Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Volume 13 online

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Springs from his desk to ''urge the flying ball,"
Cleaves with his bending oar the glassy waves.
With sinewy arm the dashing current braves,
The same bright creature in these haunts of ours
That Eton shadowed with her "antique towers."

Boy I Where is he? the long-limbed youth in-
Whom his rough chin with manly pride inspires;

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Ah, when the ruddy cheek no longer glows,
When the bright haur is white as winter snows.
When the dim eye has lost its lambent flame,
Sweet to his ear will be his school-boy namel
Nor think the difference mighty as it seems
Between life's morning and its evening dreams;
Fourscore, like twenty, has its tasks and toys;
In earth's wide school-house all are girls and boys.

Brothers, forgive my wayward fancy. Who
Can guess beforehand what his pen will do?
Too light my strain for listeners such as these.
Whom graver thoughts and soberer speech shall

Is he not here whose breath of holy song
Has raised the downcast eyes of Faith so long?
Are they not here, the strangers in your gates,
For whom the wearied ear impatient waits, —
The large-brained scholars whom their toils re-
lease, —
The bannered heralds of the Prince of Peace?

Such was the gentle friend whose youth unblamed
In years long past our student-benches claimed;
Whose name, illumined on the sacred page,
Lives in the labors of his riper age;
Such he whose record time's destroying march
Leaves uneffaced on Zion's springing aroh:
Not to the scanty phrase of measured song.
Cramped in its fetters, names like these belong;
One ray they lend to gild my slender line, —
Their praise I leave to sweeter lips than mine.

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Homes of onr sires, where Learning's temple
While yet they struggled with their banded foes,
As in l^e West thy century's son descends,
One parting gleam its dying radiance lends.
Darker and deeper though the shadows fall
From the gray towers on Doubting Castle's wall,

Though Pope and Pagan re-array their hosts, |

And her new armor youthful Science boasts.

Truth, for whose altar rose this holy shrine, I

Shall fly for refuge to these bowers of thine; <

No past shall chun her with its rusted vow, |

No Jew's phylactery bind her Christian brow,

But Faith shall smile to find her sister free, i

And nobler manhood draw its life from thee.

Long as the arching skies above thee spread.
As on thy groyes the dews of heaven are shed.
With currents widening still from year to year.
And deepening channels, calm, untroubled, clear.
Flow the twin streamlets from thy sacred hill —
Pieria's foimt and Siloam's shaded rill!


*Bhing me my broken harp," he said;

"We both are wrecks, — but as ye will, —
Though all its ringing tones have fled.

Their echoes linger round it still;
It had some golden strings, I know.
But that was long — how longi — ago.

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^^I cannot see its tarnished gold,

I cannot hear its Tanished tone,
Scarce can my trembling fingers hold

The pillared frame so long their own;
We both are wrecks, — a while ago
It had some silver strings, I know,

^^But on them Time too long has played
The solemn strain that knows no change,

And where of old my fingers strayed

The chords they find are new and strange, ^-

YesI iron strings, — I know, — I know, —

We both are wrecks of long ago.

"We both are wrecks, — a shattered pair, —
Strange to ourselves in time's disguise . . •

What say ye to the lovesick air

That brought the tears from Marian's eyes?

Ay I trust me, — under breasts of snow

Hearts could be melted long agol

"Or will ye hear the storm-song's crash
That from his dreams the soldier woke,
And bade him face the lightning flash

When battle's doud in thunder broke? . . •
Wrecks, — nought but wrecksl — the time was

We two were worth a thousand meni "

And so the broken harp they bring

With pitying smiles that none could blame;

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AlasI there 'b not a single string

Of all thai; filled the tarnished frame!
But seel like children overjoyed,
His fingers rambUng through the void I

**I clasp thee I Ay . . . mine ancient lyre . . •
Nay, guide my wandering fingers. . . . Therel
They love to dally with the wire

As Isaac played with Esau's hair. • • •
Hush! ye shall hear the famous tune
That Marian called the Breath of June!"

And so they softly gather round:

Bapt in his tuneful trance he seems:
His fingers move: but not a sound!
A silence like the song of dreams. . • •
^^Therel ye have heard the air," he cries,
^^Tfaat brought the tears from Marian's eyes! "

Ah, smile not at his fond conceit.
Nor deem his fancy wrought in vain;

To him the unreal sounds are sweet, —
No discord mars the silent strain

Scored on life's latest, starlit page —

The Toiceless melody of age.

Sweet are the lips of all that sing.

When Nature's music breathes unsought.

But never yet could voice or string
So truly shape our tenderest thought

As when by life's decaying fire

Our fingers sweep the stringless lyre!

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YoxTB home was mine, — kind Nature's gift ;

My love no years can chill ;
In yain their flakes the storm-winds sift,
The snow-drop hides beneath the drifts

A living blossom stilL

Mute are a hundred long-famed lyres.
Hushed all their golden strings ;

One lay the coldest bosom fires,

One song, one only, never tires
While sweet-voiced memoiy sings.

No spot so lone but echo knows

That dear familiar strain ;
In tropic isles, on arctic snows,
Through burning lips its music flows

And rings its fond refrain.

From Pisa's tower my straining sight

Roamed wandering leagues away,
When lo I a frigate's banner bright,
The starry blue, the red, the white.
In far Livomo's bay.

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Hot leaps the life-blood from my heart,

Forth spiings the sudden tear ;
The ship that rocks by yonder mart
Is of my land, my life, a part, —

Home, home, sweet home, is here !

Fades from my view the sunlit scene, —

My vision spans the waves ;
I see the elm-encircled g^reen.
The tower, — the steeple, — and, between.

The field of ancient graves.

There runs the path my feet would treacl
When first they learned to stray ;

There stands the gambrel roof that spread

Its quaint old angles o'er my head
When first I saw the day.

The sounds that met my boyish ear

My inward sense salute, —
The woodnotes wild I loved to hear, —
The robin's challenge, sharp and clear, —

The breath of evening's flute.

The faces loved from cradle days, —

Unseen, alas, how long I
As fond remembrance round them plays.
Touched with its softening moonlight rays.

Through fancy's portal throng.

And see I as if the opening skies
Some angel form had spared

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Us wingless mortals to surprise,
The litde maid with light-blue eyes,
White necked and golden haired I

So rose the picture full in view

I paint in feebler song ;
Such power the seamless banner knew
Of red and white and starry blue

For exiles banished long.

Oh, boys, dear boys, who wait as men

To guard its heaven-bright folds,
Blest are the eyes that see again
That banner, seamless now, as then,^-
The fairest earth beholds I

Sweet was the Tuscan air and soft

In that unfading hour.
And fancy leads my footsteps oft
Up the round galleries, high aloft

On Pisa's threatening tower.

And still in Memoiy's holiest shrine

I read with pride and joy,
^ For me those stars of empire shine ;
That empire's dearest home is mine ;

I am a Cambridge boy I "

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Thbee paths there be where Learning's favored

Trained in the schools which hold her favored

Follow their several stars with separate aim ;
Each has its honors, each its special chum.
Bred in the fruitful cradle of the East,
First, as of oldest lineage, comes the Priest ;
The Lawyer next, in wordy conflict strong,
Full armed to battle for the right, — or wrong ;
Last, he whose calling finds its voice in deeds,
Frail Nature's helper in her sharpest needs.

Each has his gifts, his losses and his gains,
Each his own share of pleasures and of pains ;
No life-long aim with steadfast eye pursued
Finds a smooth pathway all with roses strewed ;
Trouble belongs to man of woman bom, —
Tread where he may, his foot will find its thorn.

Of all the guests at life's perennial feast.
Who of her children sits above the Priest ?
For him the broidered robe, the carven seat,
Pride at his beck, and beauty at his feet.
For him the incense fumes, the wine is poured.
Himself a Gk)d, adoring and adored I
His the first welcome when our hearts rejoice.
His in our dying ear the latest voice.

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Font, altar, grave, his steps on all attend,

Our staff, our stay, our all but heavenly friend \

Where is the meddling hand that dares to probe
The secret grief beneath his sable robe ?
How grave his port ! how every gesture tells
Here truth abides, here peace forever dwells ;
Vex not his lofty soul with comments vain ;
Faith asks no questions ; silence, ye profane I

Alas I too oft while all is cahn without
The stormy spirit wars with endless d<yubt ;
This is- the mocking spectre, scarce concealed
Behind tradition's bruised and battered shield.
He sees the sleepless critic, age by age.
Scrawl his new readings on the hallowed page,
The wondrous deeds that priests and prophets saw
Dissolved in l^end, crystallized in law.
And on the soil where saints and martyrs trod
Altars new builded to the Unknown God ;
His shrines imperilled, his evangels torn, —
He dares not limp, but ah I how sharp his thorn I

Yet while Grod's herald questions as he reads
The outworn dogmas of his ancient creeds.
Drops from his ritual the exploded verse.
Blots from its page the Athanasian curse,
Though by the critic's dangerous art perplexed,
His holy life is Heaven's unquestioned text ;
That shining guidance doubt can never mar, —
The pillar's flame, the light of Bethlehem's star I

Strong is the moral blister that will draw
Laid on the conscience of the Man of Law
Whom blindfold Justice lends her eyes to see
Truth in the scale that holds his promised fee.

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WbAt I Has not every lie its tmthfiil side,
Its honest fraction, not to be denied?
Per contrd, — ask the moralist, — in sooth
Has not a lie its share in eveiy truth ?
Then what forbids an honest nam to try
To find the truth that lurks in every lie,
And just as fairly call on truth to yield
The lying fraction in its breast concealed ?
So the worst rogue shall claim a ready friend
His modest virtues boldly to defend.
And he who shows the record of a saint
See himself blacker than the devil could paint.

What struggles to his captive soul belong
Who loves the right, yet combats for the wrong,
Who fights the battle he would fain refuse.
And wins, well knowing that he ought to lose.
Who speaks with glowing lips and look sincere
In spangled words that make the worse appear
The better reason ; who, behind his mask.
Hides his true self and blushes at his task, —
What quips, what quillets cheat the inward scorn
That mocks such triumph? Has he not his thorn ?

Yet stay thy judgment ; were thy life the prize.
Thy death the forfeit, would thy cynic eyes
See fault in him who bravely dares defend
The cause forlorn, the wretch without a friend ?
Nay, though the rightful side is wisdom's choice.
Wrong has its rights and claims a champion's voice ;
Let the strong arm be lifted for the weak.
For the dumb lips the fluent pleader speak ; —
When with warm '^ rebel " blood our street was dyed
Who took, unawed, the hated hirelings' side?

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No greener civic wreaih can Adams claim.
No brighter page the youthful Quincy's name I

How blest is he who knows no meaner strife
Than Art's long battle with the foes of life I
No doubt assails him, doing stiU his best,
And trusting kindly Nature for the rest ;
No mocking conscience tears the thin disguise
That wraps his breast, and tells him that he lies.
He comes : the languid sufferer lifts his head
And smiles a welcome trom his weary bed ;
He speaks : what music like the tones that tell,
"Past is the hour of danger, — all is well 1 *'
How can he feel the petty stings of grief
Whose cheering presence always brings relief?
What ugly dreams can trouble his repose
Who yields himself to soothe another's woes ?

Hour after hour the busy day has f oimd
The good physician on his lonely round ;
Mansion and hovel, low and lofty door,
He knows, his journeys every path explore,—
Where the cold blast has struck with deadly chill
The sturdy dweller on the storm-swept hill,
Where by the stagnant marsh the sickening gale
Has blanched the poisoned tenants of the vale.
Where crushed and maimed the bleeding victim lies.
Where madness raves, where melancholy sighs.
And where the solemn whisper tells too plain
That all his science, all his art, were vain.

How sweet his fireside when the day is done
And cares have vanished with the setting sun I
Evening at last its hour of respite brings
And on his couch his weary length he flings.

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Soft be thy pillow, servant of mankind.
Lulled by an opiate Art could never find ;
Sweet be thy slumber, — thou hast earned it well, —
Pleasant thy dreams I Clang I goes the midnight

Darkness and storm I the home is far away
That waits his coming ere the break of day ;
The snow-clad pines their wintry plumage toss, —
Doubtful the frozen stream his road must cross ;
Deep lie the drifts, the slanted heaps have shut
The hardy woodman in his mountain hut, —
Why should thy softer frame the tempest brave ?
Bast thou no life, no health, to lose or save ?
Look! read the answer in his patient eyes, —
For him no other voice when sufFering cries ;
Deaf to the gale that all around him blows,
A feeble whisper calls him, — and he goes.

Or seek the crowded city, — summer's heat
Glares burning, blinding, in the narrow street.
Still, noisome, deadly, sleeps the envenomed air,
Unstirred the yellow flag that says ^^ Beware I "
Tempt not thy fate, — one little moment's breath
Bears on its viewless wing the seeds of death ;
Thou at whose door the gilded chariots stand.
Whose dear-bought skill unclasps the miser's hand,
Turn from thy fatal quest, nor cast away
That life so precious ; let a meaner prey
Feed the destroyer's hunger ; live to bless
Those happier homes that need thy care no lessl

Smiling he listens ; has he then a charm
Whose magic virtues peril can disarm?
No safeguard his ; no amulet he wears.
Too well he knows that Nature never spares

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Her truest servaat, powerless to defend
From her own weapons her unshrinking friend.
He dares the fate the bravest well might shun.
Nor asks reward save only Heaven's '^ Well done I ''

Such are the toils, the perils that he knows,
Days without rest and nights without repose,
Yet all unheeded for the love he bears
His art, his kind, whose every grief he shares.

Harder than these to know how small the part
Nature's proud empire yields to striving Art ;
How, as the tide that rolls around the sphere
Laughs at the mounds that delving arms uprear, -^
Spares some few roods of oozy earth, but still
Wastes and rebuilds the planet at its will.
Comes at its ordered season, night or noon.
Led by the silver magnet of the moon, —
So life's vast tide forever comes and goes.
Unchecked, resistless, as it ebbs and flows.

Hardest of all, when Art has done her best.
To find the cuckoo brooding in her nest ;
The shrewd adventurer, fresh from parts unknown,
EjUs off the patients Science thought her own ;
Towns from a nostrum-vender get their name.
Fences and walls the cure-all drug proclaim.
Plasters and pads the willing world beguile,
Fair Lydia greets us with astringent smile,
Munchausen's fellow-countryman unlocks
His new Pandora's globule-holding box,
And as King Greorge inquired, with puzzled grin,
" How — how the devil get the apple in ? "
So we ask how, — with wonder-opening eyes, —
Such pygmy pills can hold such giant lies I

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Yes, sharp tlie trials, stem the daily tasks
That suffering Nature from her servant asks ;
His the kind office dainty menials soom,
His path how hard, — at every step a thorn I
What does his saddening, restless slavery buy?
What save a right to live, a chance to die, —
To live companion of disease and pain,
To die by poisoned shafts untimely slain?

Answer from hoary eld, majestic shades, —
From Memphian courts, from Delphic colonnades.
Speak in the tones that Persia's despot heard
When nations treasured every golden word
The wandering echoes wafted o'er the seas,
From the far isle that held Hippocrates ;
And thou, best gift that Pergamus could send
Imperial Bome, her noblest Caesar's friend,
Master of masters, whose unchallenged sway
Not bold Yesalius dared to disobey ;
Ye who while prophets dreamed of dawning times
Taught your rude lessons in Salerno's rhymes.
And ye, the nearer sires, to whom we owe
The better share of all the best we know.
In every land an ever-growing train.
Since wakening Science broke her rusted chain, —
Speak from the past, and say what prize was sent
To crown the toiling years so freely spent !

List while they speak :

In life's uneven road
Our willing hands have eased our brothers' load ;
One forehead smoothed, one pang of torture less,
One peaceful hour a sufferer's couch to bless.
The smile brought back to fever's parching lips.
The light restored to reason in eclipse.

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Life's treasnie rescued like a burning brand
Snatched from the dread destroyer's wasteful hand;
Such were our simple records day by day.
For gains like these we wore our lives away.
In toilsome paths our daily bread we sought,
But bread from heaven attending angels brought ;
Pain was our teacher, speaking to the heart,
Mother of pity, nurse of pitying art ;
Our lesson learned, we reached the peaceful shore
Where the pale sufferer asks our aid no more, —
These gracious words our welcome, our reward :
Ye served your brothers; ye have served your


From the first gleam of morning to the gray
Of peaceful evening, lo, a life unrolled 1
In woven pictures all its changes told.

Its lights, its shadows, every flitting ray,

Till the long curtain, failing, dims the day.
Steals from the dial's disk the sunlight's gold,
And all the graven hours grow dark and cold

Where late the glowing blaze of noontide lay.

Ah! the warm blood runs wild in youthful veins, —
Let me no longer play with painted fire;
New songs for new-bom days I I would not tire

The listening ears that wait for fresher strains

In phrase new-moulded, new-forged rhythmic
With plaintive measures from a worn-out lyre.

August 2, 1881.

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Alone, beneath the darkened shy,

With saddened heart and unstrung lyre,
I heap the spoils of years gone by.
And leave them with a long-drawn sigh,
Like drift-wood brands that glimmering lie,
Before the ashes hide the fire.

Let not these slow declining days
The rosy light of dawn outlast;
Still round my lonely hearth it plays,
And gilds the east with borrowed rays.
While memory's mirrored sunset blaze
Flames on the windows of the past.
Maioh 1,188a


This is our place of meeting; opposite
That towered and pillared building: look at it;
King^s Chapel in the Second Qeorge's day,
Rebellion stole its regal name away, —

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Stone Chapel sounded better; but at last
The poisoned name of our provincial past
Had lost its ancient venom; then once more
Stone Chapel was King's Chapel as before.
(So let rechristened Ncnrth Street, when it can,
Bring back the days of Marlborough and Queen
Anne I)

Next the old church your wandering eye will
meet —
A granite pile that stares upon the street —
Our civic temple; slanderous tongues have said
Its shape was modelled from St. Botolph's head,
Lofty, but narrow; jealous passers-by
Say Boston always held her head too high.

Turn half-way round, and let your look survey
The white facade that gleams across the way, —
The many-windowed building, tall and wide,
The palace-inn that shows its northern side
In grateful shadow when the sunbeams beat
The granite wall in summer's scorching heat.
This is the place; whether its name you spell
Tavern, or caravansera, or hotel.
Would I could steal its echoes I you should find
Such store of vanished pleasures brought to mind:
Such feasts I the laughs of many a jocund hour
That shook the mortar from King George's tower;
Such guests! What famous names its record

Whose owners wander in the mob of ghosts I
Such stories I Every beam and plank is filled
With juicy wit the joyous talkers spilled.
Beady to ooze, as once the mountain pine
The floors are laid with oozed its turpentine!

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A month had flitted since The Club had met;
The day oame round; I found the table set,
The waiters lotrnging round the marble stairs,
Empty as yet the double row of chairs.
I was a full half hour before the rest,
Alone, the banquet-chamber's single guest.
So from the table's side a chair I took,
And having neither company nor book
To keep me waking, by degrees there crept *

A torpor over me, — in short, I slept.

Loosed from its chain, along the wreck-strown
Of the dead years my soul goes travelling back;
My ghosts take on their robes of flesh; it seems
Dreaming is life; nay, life less life than dreams,
So real are the shapes that meet my eyes.
They bring no sense of wonder, no surprise,
No hint of other than an earth-bom source;
All seems plain daylight, everything of course.

How dim the colors are, how poor and faint
This palette of weak words with which I paint!
Here sit my friends; if I could fix them so
As to my eyes they seem, my page would glow
Like a queen's missal, warm as if the brush
Of Titian or Velasquez brought the flush
Of life into their features. Ay de mil
If syllables were pigments, you should see
Such breathing portraitures as never man
Found in the Pitti or the Vatican.

Here sits our Poet, Laureate, if you will.
Long has he worn the wreath, and wears it still.
Deadt Nay, not so; and yet they say his bust

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Looks down on marbles covering royal dust,
Kings by the Grace of Grod, or Nature's grace;
Deadl Nol Alivel I see him in bis place.
Full-featured, with the bloom that heaven denies
Her children, pinched by cold New England skies.
Too often, while the nursery's happier few
Win from a summer cloud its roseate hue.
Ejnd, soft-voiced, gentle, in his eye there shines
The ray serene that filled Evangeline's.

Modest he seems, not shy; content to wait
Amid the noisy clamor of debate
The looked-f or moment when a peaceful word
Smooths the rough ripples louder tongues have

In every tone I mark his tender grace
And all his poems hinted in his face;
What tranquil joy his friendly presence gives I
How could I think him dead? He lives I He


There, at the table's further end I see
In his old place our Poet's i»8-a-m8,
The great Pbofessob, strong, broad-shouldered,

In life's rich noontide, joyous, debonair.
His social hour no leaden care alloys.
His laugb rings loud and mirthful as a boy's, —
That lusty laugh the Puritan forgot, —
What ear has heard it and remembers not?
How often, halting at some wide crevasse
Amid the windings of his Alpine pass,
High up the cliffs, the climbing mountaineer.
Listening the far-off avalanche to hear.

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Silent, and leaning on his steel-shod staff,
Has heard that cheeiy voice, that ringing laugh.
From the rude cabin whose nomadic walls

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Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesThe writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Volume 13 → online text (page 6 of 14)