Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Volume 13 online

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" Who gave this cup ? " The secret thou wouldst

Its brinmung flood forbids it to reveal :
No mortal's eye shall read it till he first
Cool the red throat of thirst.

If on the golden floor one draught remain,
Trust me, thy careful search will be in vain ;
Not till the bowl is emptied shalt thou know
The names enrolled below.

Deeper than Truth lies buried in her well
Those modest names the graven letters spell
Hide from the sight ; but wait, and thou shalt see
Who the good angels be

Whose bounty glistens in the beauteous gift
That friendly hands to loving lips shall lift :
Turn the fair goblet when its floor is dry, —
Their names shall meet thine eye.

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Count thou their number on the beads of Heaven :
Alas I the clustered Pleiads are but seven ;
Naj, the nine sister Muses are too few, —
The Graces must add two.

«<For whom this gift?" For one who all too

Clings to his bough among the groves of song ;
Autumn's last leaf, tiiat spreads its faded wing
To greet a second spring.

Dear friends, kind friends, whate'er the cup may

Bathing its burnished depths, will change to

Its last bright drop let thirsty Msenads drain,
Its fragrance will remain.

Better love's perfume in the empty bowl
Than wine's nepenthe for the aching soul ;
Sweeter than song tiiat ever poet sung.
It makes an old heart young I


How beauteous is the bond
In the manifold array
Of its promises to pay.
While the eight per cent it gives
And the rate at which one lives
Correspond !

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But at last the bough is bare
Where the coupons one by one
Through their ripening days have run,
And the bond, a b^gar now,
Seeks investment anyhow,
Anywhere I


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

Till all the pens and paper were used up.
And the huge inkstand was an empty cup.
Still would the scribblers clustered round its

Call for more pens, more paper, and more ink.


Lady, life's sweetest lesson wouldst thou learn.

Come thou with me to Love's enchanted bower :
High overhead the trellised roses bum ;
Beneath thy feet behold the feathery fern, —
A leaf without a flower.

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Wliat though the rose leaves fall ? They still are
And have been lovely in their beauteous prime,
While the bare frond seems ever to repeat,
^ For us no bud, no blossom, wakes to greet
The joyous flowering time I "

Heed thou the lesson. life has leaves to tread
And flowers to cherish; summer round thee
Wait not till autumn's fading robes are shed.
But while its petals still are burning red
Grather life's full-blown rose I


I LIKE YOU met I LOVE YOU, f aoe to face ;

The path was narrow, and they could not pass.

I LIKE YOU smiled ; I love you cried, Alas I
And so they halted for a little space.

** Turn thou and go before," I love you sud,
**Down the green pathway, bright with many

a flower ;
Deep in the valley, lo I my bridal bower

Awaits thee." But I like you shook his head.

Then while they lingered on the span-wide shelf
That shaped a pathway round the rocky ledge,
I LIKE YOU bared his icy dagger's edge.

And first he slew I love you, — then himself.

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(bab habbob)

Fbom this fair home behold on either side
The restful mountains or the restless sea :

So the warm sheltering walls of life divide
Time and its tides firom still eternity.

Look on the waves : their stormy voices teach
That not on earth may toil and struggle cease.

Look on the mountains : better far than speech
Their silent promise of eternal peace.


Too young for love?

Ah, say not so I
Tell reddening rose-buds not to blow I
Wait not for spring to pass away, —
Love's summer months begin with May !

Too young for love ?

Ah, say not so I

Too young? Too young?

All, no ! no I no I

Too young for love ?

Ah, say not so,
To practise all love learned in May.
June soon will come with lengthened day
While daisies bloom and tulips glow I

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Too young for love ?
Ah, say not so I
Too young ? Too young ?
Ah, no ! no I no I


Look out ! Look out, boys I Clear the track I
The witches are here I They Ve all come back I
They hanged them high, — No use ! No use I
What cares a witch for a hangman's noose 7
They buried them deep, but they wouldn't lie

For cats and witches are hard to kill ;
They swore they should n't and would n't die, — -
Books said they did, but they lie I they lie I

A couple of hundred years, or so,

They had knocked about in the world below,

When an Essex Deacon dropped in to call.

And a homesick feeling seized them all ;

For he came from a place they knew full well,

And many a tale he had to tell.

They longed to visit the haunts of men.

To see the old dwellings they knew again.

And ride on their broomsticks all around

Their wide domain of unhallowed ground.

In Essex county there 's many a roof
Well known to him of the cloven hoof ;

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The small square windows are full in view
Whicli the midnight hags went sailing tiirough,
On their well-trained broomsticks mounted high.
Seen like shadows against the sky ;
Crossing the track of owls and bats,
Hugging before them their coal-black oats.

Well did thej know, those gray old wives.

The sights we see in our daily drives :

Shimmer of lake and shine of sea,

Browne's bare hill with its lonely tree,

(It was n't then as we see it now.

With one scant scalp-lock to shade its brow ;)

Dusky nooks in the Essex woods,

Dark, dim, Dante-like solitudes.

Where the tree-toad watches the sinuous snake

Glide through his forests of fern and brake ;

Ipswich River ; its old stone bridge ;

Far off Andover's Indian Ridge,

And many a scene where history tells

Some shadow of bygone terror dwells, —

Of '' Norman's Woe " with its tale of dread^

Of the Screeching Woman of Marblehead,

(The fearful story tiiat turns men pale :

Don't bid me tell it, — my speech would faaL)

Who would not, will not, if he can,
Bathe in the breezes of fair Cape Ann, —
Rest in the bowers her bays enf (dd.
Loved by the sachems and squaws of old?
Home where the white magnolias bloom.
Sweet with the baybeny's chaste perfume,

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Hugged by the woods and kissed by the sea I
Where is the Eden like to thee ?
For that ^^ couple of hundred years, or so,"
There had been no peace in the world below ;
The witches still grumbling, ^* It is n't fair ;
G>me, give us a taste of the upper air !
We 've had enough of your sulphur springs,
And the evil odor that round them clings ;
We long for a drink that is cool and nice, -»
Great buckets of water with Wenham ice ;
We 've served you well upstairs, you know ;
You 're a good old — fellow — come, let us go I '*

I don't feel sure of his being good.
But he happened to be in a pleasant mood, —
As fiends with their skins full sometimes are, —
(He 'd been drinking with ^* roughs " at a Boston

So what does he do but up and shout
To a graybeard turnkey, ^^ Let 'em out 1 '*

To mind his orders was all he knew ;

The gates swung open, and out they flew.

*^ Where are our broomsticks ? " the beldams cried.

" Here are your broomsticks," an imp replied.

" They 've been in — the place you know — so

They smell of brimstone uncommon strong ;
But they ' ve gained by being left alone, —
Just look, and you 'U see how tall they 've grown."
^^ And where is my cat ? " a vixen squalled.
^ Yes, where are our cats?" the witches bawled,

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And began to call them all by name :

Ab fast as they called £he oats, they oame :

There was bob-tailed Tommy and long-tailed Tim,

And waU-^yed Jacky and green-eyed Jim,

And splay-foot Benny and slim-legged Bean,

And Skinny and Squally, and Jerry and Joe,

And many another that came at call, —

It would take too long to count them all.

All black, — one could hardly tell which was which.

But every cat knew his own old witch ;

And she knew hers as hers knew her, —

Ah, didn't they curl their tails and purr I

No sooner the withered hags were free
Than out they swarmed for a midnight spree ;
I could n't tell all they did in rhymes.
But the Essex people had dreadful times.
The SwampBoott fishermen still relate
How a strange searmonster stole their bait ;
How their nets were tangled in loops and knots.
And they found dead crabs in their lobster-pots.
Poor Dan vers grieved for her blasted crops.
And Wilmington mourned over mildewed hops.
A blight played havoc with Beverly beans, —
It was all the work of those hateful queans I
A dreadful panic began at ** Pride's,"
Where the witches stopped in their midnight rides,
And there rose strange rumors and vag^e alarms
'Mid the peaceful dwellers at Beverly Farms.

Now when the Boss of the Beldams found
That without his leave they were ramping round,

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He called, — they oonld hear him twenty miles,

From Chelsea beach to the Misery Isles ;

The deafest old gramiy knew his tone

Without the trick of the telephone*

** Come here, you witches I Come here 1 '* says he, —

^^ At your games of old, without asking me !

I 'U give you a little job to do

That will keep you stirring, you godless crew I '^

They came, of course, at their master's call.
The witches, the broomsticks, the cats, and all ;
He led the hags to a railway train
The horses were trying to drag in vain.
" Now, then,'' says he, " you 've had your fun,
And here are the cars you 've got to run.
The driver may just imhitch his team,
We don't want horses, we don't want steam ;
You may keep your old black cats to hug.
But the loaded train you 've got to lug."

Since then on many a car you 'U see

A broomstick plain as plain can be ;

On every stick there 's a witch astride, —

The string you see to her leg is tied.

She will do a mischief if she can.

But the string is held by a careful man.

And whenever the evil-minded witch

Would cut some caper, he gives a twitch.

As for the hag, you can't see her,

But hark I you can hear her black cat's purr,

And now and then, as a car goes by.

You may catch a gleam from her wicked eye.

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Often you Ve looked on a nulimg train.
But just what moyed it was not so plain.
It could n't be those wires above.
For they could neither pull nor shove ;
Where was the motor that made it go
You couldn't guess, butnaw you know.

Bemember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstiok train !


While in my simple gospel creed
That ''God is Love " so plain I read.
Shall dreams of heathen birth afiEright
My pathway through the coming night ?
Ah, Lord of life, though spectres pale
Fill with their threats the shadowy vale,
With Thee my faltering steps to aid.
How can I da^ to be afraid ?

Shall mouldering page or fading scroll
Out&ce the charter of the soul ?
Shall priesthood's palsied arm protect
The wrong our human hearts reject,
And smite the lips whose shuddering cry
Proclaims a cruel creed a lie ?
The wizard's rope we disallow
Was justice once, — is murder now I

Is there a world of blank despair.
And dwells the Omnipresent there ?

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Does He behold with ssiile sefene
The shows of that unending scene.
Where sleepless, hopeless angnish lies,
And, ever dying, never dies ?
Say, does He hear the sufferer's groan.
And is that child of wrath his own?

O mortal, wavering in thy trust.
Lift thy pale forehead from the dust I
The mists that doud thy darkened eyes
Fade ere they reach the o'erarching skies I
When the blind heralds of despair
Would bid thee doubt a Father's care,
Look up from earth, and read above
On heaven's blue tablet, GrOD is Lovx I


Thb glory has passed from the goldenrod's plume,
The purple-hued asters still linger in bloom :
The birch is bright yellow, the sumachs are red.
The maples like torches aflame overhead.

But what if the joy of the summer is past,
And winter's wild herald is blowing his blast ?
For me dull November is sweeter than May,
For my love is its sunshine, — she meets me to-day I

Will she come? Will the ring-dove return to her

Will the needle swing back from the east or the


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At the stroke of the hour she ^will be at her gate ;
A friend may prove laggard, — love never comes

Do I see her afar in the distance? Not yet.
Too early 1 Too early ! She could not forget!
When I cross the old bridge where the brook over-
She will flash full in sight at the tnm of the road.

I pass the low wall where the ivy entwines ;

I tread the brown pathway that leads through the

I haste by the boulder that lies in the field,
Where her promise at parting was lovingly sealed.

Will she come by the hillside or round through the

Will she wear her brown dress or her mantle and

The minute draws near, — but her watch may go

My heart tjoill be asking. What keeps her so long ?

Why doubt for a moment ? More shame if I do I
Why question ? Why tremble ? Are angels more

She would come to the lover who calls her his own
Though she trod in the track of a whirling cyclone I

I crossed the old bridge ere the minute had passed.
I looked : lo ! my Love stood before me at last.

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Her eyes, how they sparkled, lier cheeks, how they

As we met, £aoe to face, at the turn of the roadi

myrrl MmEBvA

Vex not the Muse with idle prayers, —

She will not hear thy oall ;
She steals upon thee unawares.

Or jseeks thee not at alL

Soft as the moonbeams when they sought

Endymion's fragrant bower.
She parts the whispering leaves of thought

To show her full-blown flower.

For thee her wooing hour has passed.

The singing birds have flown,
And winter comes with icy blast

To chill thy buds unblown.

Yet, though the woods no longer thrill

As once their arches rung,
Sweet echoes hover round thee still

Of songs thy summer sung.

Live in thy past ; await no more
The rush of heaven-sent wings ;

Earth still has music left in store
While Memory sighs and sings.

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You know ^^ The Teacups," that congenial set
Which round the Teapot you have often met;
The grave Dictator, hixn you knew of old, —
Knew as the shepherd of another fold :
Grrayer he looks, less youthful, but the same
As when you called hixn by a different name.

Near him the Mistress, whose experienced skill
Has taught her duly every cup to fill ;
"Weak; ""strong;" "cool;" "lukewarm;"** hot

as you can pour ; "
"No sweetening;" "sugared;" "two lumps;"
" one lump more."

Next, the Pbofessob, whose scholastic phrase
At every turn the teacher's tongue betrays,
Trying so hard to make his speech precise
The captious listener finds it ovemice.

Nor be forgotten our Annexes twain,
Nor He, the owner of the squinting brain,
Which, while its curious fancies we pursue,
Oft makes us question, "Are we crack-brained

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Along the board our growing list extends,
As one by one we count our clustering friends, - ^
The youthful Doctob waiting for his share
Of fits and fevers when his crown gets bare ;
In strong, dark lines our square-nibbed pen should

The lordly presence of the Man of Law ;
Our bashful Tutob claims a humbler place,
A lighter touch, his slender form to trace.
Mark the fair lady he is seated by, —
Some say he is her lover, — some deny, —
Watch them together, — time alone can show
If dead-ripe friendship turns to love or n<^
Where in my list of phrases shall I seek
The fitting words of Number Five to speak?
Such task demands a readier pen than mine, —
What if I steal the Tutor's Valentine ?

Why should I call her gracious^ winnmg^faifr t
Why with the loveliest of her sex compare f
Those varied charms have many a Muse in-

spired^ —
At last thmr worn superlatives have tired;
Wit, beauty, sweetness, each alluring grace.
All these in honeyed verse havefbtmd their place;
I need them not, — two Utile words I find
Which hold them all in happiest form combined;
No more with Jxvffled language will I strive, —
All in one breath I utter: Number Fvoel

Now count our teaspoons — if you care to learn
How many tinkling cups were served in turn, —
Add all together, you will find them ten, —
Our young Musician joined us now and then.

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Our briglit DsuLAH jou rnoBt needs leoall^
The comely handmaid, youngest of us all ;
Need I remind you how the little maid
Came at a pinch to onr Prof essor^s aid, —
Trimmed his long looks with unrelenting shears
And eased his looks of half a soore of years ?

Sometimes, at table, as you well must know,
The stream of talk will all at once run low,
The air seems smitten with a sudden chill.
The wit grows silent and the gossip still ;
This was our poet's chance, the hour of need.
When rhymes and stories we were used to read.

One day a whisper round the teacups stole, —
"iVb scrap of paper in the Mver bowl ! **
(Our ** poet's comer " may I not expect
My kindly reader still may recollect ?)

^ What 1 not a line to keep our souls alive ? "
Spoke in her silvery accents Number Five.
*^ No matter, something we must find to read, —
Find it or make it, — yes, we must indeed I
Now I remember I have seen at times
Some curious stories in a book of rhymes, —
How certain secrets, long in silence sealed.
In after days were guessed at or revealed.
Those stories, doubtless, some of you must know, —
They all were written many a year ago ;
But an old story, be it false or true.
Twice told, well told, is twice as good as new ;
Wait but three sips and I will go myself.
And fetch the book of verses from its shelf."

No time was lost in finding what she sought, —
Gone but one moment, — lo 1 the book is brought.

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^ Now, fhen, Professor, f ortone has decreed
That you, this eyening, shall be first to read, —
Lucky for us that listen, for in fact
Who reads this poem must know how to oe^/'

Bight well she knew that in his g^reener age
He had a mighty hankering for the stage.
The patient audience had not long to wait ;
Pleased with his chance, he smiled and took die

Through his wild hair his coaxing fingers ran, —
He spread the page before him and began.


The Banker's dinner is the stateliest feast
The town has heard of for a year, at least ;
The sparry lustres shed their broadest blaee.
Damask and silver catch and spread the rays ;
The florist's triumphs crown the daintier spoil
Won from the sea, the forest, or the soil ;
The steaming hot-house yields its largest pines,
The sunless vaults unearth their oldest wines ;
With one admiring look the scene survey.
And turn a moment from the bright display.

Of all the joys of earthly pride or power.
What gives most life, worth living, in an hour ?
When Victory settles on the doubtful fight
And the last f oeman wheels in paniang fiight,
No thrill like this is felt beneath the sun ;
Life's sovereign moment is a battle won.

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But say wliat next ? To shape a Senate's ohoioe,
By the strong magio of the master's Toioe ;
To ride the stormy tempest of debatowling boatmen Ued, and knew they lied.

They said his house was framed with curious
Lest some old friend might enter unawares ;
That on the platform at his chamber's door
Hinged a loose square that opened through the floor ;
Touch the black silken tassel next the bell,
Down, with a crash, the flapping trap-door fell ;
Three stories deep the falling wretch would strike,
To writhe at leisure on a boarder's pike.

By day armed always ; donble-armed at night,

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Hifl tools lay round him ; wake him such as might
A carbine hung beside his India fan,
His hand could reach a Turkish ataghan;
Pistols, with quaint-caryed stocks and barrek gilt»
Crossed a long dagger with a jewelled hilt ;
A slashing cutlass stretched along the bed ; -*
All this was what those lying boatmen said*

Then some were full of wondrous stories tdd
Of great oak chests and cupboards full of gold;
Of the wedged ingots and the silver bars
That cost old pirates ugly sabre-scars ;
How his laced wallet often would disgorge
The fresh-faced guinea of an English Qeorge,
Or sweated ducat, palmed by Jews of yore,
Or double Joe, or Portuguese moidore ;
And how his finger wore a rubied ring
Fit for the white-necked play-girl of a king.
But these fine legends, told with staring eyes.
Met with small credence from the old and wise.

Why tell each idle guess, each whisper Ysin?
Enough : the scorched and cindered beams remain.
He came, a silent pilgrim to the West,
Some old-world mystery throbbing in his breast ;
Close to the thronging mart he dwelt alone ;
He lived ; he died. The rest is all unknown.

Stranger, whose eyes the shadowy isle survey,
As the black steamer dashes through the bay.
Why ask his buried secret to divine ?
He was thy brother ; speak, and tell us thine I

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Silence at first, a kind of spell-bound paose ;
Then all the Teacups tinkled their applause ;
When that was hushed no sound the stillness broke
Till once again the soft-yoiced lady spoke :

^ The Lover's Secret, — surely that must need
The youngest yoice our table holds to read.
Which of our two * Annexes ' shall we choose?
Either were eharming, neither will refuse ;
But choose we must, — what better can we do
Than take the younger of the youthful two ?"

True to the primal instinct of her sex,
^* Why, that means ma," half whispered each An-
^^ What if it does ? " the voiceless question came,
That set those pale New England cheeks aflame ;
^ Our old-world scholar may have ways to teach
Of Oxford English, Britain's purest speech, —
She shall be youngest, — youngest ybr to-day^ —
Our dates we 'U fix hereafter as we may ;
All rights reserved^ — the words we know so well.
That guard the claims of books which never selL"

The British maiden bowed a pleased assent,
Her two long ringlets swinging as she bent ;
The glistening eyes her eager soul looked through
Betrayed her lineage in their Saxon blue.
Backward she flung each too obtrusive curl
And thus began, — the rose-lipped English girL

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What ailed young Lucius? Art had mainly tried
To guess his ill, and found herself defied.
The Augur plied his legendary skill ;
Useless ; the fair young Boman languished stilL
His chariot took him every cloudless day
Along the Pincian Hill or Appian Way ;
They rubbed his wasted limbs with sulphurous oil.
Oozed from the far-off Orient's heated soil ;
They led him tottering down the steamy path
Where bubbling fountains filled the thermal bath ;
Borne in his litter to Egeria's cave,
They washed him, shivering, in her icy wave.
They sought all curious herbs and costly stones.
They scraped the moss that grew on dead men's

They tried all cures the votive tablets taught,
Scoured every place whence healing drugs were

O'er Thracian hills his breathless couriers ran.
His slaves waylaid the Syrian caravan.

At last a servant heard a stranger speak
A new chirurgeon's name ; a clever Gfreek,
Skilled in his art ; from Pergamus he came

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Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesThe writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Volume 13 → online text (page 10 of 14)