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Best Famous Oliver Wendell Holmes Poems

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Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

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 *****! 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.

Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

A Familiar Letter

 YES, write, if you want to, there's nothing like trying;
Who knows what a treasure your casket may hold?
I'll show you that rhyming's as easy as lying,
If you'll listen to me while the art I unfold.
Here's a book full of words; one can choose as he fancies, As a painter his tint, as a workman his tool; Just think! all the poems and plays and romances Were drawn out of this, like the fish from a pool! You can wander at will through its syllabled mazes, And take all you want, not a copper they cost,-- What is there to hinder your picking out phrases For an epic as clever as "Paradise Lost"? Don't mind if the index of sense is at zero, Use words that run smoothly, whatever they mean; Leander and Lilian and Lillibullero Are much the same thing in the rhyming machine.
There are words so delicious their sweetness will smother That boarding-school flavor of which we're afraid, There is "lush"is a good one, and "swirl" is another,-- Put both in one stanza, its fortune is made.
With musical murmurs and rhythmical closes You can cheat us of smiles when you've nothing to tell You hand us a nosegay of milliner's roses, And we cry with delight, "Oh, how sweet they do smell!" Perhaps you will answer all needful conditions For winning the laurels to which you aspire, By docking the tails of the two prepositions I' the style o' the bards you so greatly admire.
As for subjects of verse, they are only too plenty For ringing the changes on metrical chimes; A maiden, a moonbeam, a lover of twenty Have filled that great basket with bushels of rhymes.
Let me show you a picture--'t is far from irrelevant-- By a famous old hand in the arts of design; 'T is only a photographed sketch of an elephant,-- The name of the draughtsman was Rembrandt of Rhine.
How easy! no troublesome colors to lay on, It can't have fatigued him,-- no, not in the least,-- A dash here and there with a haphazard crayon, And there stands the wrinkled-skinned, baggy-limbed beast.
Just so with your verse,-- 't is as easy as sketching,-- You can reel off a song without knitting your brow, As lightly as Rembrandt a drawing or etching; It is nothing at all, if you only know how.
Well; imagine you've printed your volume of verses: Your forehead is wreathed with the garland of fame, Your poems the eloquent school-boy rehearses, Her album the school-girl presents for your name; Each morning the post brings you autograph letters; You'll answer them promptly,-- an hour isn't much For the honor of sharing a page with your betters, With magistrates, members of Congress, and such.
Of course you're delighted to serve the committees That come with requests from the country all round, You would grace the occasion with poems and ditties When they've got a new schoolhouse, or poorhouse, or pound.
With a hymn for the saints and a song for the sinners, You go and are welcome wherever you please; You're a privileged guest at all manner of dinners, You've a seat on the platform among the grandees.
At length your mere presence becomes a sensation, Your cup of enjoyment is filled to its brim With the pleasure Horatian of digitmonstration, As the whisper runs round of "That's he!" or "That's him!" But remember, O dealer in phrases sonorous, So daintily chosen, so tunefully matched, Though you soar with the wings of the cherubim o'er us, The ovum was human from which you were hatched.
No will of your own with its puny compulsion Can summon the spirit that quickens the lyre; It comes, if at all, like the Sibyl's convulsion And touches the brain with a finger of fire.
So perhaps, after all, it's as well to he quiet If you've nothing you think is worth saying in prose, As to furnish a meal of their cannibal diet To the critics, by publishing, as you propose.
But it's all of no use, and I'm sorry I've written,-- I shall see your thin volume some day on my shelf; For the rhyming tarantula surely has bitten, And music must cure you, so pipe it yourself.
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

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.
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem


 "Man wants but little here below.
" LITTLE I ask; my wants are few; I only wish a hut of stone, (A very plain brown stone will do,) That I may call my own; And close at hand is such a one, In yonder street that fronts the sun.
Plain food is quite enough for me; Three courses are as good as ten;-- If Nature can subsist on three, Thank Heaven for three.
Amen! I always thought cold victual nice;-- My choice would be vanilla-ice.
I care not much for gold or land;-- Give me a mortgage here and there,-- Some good bank-stock, some note of hand, Or trifling railroad share,-- I only ask that Fortune send A little more than I shall spend.
Honors are silly toys, I know, And titles are but empty names; I would, perhaps, be Plenipo,-- But only near St.
James; I'm very sure I should not care To fill our Gubernator's chair.
Jewels are baubles; 't is a sin To care for such unfruitful things;-- One good-sized diamond in a pin,-- Some, not so large, in rings,-- A ruby, and a pearl, or so, Will do for me;--I laugh at show.
My dame should dress in cheap attire; (Good, heavy silks are never dear;) - I own perhaps I might desire Some shawls of true Cashmere,-- Some marrowy crapes of China silk, Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.
I would not have the horse I drive So fast that folks must stop and stare; An easy gait--two forty-five-- Suits me; I do not care;-- Perhaps, for just a single spurt, Some seconds less would do no hurt.
Of pictures, I should like to own Titians aud Raphaels three or four,-- I love so much their style and tone, One Turner, and no more, (A landscape,--foreground golden dirt,-- The sunshine painted with a squirt.
) Of books but few,--some fifty score For daily use, and bound for wear; The rest upon an upper floor;-- Some little luxury there Of red morocco's gilded gleam And vellum rich as country cream.
Busts, cameos, gems,--such things as these, Which others often show for pride, I value for their power to please, And selfish churls deride;-- One Stradivarius, I confess, Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.
Wealth's wasteful tricks I will not learn, Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;-- Shall not carved tables serve my turn, But all must be of buhl? Give grasping pomp its double share,-- I ask but one recumbent chair.
Thus humble let me live and die, Nor long for Midas' golden touch; If Heaven more generous gifts deny, I shall not miss them much,-- Too grateful for the blessing lent Of simple tastes and mind content!
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

The Iron Gate

 WHERE is this patriarch you are kindly greeting?
Not unfamiliar to my ear his name,
Nor yet unknown to many a joyous meeting
In days long vanished,-- is he still the same,

Or changed by years, forgotten and forgetting,
Dull-eared, dim-sighted, slow of speech and thought,
Still o'er the sad, degenerate present fretting,
Where all goes wrong, and nothing as it ought?

Old age, the graybeard! Well, indeed, I know him,--
Shrunk, tottering, bent, of aches and ills the prey;
In sermon, story, fable, picture, poem,
Oft have I met him from my earliest day:

In my old Aesop, toiling with his bundle,--
His load of sticks,-- politely asking Death,
Who comes when called for,-- would he lug or trundle
His fagot for him?-- he was scant of breath.
And sad "Ecclesiastes, or the Preacher,"-- Has he not stamped tbe image on my soul, In that last chapter, where the worn-out Teacher Sighs o'er the loosened cord, the broken bowl? Yes, long, indeed, I 've known him at a distance, And now my lifted door-latch shows him here; I take his shrivelled hand without resistance, And find him smiling as his step draws near.
What though of gilded baubles he bereaves us, Dear to the heart of youth, to manhood's prime; Think of the calm he brings, the wealth he leaves us, The hoarded spoils, the legacies of time! Altars once flaming, still with incense fragrant, Passion's uneasy nurslings rocked asleep, Hope's anchor faster, wild desire less vagrant, Life's flow less noisy, but the stream how deep! Still as the silver cord gets worn and slender, Its lightened task-work tugs with lessening strain, Hands get more helpful, voices, grown more tender, Soothe with their softened tones the slumberous brain.
Youth longs and manhood strives, but age remembers, Sits by the raked-up ashes of the past, Spreads its thin hands above the whitening embers That warm its creeping life-blood till the last.
Dear to its heart is every loving token That comes unbidden era its pulse grows cold, Ere the last lingering ties of life are broken, Its labors ended and its story told.
Ah, while around us rosy youth rejoices, For us the sorrow-laden breezes sigh, And through the chorus of its jocund voices Throbs the sharp note of misery's hopeless cry.
As on the gauzy wings of fancy flying From some far orb I track our watery sphere, Home of the struggling, suffering, doubting, dying, The silvered globule seems a glistening tear.
But Nature lends her mirror of illusion To win from saddening scenes our age-dimmed eyes, And misty day-dreams blend in sweet confusion The wintry landscape and the summer skies.
So when the iron portal shuts behind us, And life forgets us in its noise and whirl, Visions that shunned the glaring noonday find us, And glimmering starlight shows the gates of pearl.
I come not here your morning hour to sadden, A limping pilgrim, leaning on his staff,-- I, who have never deemed it sin to gladden This vale of sorrows with a wholesome laugh.
If word of mine another's gloom has brightened, Through my dumb lips the heaven-sent message came; If hand of mine another's task has lightened, It felt the guidance that it dares not claim.
But, O my gentle sisters, O my brothers, These thick-sown snow-flakes hint of toil's release; These feebler pulses bid me leave to others The tasks once welcome; evening asks for peace.
Time claims his tribute; silence now golden; Let me not vex the too long suffering lyre; Though to your love untiring still beholden, The curfew tells me-- cover up the fire.
And now with grateful smile and accents cheerful, And warmer heart than look or word can tell, In simplest phrase-- these traitorous eyes are tearful-- Thanks, Brothers, Sisters,-- Children,-- and farewell!

Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

The Flaâneur

 I love all sights of earth and skies, 
From flowers that glow to stars that shine; 
The comet and the penny show, 
All curious things, above, below, 
Hold each in turn my wandering eyes: 
I claim the Christian Pagan's line, 
Humani nihil, -- even so, -- 
And is not human life divine? 
When soft the western breezes blow, 
And strolling youths meet sauntering maids, 
I love to watch the stirring trades 
Beneath the Vallombrosa shades 
Our much-enduring elms bestow; 
The vender and his rhetoric's flow, 
That lambent stream of liquid lies; 
The bait he dangles from his line, 
The gudgeon and his gold-washed prize.
I halt before the blazoned sign That bids me linger to admire The drama time can never tire, The little hero of the hunch, With iron arm and soul of fire, And will that works his fierce desire, -- Untamed, unscared, unconquered Punch! My ear a pleasing torture finds In tones the withered sibyl grinds, -- The dame sans merci's broken strain, Whom I erewhile, perchance, have known, When Orleans filled the Bourbon throne, A siren singing by the Seine.
But most I love the tube that spies The orbs celestial in their march; That shows the comet as it whisks Its tail across the planets' disks, As if to blind their blood-shot eyes; Or wheels so close against the sun We tremble at the thought of risks Our little spinning ball may run, To pop like corn that children parch, From summer something overdone, And roll, a cinder, through the skies.
Grudge not to-day the scanty fee To him who farms the firmament, To whom the Milky Way is free; Who holds the wondrous crystal key, The silent Open Sesame That Science to her sons has lent; Who takes his toll, and lifts the bar That shuts the road to sun and star.
If Venus only comes to time, (And prophets say she must and shall,) To-day will hear the tinkling chime Of many a ringing silver dime, For him whose optic glass supplies The crowd with astronomic eyes, -- The Galileo of the Mall.
Dimly the transit morning broke; The sun seemed doubting what to do, As one who questions how to dress, And takes his doublets from the press, And halts between the old and new.
Please Heaven he wear his suit of blue, Or don, at least, his ragged cloak, With rents that show the azure through! I go the patient crowd to join That round the tube my eyes discern, The last new-comer of the file, And wait, and wait, a weary while, And gape, and stretch, and shrug, and smile, (For each his place must fairly earn, Hindmost and foremost, in his turn,) Till hitching onward, pace by pace, I gain at last the envied place, And pay the white exiguous coin: The sun and I are face to face; He glares at me, I stare at him; And lo! my straining eye has found A little spot that, black and round, Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb's rim.
O blessed, beauteous evening star, Well named for her whom earth adores, -- The Lady of the dove-drawn car, -- I know thee in thy white simar; But veiled in black, a rayless spot, Blank as a careless scribbler's blot, Stripped of thy robe of silvery flame, -- The stolen robe that Night restores When Day has shut his golden doors, -- I see thee, yet I know thee not; And canst thou call thyself the same? A black, round spot, -- and that is all; And such a speck our earth would be If he who looks upon the stars Through the red atmosphere of Mars Could see our little creeping ball Across the disk of crimson crawl As I our sister planet see.
And art thou, then, a world like ours, Flung from the orb that whirled our own A molten pebble from its zone? How must thy burning sands absorb The fire-waves of the blazing orb, Thy chain so short, thy path so near, Thy flame-defying creatures hear The maelstroms of the photosphere! And is thy bosom decked with flowers That steal their bloom from scalding showers? And hast thou cities, domes, and towers, And life, and love that makes it dear, And death that fills thy tribes with fear? Lost in my dream, my spirit soars Through paths the wandering angels know; My all-pervading thought explores The azure ocean's lucent shores; I leave my mortal self below, As up the star-lit stairs I climb, And still the widening view reveals In endless rounds the circling wheels That build the horologe of time.
New spheres, new suns, new systems gleam; The voice no earth-born echo hears Steals softly on my ravished ears: I hear them "singing as they shine" -- A mortal's voice dissolves my dream: My patient neighbor, next in line, Hints gently there are those who wait.
O guardian of the starry gate, What coin shall pay this debt of mine? Too slight thy claim, too small the fee That bids thee turn the potent key The Tuscan's hand has placed in thine.
Forgive my own the small affront, The insult of the proffered dime; Take it, O friend, since this thy wont, But still shall faithful memory be A bankrupt debtor unto thee, And pay thee with a grateful rhyme.
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

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 *****, so very *****, 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.
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

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!
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

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!
Written by Oliver Wendell Holmes | Create an image from this poem

The Boys

 HAS there any old fellow got mixed with the boys?
If there has, take him out, without making a noise.
Hang the Almanac's cheat and the Catalogue's spite! Old Time is a liar! We're twenty to-night! We're twenty! We're twenty! Who says we are more? He's tipsy,-- young jackanapes!-- show him the door! "Gray temples at twenty?"-- Yes ! white if we please; Where the snow-flakes fall thickest there's nothing can freeze! Was it snowing I spoke of? Excuse the mistake! Look close,-- you will see not a sign of a flake! We want some new garlands for those we have shed,-- And these are white roses in place of the red.
We've a trick, we young fellows, you may have been told, Of talking (in public) as if we were old:-- That boy we call "Doctor," and this we call "Judge;" It's a neat little fiction,-- of course it's all fudge.
That fellow's the "Speaker,"-- the one on the right; "Mr.
Mayor," my young one, how are you to-night? That's our "Member of Congress," we say when we chaff; There's the "Reverend" What's his name?-- don't make me laugh.
That boy with the grave mathematical look Made believe he had written a wonderful book, And the ROYAL SOCIETY thought it was true! So they chose him right in; a good joke it was, too! There's a boy, we pretend, with a three-decker brain, That could harness a team with a logical chain; When he spoke for our manhood in syllabled fire, We called him "The Justice," but now he's "The Squire.
" And there's a nice youngster of excellent pith,-- Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith; But he shouted a song for the brave and the free, Just read on his medal, "My country," "of thee!" You hear that boy laughing?-- You think he's all fun; But the angels laugh, too, at the good he has done; The children laugh loud as they troop to his call, And the poor man that knows him laughs loudest of all! Yes, we're boys, --always playing with tongue or with pen,-- And I sometimes have asked,-- Shall we ever be men? Shall we always be youthful, and laughing, and gay, Till the last dear companion drops smiling away? Then here's to our boyhood, its gold and its gray! The stars of its winter, the dews of its May! And when we have done with our life-lasting toys, Dear Father, take care of thy children, THE BOYS!