery conventions. There were cadaverous men with long hair and full beards, very unusual ornaments then, with far-away looks in their eyes in repose, but with ferocity when excited, who thought and talked with vigor, but who never knew when to stop. There was one silent and patient brother, I remember, whose silvery hair and beard were never touched by shears, and who in all seasons wore a suit of loose flannel that had once been white. There was a woman with an appalling voice, and yet with a strange eloquence. And there was one who always insisted on speaking out of order, and who always had to be carried out of the hall, struggling and shouting as she was borne along by some suffering brother and a policeman. Not all the moral earnestness of Garrison, the matronly dignity of Lucretia Mott, the lovely voice and refined manners of Lucy Stone, nor the magnificent oratory of Wendell Phillips, could atone for these sights and sounds. Lowell had written:

"Then to side with Truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and 'tis prosperous to be just."

But to men of delicate nerves it was not sharing Truth's crust that made the difficulty so much as the other uncongenial company at her august table. The political anti-slavery men, who came later, and who won the triumph, had none of these uncomely surroundings, although at the beginning they encountered as much odium.

When the first gun was fired on Fort Sumter, the cause of the slave and of the despised Abolitionists became the cause of all. Then could be felt the force of the sentiment which long before had won the pitying muse of Longfellow, which had inspired the strains of Lowell, and which had led the Quaker Whittier—minstrel and prophet at once—into the thick of the strife. Then it could be seen that the cause of eternal justice was not to be confounded with the vagaries of half-crazed agitators who were bent on curing all human ills by moral suasion and bran bread. The thunder of cannon cleared the atmosphere. The querulous voices of sectaries were hushed. The hearts of the loyal North throbbed as one heart. There was but one cry, and it was "Union and Liberty."

In a high sense this was a decisive period in the life of Holmes. From the outbreak of the war he took an enthusiastic part as a patriot for the preservation of the Union. His eldest son, now a Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, went out with the volunteers as a captain, and the father's "Hunt" for him after a battle is well remembered by readers of the Atlantic. At the time when the bravest of all classes were going forward to form new regiments and to fill up the shattered lines of the older ones, his lyrics came to the souls of loyal men with thrills of exultation. No man in those gloomy days could read them without tears, I have seen suppressed sobs and eyes glistening in tear-mist when they were sung in public assemblies. The people of this land have had no such time of heartache, of alternate dread and solemn joy, since the Revolution. When the fate of a nation was in suspense, when death had claimed a member from almost every family, and when the bitter struggle was to be fought out man to man, the phrases we might idly read in time of peace had a new and startling meaning. The words flashed in all eyes and set all hearts on fire. These songs of the war by Holmes will take their place with the grand and touching ode of Lowell, and with the stately and triumphal "Laus Deo!" of Whittier.

The most perfect of Holmes's smaller poems are probably those that appeared in the "Autocrat." "The Chambered Nautilus" is a fortunate conception, wrought with exquisite art. Equally striking is "Sun and Shadow," a poem which brings me delightful associations, as I saw it while the ink was still wet upon the page where it was written.

There is no need of dwelling upon his comic poems, such as the logical catastrophe of the "One-Horse Shay," as they are fully appreciated, so much so that they have doubtless led to the undervaluing of his more serious efforts.

He who saw Dr. Holmes twenty years ago at leisure in his library will not soon forget his impressions. In his mature manhood he was short and slender without being meagre, erect and firm in his shoes. His hair was abundant, if somewhat frosty, his forehead fair but not full; his eyes bluish gray; and his mouth as changeable as Scotch weather. If in front his head seemed small, in profile its capacity was evident, for the horizontal measure from the eyes backward was long. If the base of the brain is the seat of its motive power, his should not be wanting in force. An axe that is to fell an oak must have weight back of the socket.

In repose his clear-cut and shaven lips indicated firmness and prompt decision, a self-contained nature, well-reasoned and settled opinions; but when he spoke, or was deeply interested, or when his eyes began to kindle, his mouth became wonderfully expressive. There was a swift play upon his features, a mobility which told of a sensitive and delicate nature. And those features were so sharply designed, free from the adipose layers and cushions that round so many faces into harmonious vacuity. His smile was fascinating and communicative; you were forced to share his feelings. His welcome was hearty, and sometimes breezy; you felt it in his sympathetic hand-grasp as well as in his frank speech. When conversation was launched he was more than fluent; there was a fulness of apt words in new and predestined combinations; they flowed like a hill-side brook, now bubbling with merriment, now deep and reflective, like the same current led into a quiet pool. Poetic similes were the spontaneous flowering of his thought; his wit detonated in epigrams, and his fancy revelled in the play of words. His courtesy, meanwhile, was unfailing; a retort never became a club in his hands to brain an opponent, nor did he let fly the arrows which sting and rankle. His enunciation was clear, but rapid and resistless. Whoever heard him at his best came to wonder if there had ever been another man so thoroughly alive, in whom every fibre was so fine and tense.