OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
Lord Macaulay defines wit as the power of perceiving analogies between things which appear to have nothing in common. We ought to add a second power of apt expression, such as creates surprise or pleasure. How shall we distinguish wit from humor? Mainly by the difference in their intellectual and emotional accompaniments. Both wit and humor are products of the imagination. But wit is often cynical, while humor is compassionate; wit can discharge stinging shafts, while humor is always kindly; wit is more a matter of intellect, humor a matter of affection. Thackeray called humor a mixture of love and wit, and named Dickens as its representative. We have seen how greatly James Russell Lowell was indebted to wit, as his instrument in poetry. We may with equal truth speak of humor as the chief gift of Oliver Wendell Holmes. As we called Lowell our poetical moralist, we may call Holmes our poetical humorist.
Our poet was a great believer in heredity; and, in spite of his dislike to Calvinism, he furnished in himself a demonstration of its doctrine with regard to the transmission of hereditary traits. The element of vivacity in his mental composition was almost certainly derived from his mother, Sarah Wendell; and his bent to poetry may be plausibly explained as an inheritance from Anne Bradstreet, who was called "the tenth
3-22 DOROTHY Q.
Muse" in New England, and who was a remoter ancestor. Dorothy Quincy came nearer to Oliver in point of time; and he possessed a portrait of her which he has made famous in his verses entided "Dorothy Q."—verses so sweet and so characteristic of his genius, that a few of their lines at least must not be omitted:
Grandmother's mother; her age, I guess,
Thirteen summers, or something less;
Girlish bust, but womanly air;
Smooth, square forehead with uprolled hair;
Lips that lover has never kissed;
Taper fingers and slender wrist;
Hanging sleeves of stiff brocade;
So they painted the little maid.
O Damsel Dorothy! Dorothy Q.!
Strange is the gift that I owe to you;
Such a gift as never a king
Save to daughter or son might bring,—
All my tenure of heart and hand,
All my title to house and land;
Mother and sister and child and wife
And joy and sorrow and death and life!
What if a hundred years ago
Those close-shut lips had answered No,
When forth the tremulous question came
That cost the maiden her Norman name,
And under the folds that look so still
The bodice swelled with the bosom's thrill?
Should I be I, or would it be
One tenth another, to nine tenths me?
Our poet's father, Dr. Abiel Holmes, was a man of very different type from his wife. While she was bright, and full of the modern views then current in
THE PARENTS OF HOLMES 323
New England, he represented the old-fashioned Calvinism. He was born in Connecticut, and he graduated at Yale. He married for his first wife the daughter of Doctor Stiles, the president of the college. For several years he exercised his ministry in Georgia, the most conservative region of the South. Then he returned to the North, and became pastor of the First Congregational Church of Cambridge. Ten years afterward he married his second wife, and nine years after that Oliver Wendell Holmes was born. "The Old Gambrel-roofed House " which he has so feelingly commemorated, was the scene of solemn lessons in the Westminster Catechism, which were given by his mother, although on her part with many a mental reservation—for she declared in later years to an old friend and servant, "Well, Mary, I don't know, but I am as good an Uersalist as any of you!" Her son seems to have her in mind when he writes: " She, too, is the New England elm with the iron band welded round it when it was a sapling! But how she has grown in spite of it!"
The father was a handsome man, of gracious manners but quiet dignity. He wrote some dull verses, as many clergymen of his day innocently did. He was the author of a book entitled " Annals of America," an accurate and trustworthy narrative of our national history. But those were days of theological controversy. Doctor Holmes thought himself set for the defense of orthodox doctrine. His chief aim was to preach what he regarded as Scripture truth, whether men would hear or forbear. He did this with comparative mildness, and his son might possibly have
324 HOLMES S EARLY DISLIKE FOR CALVINISM
remained a believer, if it had not been for the occasional visits of clergymen who went to hyper-Calvinistic extremes. Their minatory preaching and their lugubrious demeanor repelled the sprightly boy, and he vowed to oppose and deride their doctrine. He outgrew the teaching of his father. From subordination he achieved complete independence, yet without sundering the filial bond which united them.
In his "Autobiographical Notes," which unfortunately do not extend beyond his college days, he has given us a very interesting account of his boyish reading. His father had a library of from one to two thousand volumes. The great English classics—historians, poets, and preachers—were there, and Rees's "Encyclopaedia " gave a summary of all human knowledge. Into all these the boy dipped, without attempting to read any one of them through. Scott's " Family Bible," and Bunyan's " Pilgrim's Progress," wakened his antipathy, by what he thought their narrowness and exclusiveness. An original "Paradise" and the "Fall of Man" to him became fables. Already the study of physical science interested him more than did the views of theologians. Unitarianism showed its ill effects in his case, by making him a materialistic rather than an idealistic skeptic. In giving account of himself in those early days he writes:
The effect of Calvinistic training- on different natures varies very much. The majority take the creed as a horse takes his collar; it slips by his ears, over his neck, he hardly knows how, but he finds himself in harness, and jogs along as his fathers and forefathers have done before him. A certain number become enthusiasts in its behalf, and, believing themselves the subjects of divine illumination, become zealous THE SCHOOL DAYS OF HOLMES 325
ministers and devoted missionaries. Here and there a stronger-minded one revolts with the whole strength of his nature from the inherited servitude of his ancestry, and gets rid of his whole harness before he is at peace with himself, though a few shreds may hold to him.
Oliver's earliest memory was of the Declaration of Peace between England and the United States, in 1815, when he was six years old. He threw up his cap at the illumination of the colleges, as he was coming from the dame-school. A little later he came under the tutelage of William Biglow, the Master of the Boston Latin School. The boy seems to have been an apt scholar, in spite of his constant whispering; for the master, in passing, tapped him on the forehead with his pencil as his only punishment, saying that he couldn't help it, "if I would do so well." After the Boston Latin School came the Phillips Andover Academy. His poem " The School-Boy," read in 1878, at the Centennial Celebration of the founding of the Academy, tells us the feelings with which he began his studies away from home:
My cheek was bare of adolescent down
When first I sought the academic town;
Slow rolls the coach along the dusty road,
Big with its filial and parental load;
The frequent hills, the lonely woods are past,
The school-boy's chosen home is reached at last.
Homesick as death! Was ever pang like this? .
Too young as yet with willing feet to stray
From the tame fireside, glad to get away,—
Too old to let my watery grief appear,—
And what so bitter as a swallowed tear!
326 THE HARVARD CLASS OF 1829
You were a school-boy—what beneath the sun
So like a monkey? I was also one.
In 1825, at the age of sixteen, he entered Harvard College. The Class of 1829 was a notable one. It had fifty-nine members. Among them were G. T. Bigelow, afterwards Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; F. B. Crowninshield, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives; G. W. Richardson, Mayor of Worcester; G. F. Davis, Member of Congress; James Freeman Clarke, the wellknown preacher and writer; Benjamin Peirce, the famous professor, whom Holmes describes as the " boy with a grave mathematical look "; B. R. Curtis, of the Supreme Court of the United States, the "boy with a three-decker brain "; S. F. Smith, author of "My Country, 'tis of Thee," " nice youngster of excellent pith." It was a day of rollicking good-fellowship, and the use of alcoholic stimulants, which was still common, made this fraternity the easier. Then began a series of class-songs and class-poems, in which the bacchanalian element is more pronounced than we find it in our latter days; it was even then, indeed, more of a pretense than a reality. Holmes was chosen classpoet, and he magnified his office, for I find forty-four successive poems which he read at the annual reunions of his class, until at the last meeting, in 1889, only three survivors were present. I quote from the poem which introduces, and from the poem which closes the series. The first is entitled " Bill and Joe ":
Come, dear old comrade, you and I
Will steal an hour from days gone by,
The shining days when life was new,
CLASS-POEMS OF HOLMES 327
And all was bright with morning dew,
The lusty days of long ago,
When you were Bill and I was Joe. ,
And shall we breathe in happier spheres
The names that pleased our mortal ears;
In some sweet lull of harp and song
For earth-born spirits none too long,
Just whispering of the world below
Where this was Bill and that was Joe?
No matter; while our home is here
No sounding name is half so dear;
When fades at length our lingering day,
Who cares what pompous tombstones say?
Read on the hearts that love us still,
Hie jacet Joe. Hie jacet Bill.
The last of these class-poems is entitled " After the Curfew ":
The Play is over. While the light
Yet lingers in the darkening hall,
I come to say a last Good-night
Before the final Exeunt all.
We gathered once, a joyous throng:
The jovial toasts went gayly round;
With jest, and laugh, and shout, and song,
We made the floors and walls resound.
We come with feeble steps and slow,
A little band of four or five,
Left from the wrecks of long ago,
Still pleased to find ourselves alive.
Alive! How living, too, are they
Whose memories it is ours to share!
Spread the long table's full array,—
There sits a ghost in every chair!
328 EARLY VERSES OF HOLMES
So ends " The Boys,"—a lifelong play.
We too must hear the Prompter's call
To fairer scenes and brighter day:
Farewell! I let the curtain fall.
Holmes has told us that with him versifying begar. even before he had learned to write. His ideas shaped themselves in metrical form so early that he did not know when the poetic impulse first seized him. The first verses which appeared in print, however, seem to have been a translation from Vergil's " ^neid," made when Oliver was a student in the academy at Andover. They are a vigorous rendering of the passage in which Neptune is described as rising to quell the storm:
The god looked out upon the troubled deep
Waked into tumult from its placid sleep;
The flame of anger kindles in his eye
As the wild waves ascend the lowering sky.
Thus by the power of his imperial arm
The boiling ocean trembled into calm;
With flowing reins the father sped his way
And smiled serene upon rekindled day.
"Old Ironsides," however, was the first production which drew attention to him as a poet. That was the name popularly given to the frigate Constitution, which had fought so gallantly and successfully in the war of 1812, but which our Navy Department now proposed to dismantle and destroy. Holmes was angered by this proposition; he dashed off some indignant stanzas, and sent them to the " Daily Advertiser." They ran like wildfire through the newspaper press of the country, and with such effect that the tattered
"OLD IRONSIDES 329
ensign of the old battleship was not torn down. The spirit of their patriotic lines our poet never afterward surpassed:
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!
But it was not in epic or heroic poetry that Holmes excelled. The distinctly humorous was his forte, and it is noticeable that some of his best work in this line was done in his very early manhood. Even in his latest years he never surpassed the sprightliness and pathos of "The Last Leaf," which was written only two years after his graduation from college:
330 THE LAST LEAF
I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
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 he 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
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.
HOLMES A MEDICAL STUDENT IN PARIS 331
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.
For a twelvemonth after his graduation from college Holmes studied law. But with no heartiness. "The seductions of verse-writing," as he says, made the year "less profitable than it should have been." From the law he turned to medicine. After two courses of lectures at a private medical school in Boston, he spent two years in Paris, the necessary funds being furnished by his well-to-dojnother, the daughter ' ■.' of a prosperous Boston merchant. He seems to have ebeen reasonably industrious, and to have made good use of his opportunities for medical education. Literature had not yet appeared to him as a possible vocation. The physical and mechanical always interested him more than did the philosophical or the religious. In Paris he saw the great actors, singers, and dancers; he afterward regretted that he did not seek out the celebrities in politics, letters, and science. But he devoted himself to his profession; stored up as much ■ learning as good health and good spirits would permit; had some vacation experiences on the Rhine, in Italy, and in England; and returned to America with a small
but select professional library, with a modest stock of surgical instruments, and "with two skeletons and some skulls."
Then began twelve years of medical practice- He was somewhat handicapped by what seemed to many a lack of seriousness. When he invited the patronage of his friends by saying that the smallest fevers were thankfully received, they doubted the propriety of putting their families under the care of a jesting physician. In his poem entitled "Nux Postcoenatica," he alluded to this bar in the way of his success:
Besides—my prospects—don't you know that people won't
A man that wrongs his manliness by laughing like a boy?
And suspect the azure blossom that unfolds upon a shoot.
As if wisdom's old potato could not flourish at its root?
It's a vastly pleasing prospect, when you're screwing out a
That your very next year's income is diminished by a half,
And a little boy trips barefoot that your Pegasus may go.
And the baby's milk is watered that your Helicon may flow.
But he made few efforts to extend his list of pa-
tients. Whether influenced by tenderness of heart
in view of suffering, or by disinclination to endure
watching and irregular hours, he contented himself
with jogging on in a quiet way and letting others do
the hard work. He thought the greatest advantage he
derived from his official duties was the comfort of
riding around, after a rather lively animal, in a " one-
Seemingly careless and indolent, Holmes was notwithstanding a reader and observer, and he gradually
HOLMES THE LECTURER, ESSAYIST, AND POET 333
won his way to recognition in his profession. He gave a few lectures at Dartmouth College. Harvard at length offered him its chair of anatomy. Then he settled down into the regular lecturing which lasted for thirty-five years, and ended only when he gave himself wholly to literature in 1882. His standing in the scientific world is certified by his three "Boylston Prize Dissertations," and by his essays on malarial and puerperal fevers. His humor found play in a spicy attack on homeopathy, and in frequent poems read at the banquets of medical societies. Some of these poems seem gruesome to the laity; but I venture to quote from one of the most pleasing—I mean the poem which the author read at the dinner given him at the age of seventy-four by the medical profession of the city of New York:
How can I tell you, O my loving friends!
What light, what warmth, your joyous welcome lends
To life's late hour? Alas! my song is sung,
Its fading accents falter on my tongue.
Sweet friends, if, shrinking in the banquet's blaze,
Your blushing guest must face the breath of praise,
Speak not too well of one who scarce will know
Himself transfigured in its roseate glow;
Say kindly of him what is, chiefly, true,
Remembering always he belongs to you;
Deal with him as a truant, if you will,
But claim him, keep him, call him brother still!
Holmes's poetry would never have made him famous, if it had not been for his prose. It was his prose which first drew general attention to his poetry; some of his best poetry, indeed, was embedded in his prose, and illuminated it. Let us review the situation
334 TUE AUTOCRAT OF THE BREAKFAST TABLE
when our poet reached the age of forty-eight . For seventeen years he had been happily married, and there were three children. Life had moved steadily on; he had an assured position in the scientific and educational world; but he was scarcely known outside of Boston. A great change came in 1857, when Phillips, Sampson and Company determined to establish a new magazine, and invited James Russell Lowell to be its editor. He desired to make it a purely literary publication of the highest order, and he "made it a condition precedent" of his own acceptance that Doctor Holmes should be "the first contributor engaged." Holmes himself declares that this flattering proposition waked him from a literary lethargy into which he had fallen. He rose to the occasion; gladly entered into this literary partnership; gave to the new periodical its name of "The Atlantic Monthly." Lowell afterward asserted that Holmes "not named, but made, 'The Atlantic'" His first contribution attracted wide and favorable notice. It was the first instalment of " The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." Holmes was probably greatest in his conversation, and "The Autocrat" most perfectly represented this phase of his genius. Charles Eliot Norton writes of his "vivacious wit, throwing off sparks like an electrical machine." The company in which he mingled was most favorable for brilliant and gossipy talk. Norton calls that particular epoch "the pleasantest little oasis of space and time" in New England. Its spirit was embodied in Emerson, in Longfellow, in Holmes, and in Lowell. It was an inexperienced and youthful spirit; but it was a happy one; it had the
"THE AUTOCRAT" A REVIVAL 335
charm of youth, its hope, its simplicity, its sweetness. Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes were men of the world, but they were optimists. They were profoundly contented with themselves. Religion had a traditional hold upon them; but its creeds and forms had come to seem a bondage; and they took to ethics in place of theology. They were lovers of Boston, and worshipers of New England. They cultivated "the Boston dialect of the English language," and strove to make it uersal. It was Holmes who named Boston " the Hub of the Uerse." He was the center of this influential circle that thought to liberalize and civilize the whole land, and "The Autocrat" was the quintessence of his wit and wisdom.
Yet even "The Autocrat" was a revival. At least twenty years before the beginnings of " The Atlantic," Holmes had contributed to "The New England Magazine" two articles with the same title. At the time they were little read, and they passed into oblivion. When Lowell asked Holmes to be his coadjutor, the latter was seized with the happy thought of "shaking the same bough again," to see whether more fruit could not be gotten from it. He began his new work with the words: " I was just going to say, when I was interrupted," and thus resumed the talk of two decades past. The result was an astonishing success. The future of "The Atlantic" was assured, no less than the fame of Oliver Wendell Holmes. This success was due to his letting loose of a natural gift, which up to that time had been repressed. His mind was discursive, rather than philosophic; more jocular than serious; while yet his large stores of read
336 "THE DEACON'S MASTERPIECE
ing and of observation furnished abundant material for talk upon every subject in heaven or earth. The brightness of his ideas, and the lightness of his touch made his articles telling. He disclosed the secret of his popularity when he said that these papers were "dipped from the running stream of my thoughts." The papers tingled with life; and they themselves will live, as the noblest product of their author's genius.
Yet we must not forget that two, at least, of his most charming poems formed a part of "The Autocrat's" stock. I quote first from "The Deacon's Masterpiece," as the best specimen of his humor:
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it—ah, but stay,
I'll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits,—
Have you ever heard of that, I say?
The poem gives the history of the vehicle through the whole century, until at last the appointed day of its decease arrives:
First of November, 'Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
"Huddup!" said the parson.—Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday's text,—
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the—Moses—was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS 337
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill,—
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet'n'-house clock,—
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
What do you think the parson found
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,—
All at once, and nothing first,—
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.
The Autocrat's stock included also the best specimen of Holmes's serious work—I mean "The Chambered Nautilus." If he is to be judged by the standard of pure poetry, this certainly is his highest achievement. I must therefore differ from his entertaining biographer, Mr. John T. Morse, Jr., who gives his preference to " The Last Leaf." Holmes was ambitious to be thought a poet, and not merely a writer of vers de societe. Of all his poems, " The Chambered Nautilus" was his favorite. He copied it into a hundred albums, as the poem which best represented him. His own account of its production is psychologically interesting:
In writing the poem I was filled with . . . the highest state of mental exaltation and the most crystalline clairvoyance, a* it seemed to me, that had ever been granted to me—I mean that lucid vision of one's thought, and of all forms of expression which will be at once precise and musical, which is the poet's special gift, however large or small in amount or value.
338 HOLMES'S NOVELS
Here too I can quote only the first and the last stanza:
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
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
Some implications of this generally noble poem I must criticize, when I come to speak of our author's theological views. But before I can do this effectively, it will be necessary to acquaint the reader with certain other prose writings of Holmes. The success of "The Autocrat," of "The Professor," and of "The Poet," at "the Breakfast Table," encouraged him to make ventures into the field of novel literature. In the years between 1861 and 1885 he wrote and printed three works of fiction: " Elsie Venner," "The Guardian Angel," and " A Mortal Antipathy." These novels gave him opportunity to express his religious as well as his ethical convictions in a more thorough way than had previously been possible. Some utterances of "The Professor at the Breakfast Table" had provoked orthodox criticism. In his novels, Doctor
HOLMES A HATER OF CALVINISM ^39
Holmes undertook to answer these criticisms and to enforce his own views. His novels are "novels with a purpose." He confesses that "Elsie Venner" was written "as the outcome of a theory "; and he tells Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe that he desired in it "to stir the mighty question of automatic agency in its relation to self-determination." Holmes is the most consciously and intentionally theological of all our poets; and I do him no Injustice when I depend upon his novels for explanation of what is often enigmatical in his poetry.
Our poet was the inveterate hater of Calvinism, or of what he regarded as Calvinism. The particular tenet of Calvinism to which he objected was its assertion of inherited moral tendencies to evil. He maintained that inborn tendencies are physical, and not moral; due to outward influences and not to individual volition; irresponsible, and involving no moral obliquity. Calvinism holds that there is a uersal hereditary selfishness which originated in a voluntary apostasy of the race from God at the beginning of human history, and that the solidarity of mankind has transmitted this moral taint to all subsequent generations. Holmes endeavored in his novels to furnish a merely physical explanation, which would eliminate the element of morality and responsibility. "Elsie Venner" is the story of a girl who all her life was the innocent victim of a prenatal rattlesnake bite, inflicted upon her mother. The snake-look in her eyes was a deformity and a hindrance to her moral growth and influence, but it was not her fault, nor the penalty of any evil decision. "The Guardian
340 CALVINISM MISUNDERSTOOD BY HOLMES
Angel " attributes Myrtle Hazard's escapade, and her sudden paroxysm of murderous anger, to the strain of Indian blood in her veins and to the pride of an aristocratic ancestry; while the good impulse that saves her is derived from one of her forbears who suffered martyrdom under Bloody Mary. "A Mortal Antipathy" explains Maurice Kirkwood's misogyny by the misfortune he suffered when as a baby he was accidentally dropped by the pretty girl who carried him. His lifelong antipathy to young women was something for which he was not responsible—it was simply the reaction of his nervous centers against all creatures similar to her who caused his fall.
It needs no great knowledge of Calvinism to perceive that Holmes misunderstood the system, and that his own explanations of native abnormality were far less satisfactory than those of Calvin himself. Holmes regarded inherited evil states as the natural result of some infliction from without; whereas Calvin held them to be the moral result of an apostasy from within. Holmes explained them as effects of prenatal influences derived from our immediate ancestors; Calvin referred them to a fault on the part of the first father of the race, which transmitted a congenital selfishness to all his descendants. Holmes thought these tendencies to be merely physical; Calvin saw in them moral unlikeness to God, non-conformity to his holy law, and the germs of possible and even of actual transgression. Our poet's scientific studies here led him astray. He thought of evil as something physical. Man, in his view, is diseased, but not guilty. Man is not by nature alienated from God and in need of re
HEREDITY AND RESPONSIBILITY 341
demption; and God is not the hater and punisher of sin, but only the compassionate Father who pities and saves.
We must concede that New England Puritanism had hardened into an unpleasing creed. But it was hyper-Calvinistic, rather than Calvinistic; and it was this hyper-Calvinism, rather than Calvinism, which Holmes combated. Calvin himself never maintained that we are responsible for the sins of our immediate ancestors; and Holmes's argument, if directed against real Calvinism, encountered only a man of straw. The federal theory of imputation, indeed, was expressly designed to connect hereditary evil and responsibility altogether with the disobedience of our first progenitor. That disobedience was a moral decision, and it gave a congenital bias to his posterity. Subsequent sins manifest, but they do not increase, the hereditary taint. Holmes ignored its moral quality and the need of renewal which it implied. His own scheme attributed evil tendencies to unthinking nature, and gave no remedy for them, either in atonement or in regeneration. Calvin had a better explanation of hereditary evil traits than had Holmes—an explanation more consonant with Scripture and with reason. On the one hand, Ezekiel declares that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, and Jesus says that the blind man was not born blind because of his father's sin. On the other hand, the Psalmist sees in suffering and death God's appointed penalty of sin; Jesus calls Satan a murderer from the beginning; and Paul asserts that by one man sin came into the world, and death by sin. The great philosophers seem independently to
342 SCRIPTURE AND PHILOSOPHY AGAINST HOLMES
repeat the. teaching- of Scripture. Aristotle says " there is in the soul somewhat besides the reason, which is opposed to this, and fights against it." Kant speaks of "the indwelling of an evil principle, side by side with the good one; or, the radical evil of human nature." And Bergson traces all back to the beginnings of the race. In his "Creative Evolution," he writes:
"Where does the vital principle of the individual begin or end? Gradually we shall be carried further and further back, up to the individual's remotest ancestors; we shall find him solidary with each of them, solidary with that little mass of protoplasmic jelly which is probably at the root of the protoplasmic tree of life. Being, to a certain extent, one with this primitive ancestor, he is also solidary with all that descends from that ancestor in divergent directions. In this sense each individual may be said to remain united with the totality of living beings by invisible bonds."
And I may also quote from Francis Darwin's address as President of the British Association in 1908:
"The view upheld by Galton and Weismann that ontogeny can only be changed by a fundamental upset of the whole system—namely, by an alteration occurring in its first stages, the germ-cell—is now very generally accepted."
Our poet believed most heartily in the physical solidarity of the human race, but he had no faith in its moral solidarity. Yet the latter is quite as demonstrable as the former. Without the explanation of inborn selfishness and suffering which an original transgression gives, the long catalogue of human ills must be regarded as the work of a blind nature and the proof of a godless uerse. A good God permitting man's revolt is more credible than is man
HOLMES S VIEW OF GOD AND OF CHRIST 343
mastered by evil impulses which have no moral import. Holmes hated Calvinism, because it held God to be the ordainer of all things. He accepted a materialistic idealism which subjected all things to an irrational and fatal necessity. If we must have predestination, we ought to prefer the predestination of a righteous and loving God, and not the predestination of a godless nature. Calvinism has nerved the hearts of men to fight for liberty; fatalism has made them cowards, that hugged their chains. If God is really an omniscient Creator, we must believe that he foreknew and permitted sin. But we can also believe that he did this in the interests of freedom and virtue, and that he will in the end justify his ways to men. The predestination of fatalism has no such comfort. Its God is a Juggernaut that ignorantly and ruthlessly destroys.
We cannot properly estimate Holmes's view of human sin, unless we connect it with his view of Christ. He understood neither the evil nor the remedy. His Unitarianism handicapped him at every step. He is a proof that Christianity without Christ becomes agnosticism and paganism. Dethroning Christ and counting him mere man, the Unitarian is left with a conception of God so vague and unmoral, that Stoicism and self-righteousness take the place of humility and faith. The Cross of Christ is no longer the symbol of God's holy suffering on account of sin; it becomes the mere witness to a martyr's endurance, and an encouragement to suffer for righteousness' sake. Christ, to the Unitarian, is an example, but not a Saviour; not one who bore our sins in his own body on the tree, and
344 UNITARIANISM RETROGRESSIVE
by whose stripes we are healed; but only one who showed us how we may bear our own burden of sin and suffering. This throws us back upon ourselves; puts us where the whole world was in classic times. Unitarianism is not progressive but retrogressive thought; it returns to Judaism and paganism; so far as its hope of salvation is concerned, Christ has lived and died in vain. His life and death, indeed, are regarded as the unintended starting-point of an idealization of humanity. But that this idealization has ever been realized in history, or can ever be realized in a human life, we have no evidence. The Virgin-birth and Santa Claus, the Ascension of Christ and the ascent of Jack the Giant-killer, are equally idyllic dreams of the race's childhood, utterly discarded since it has reached maturer years. Christianity is a matter of imagination; it is poetry; there has been no incarnation of God, and no redemption by the Cross.
When New England broke away from evangelical theology, no real theology was left to it, and its gravitation was downward. The high Arianism of Channing gave place to the half-fledged pantheism of Parker; and Parker's faith or lack of faith was followed by the full-fledged pantheism of Emerson. More and more the spirit of materialism and agnosticism has taken possession of the Unitarian body, until President Eliot declares that other religions have equal claims with Christianity, and that Christian missions are needless and absurd. This downward progress is equally visible in literary history. The Unitarian poets prove its reality. Longfellow and Lowell succumbed in their
A THEOLOGICAL DESCENSUS AVERS! 345
later years to the influence of Emerson, and became more or less agnostic; although, as Norton observes, Lowell tried in spite of himself to hold to his old beliefs. But in Oliver Wendell Holmes a new influence was added to the general literary and theological atmosphere of his time, namely, that of modern scientific research. Holmes was a physicist and a physician. The body dominated and explained the soul. Spiritual things were the outcome and efflorescence of the material. And so the theology of Holmes is practically the theology of Herbert Spencer.
Congregationalists furnish still another illustration of this facilis descensus Averni. They once were stout opposers of Unitarianism, but they are now on the same road to skepticism. In "The Outlook," Lyman Abbott is asked how a soul seeking after God is to find him. The answer should have been the answer of Christ: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father "; "I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world "; " I will come to you, and will manifest myself unto you"; "Come unto me, and/1 will give you rest." Paul answers the question by saying: " It is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me; and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me." In other words, the living and omnipresent Christ is God, manifested in human form, as the object of worship and source of power. But Lyman Abbott sees in Christ no such present Saviour; he finds in him only an example and a teacher; the mystery of the gospel is not Christ in us, but the
346 EVANGELICAL FAITH OR AGNOSTICISM?
influence of a Christ outside of us, who lived and did nineteen hundred years ago, but who has had no direct influence upon the world since then. Through his words and example Christ has awakened new spiritual life in men; but the idea of his persona! presence and union with our souls is Oriental metaphor. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, only by proxy—only by being the originator of these when he was here in the flesh. Congregationalism is at the parting of the ways. It must either go forward to Unitarianism and agnosticism, or backward to the evangelical faith in Christ's deity, omnipresence, and living union with the believer. This is the essence of Christianity, and to give it up is to give up Christianity itself.
I have kept the reader too long from the poems of Holmes which illustrate these criticisms. I find even in "The Chambered Nautilus" the traces of a selfdepending spirit, that trusts its own powers in the building up of character. There is no intimation that human nature needs renewal, or even assistance from above. No confession of sin is breathed upon the air. Regeneration is a word unknown. No suffering on the part of the holy God is needed to make reparation for sin, or to show the sinner the evil of his ways. No divine Redeemer brings him back to duty. Christianity without a Christ appears yet more plainly in the hymns which our poet wrote for public worship. They are hymns of praise to the God of Nature, and their poetical merit has gained them admission to the books of many Christian denominations. But they could be sung as well by Parsees or Buddhists. In the best of
HYMNS TO THE GOD OF NATURE 347
them there is a mention of sin; but it is so expressed as to imply that sin is something outside of us, which veils heaven from our gaze, but which is our misfortune rather than our fault:
Lord of all being! throned afar,
Thy glory flames from sun and star;
Centre and soul of every sphere,
Yet to each loving heart how near!
Sun of our life, thy quickening ray
Sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, thy softened light
Cheers the long watches of the night.
Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn;
Our noontide is thy gracious dawn;
Our rainbow arch thy mercy's sign;
All, save the clouds of sin, are thine!
Lord of all life, below, above,
Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
Before thine ever-blazing throne
We ask no lustre of our own.
Grant us thy truth to make us free,
And kindling hearts that burn for thee,
Till all thy living altars claim
One holy light, one heavenly flame!
The God of Nature is recognized as dwelling also in the soul. But there is no recognition of his revelation in Jesus Christ, or of the need of any such revelation to procure pardon or help. The hymn claims favor without sacrifice.
Holmes called this " A Sun-Day Hymn," and it certainly expresses the consciousness of fellowship with God. We must believe that the poet's inner experience was better than his creed. Hyper-Calvinism so
348 "HYMN OF TRUST"
repelled him that he gave little weight to the evangelical argument, and little weight to the testimony of Scripture itself. The words of Jesus, "Ye must be born again," never seemed to him applicable to himself. Regeneration was not needed by the Brahmin caste, any more than by Pharisees like Nicodemus. Or, shall we say that he was regenerate, without knowing it—subject of a second spiritual birth so early in life as to have lost all remembrance of the change? We must leave the question for a higher Wisdom to decide. Meantime we may appropriate the poetical fruitage of his better life, as it is given to us in his " Hymn of Trust":
O Love Divine, that stooped to share
Our sharpest pang, our bitterest tear,
On Thee we cast each earth-born care,
We smile at pain while Thou art near!
Though long the weary way we tread,
And sorrow crown each lingering year,
No path we shun, no darkness dread,
Our hearts still whispering, Thou art near!
When drooping pleasure turns to grief,
And trembling faith is changed to fear,
The murmuring wind, the quivering leaf,
Shall softly tell us, Thou art near!
On Thee we fling our burdening woe,
O Love Divine, forever dear,
Content to suffer while we know,
Living and dying, Thou art near!
Here it is Nature, and not revelation, which gives assurance of God's nearness and willingness to bless. And our assent is yet further qualified, when we find the poet excusing sin as the necessity of finiteness and
HOLMES S MISAPPREHENSION OF CALVINISM 349
ignorance, as he does in his poem of "The Crooked Footpath ":
Nay, deem not thus,—no earthborn will
Could ever trace a faultless line;
Our truest steps are human still,—
To walk unswerving were divine!
Truants from love, we dream of wrath;— f Oh, rather let us trust the more!
Through all the wanderings of the path
We still can see our Father's door!
The apostle Paul declares that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." Holmes, however, conceives that we only " dream of wrath," when we ought instead to "trust the more." This suggests a third misapprehension of Calvinistic doctrine into which he has fallen. The first, we remember, was that Calvinism holds men responsible for the sins of their immediate ancestors. The second was that Calvinism holds to a merely physical transmission of hereditary evil. The third misapprehension, which we now proceed to notice, is that Calvinism leaves no room for human freedom, but makes our destiny depend wholly upon the foreordination of God. Calvin himself, however, declares that "the perdition of the wicked depends upon the divine predestination in such a manner that the cause and matter of it are found in themselves "; in other words, the relation of God to the origin of sin is not efficient, but permissive. Calvin held to the divine sovereignty and foreordination, for the reason that the creating God knew all that would come to pass, and therefore must be said in a certain sense to
350 BITTERNESS OF HOLMES S PREJUDICE
have purposed it. But he also asserted the freedoir. of man to obey or to disobey, and he maintained that for the abuse of his freedom man alone is responsible. While all are involved in the sin of the race, the atonement is made for all, and " whosoever will may come." God's sovereignty and man's freedom are complementary poles of the globe of truth, and while it is impossible to see both of them at the same time, neither one of the two can be ignored without violence to reason as well as to Scripture. In thus vindicating Calvin, we charge Holmes with maintaining a fatalistic inheritance of physical evil, which deprives it of all moral quality, condones our conscious sinfulness, throws the blame of it back upon God, and so denies both God's holiness and his love.
How bitter and prejudiced Holmes can be. when he attacks what he regards as Calvinistic doctrine, can be seen in "The Poet at the Breakfast Table," who permits himself to write:
Where is the Moloch of your fathers' creed,
Whose fires of torment burned for span-long babes?
Fit object for a tender mother's love!
Why not? It was a bargain duly made
For these same infants through the surety's act
Intrusted with their all for earth and heaven.
By Him who chose their guardian, knowing well
His fitness for the task,—this, even this,
Was the true doctrine only yesterday
As thoughts are reckoned,—and to-day you hear
In words that sound as if from human tongues
Those monstrous, uncouth horrors of the past
That blot the blue of heaven and shame the earth
As would the saurians of the age of slime,
Awaking from their stony sepulchres
And wallowing hateful in the eye of day!
HYPER-CALVINISM AN EXCUSE FOR HOLMES 351
The essay on "Jonathan Edwards" is also a notable specimen of our poet's theological animus. In keenness of satire it rivals his diatribe on " Homoeopathy." Jonathan Edwards unfortunately represents hyperCalvinism, rather than Calvinism; and much of our poet's criticism is unjust, if urged against the essentials of the Calvinistic system. Holmes shows how nearly he himself comes to admitting those essentials, when he says:
We are getting to be predestinarians as much as Edwards or Calvin was; only, instead of uersal corruption of nature derived from Adam, we recognize inherited congenital tendencies—some good, some bad—for which the subject of them is in no sense responsible.
The real question at issue is whether these tendencies are moral. That they are moral seems to be the verdict of conscience and of Scripture. That verdict is supported by our conviction of the solidarity of the race, and by our inability otherwise to reconcile the existence of these tendencies with the holiness of a foreknowing and creating God. Shall we say that God visits suffering and death upon creatures who are without fault? Shall we not rather say that these evils are consequences and penalties of human sin?
We would not deny that Holmes had some excuse for his denunciations, in the extravagancies of certain hyper-Calvinists. His writing has perhaps softened the utterances of Calvinistic theologians. But conscience and Scripture stand just where they were before. Calvinism still recognizes the guilt of racesin ; while at the same time it acknowledges that actual sin, in which the personal agent reaffirms the under
352 ETHICAL FRUITS OF HOLMES S DOCTRINE
lying determination of his will, is more guilty than original sin alone; that no human being is finally condemned solely on account of original sin, but that all who, like infants, do not commit personal transgressions, are saved through the application of Christ's atonement; that our responsibility for inborn evil dispositions, or for the depravity common to the race, can be maintained only upon the ground that this depravity was caused by an original and conscious act of free will, when the race revolted from God in Adam; that the doctrine of original sin is only the ethical interpretation of biological facts—the facts of heredity and of uersal congenital ills, which demand an ethical ground and explanation; and that the idea of original sin has for its correlate the idea of original grace, or the abiding presence and operation of Christ, the immanent God, in every member of the race, in spite of his sin, to counteract the evil and to prepare the way, so far as man will permit, for individual and collective salvation.
Theology must be judged by its fruits. A theology that objects to justice as the fundamental attribute of God, and that substitutes love for righteousness, ought to be more than usually philanthropic. I do not find that Holmes gave this proof that his faith was well founded. He was an industrious and trustworthy lecturer on anatomy. For thirty-five years literature was his recreation, until at last he was able to make it his one pursuit. But he always* shrank from the reform movements of his time; and, except by his bright conversation and jovial humor, he did next to nothing to help on any struggling cause. James
HOLMES TOUCHES THE SURFACE OF LIFE 353
Russell Lowell wrote him a most serious letter, in which he complained of Holmes's slighting allusion to "the abolition men and maids," in his Phi Beta Kappa address, and intimated that he would "expurgate the conscience altogether." Holmes made a long and rather weak reply, in which he declared that abolitionism was not his line of work, and that he was no reformer. As one glances over the welter of poems which he read at celebrations and public dinners, one is reminded of the lines of a somewhat similar poet, Thomas Moore:
"I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!"
Society-verse has small meaning after a generation has passed. Holmes had little depth of character, and little sense of duty to his kind. His genius was pleasure-loving and pleasure-giving, and beyond the present he cared not to look. He touched only the surface of human life, and he could not permanently stir the heart or' nerve the will. The homeopathic treatment which he so much derided in medicine he depended upon for the cure of the constitutional malady of human nature. But neither esthetics nor sociology will here suffice. Holmes's work was like the effort to kindle a coal-fire from the top. Christianity begins lower down; puts its fire at the bottom; touches the springs of action; kindles the heart. Holmes | could not reach any great depth of truth, nor could he
354 T0 CANAAN
exert any great force of influence, because he ignored the teaching of Scripture with regard to human need. "Deep calleth unto deep "—the infinite deep of man's sin and ruin to the infinite deep of God's mercy. Regeneration implies a sinful nature, inherited yet guilty; and such a nature Holmes derided and denied. It was the old story of the Fox and the Grapes. The grapes hung altogether too high for his short-legged understanding.
Holmes was no abolitionist. He connected himself with no anti-slavery societies. He could not forget his relationship to a patriarchal Southern planter, who treated his slaves as fellow beings, and attended to their religious welfare. Before our Civil War, Mrs. Stowe and he had some correspondence upon the subject of slavery, but Holmes could not be persuaded to take sides in the controversy which agitated the nation. When war actually broke out, however, he began to realize the danger of disunion, and he wrote a Puritan War-Song, which he entitled "To Canaan." I quote the first and the last of its stanzas:
Where are you going, soldiers,
With banner, gun, and sword?
We're marching South to Canaan
To battle for the Lord!
What Captain leads your armies
Along the rebel coasts?
The Mighty One of Israel,
His name is Lord of Hosts!
To Canaan, to Canaan
The Lord has led us forth,
To blow before the heathen walls
The trumpets of the North!
NEVER OR NOW 355
When Canaan's hosts are scattered,
And all her walls lie flat,
What follows next in order?
The Lord will see to that!
We'll break the tyrant's sceptre,—
We'll build the people's throne,—
When half the world is Freedom's,
Then all the world's our own!
To Canaan, to Canaan
The Lord has led us forth,
To sweep the rebel threshing-floors,
A whirlwind from the North!
In 1862, his song " Never or Now " appealed to young men to enlist in the army of the Union:
Listen, young heroes! your country is calling!
Time strikes the hour for the brave and the true!
Now, while, the foremost are fighting and falling,
Fill up the ranks that have opened for you!
You whom the fathers made free and defended,
Stain not the scroll that emblazons their fame!
You whose fair heritage spotless descended.
Leave not your children a birthright of shame!
From the hot plains where they perish outnumbered,
Furrowed and ridged by the battle-field's plough,
Comes the loud summons; too long you have slumbered,
Hear the last Angel-trump,—Never or Now!
These songs were not, like Luther's, " half-battles." It was said that " he wrote war-lyrics with too much finish to please; they were over the heads of soldiers." He was more felicitous in his patriotic hymns. One of these he wrote for the great central Fair in Philadelphia, in 1864; another after the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1865. This last witnesses to a consciousness of the justice of God, which his previous
356 "THOU GOD OF VENGEANCE"
writings had not shown, and which was perhaps awakened by the terrible carnage of our battle-fields. His journey to the South to care for his own son, who had been wounded in the Federal service, was possibly the occasion of this new lesson in theology. It seems wonderful that Holmes could ever have put into a prayer the words, "Thou God of vengeance!" But, in those days, to many a Quaker, hell began to seem a military necessity. However we may explain the origin of the hymn, it gives us the most satisfactory theological utterance of our poet:
Giver of all that crowns our days,
With grateful hearts we sing thy praise;
Through deep and desert led by Thee,
Our promised land at last we see.
Ruler of Nations, judge our cause!
If we have kept thy holy laws,
The sons of Belial curse in vain
The day that rends the captive's chain.
Thou God of vengeance! Israel's Lord!
Break in their grasp the shield and sword.
And make thy righteous judgments known
Till all thy foes are overthrown!
Then, Father, lay thy healing hand
In mercy on our stricken land;
Lead all its wanderers to the fold,
And be their Shepherd as of old.
So shall one Nation's song ascend
To Thee, our Ruler, Father, Friend,
While Heaven's wide arch resounds again
With Peace on earth, good-will to men!
Holmes was as far from being a transcendentalist as he was from being an abolitionist. It is almost amusHolmes's "L1fe Of Emerson" 357
ing that he should have been selected to write the "Life of Emerson." That memoir is sketchy and entertaining, but its author lacked sympathy with its subject, and had little knowledge of his philosophy. In fact, the tendency of his thought was in quite the opposite direction from that of Emerson. Holmes's biographer says truly that "he found it easier to get at the cranial bones and the brain-cells than at thoughts and mental processes." Emerson was fundamentally an idealist, while Holmes was fundamentally a materialist. Neither one of them was a philosopher, in the sense of having a consistent and completed system. The result, in Holmes's "Life of Emerson," is a bril-1 liant but superficial survey of his subject, without perception of its deeper relations to literature or to life. The intercourse of the two men had never been frequent or intimate. They understood one another, only as occasional guests at the same table learn of their companions from the talk of the dinner. They agreed in their deterministic creed, and in their aversion to organized societies for reform. But they were far apart in their conceptions of the uerse: Holmes was' more of a theist; Emerson more of a pantheist. Holmes! had more of fancy, Emerson more of imagination. The New England conscience was still alive in Holmes, while intellect was the main characteristic of Emerson. Yet Holmes has done us good service in perpetuating the memory of Emerson's personal traits and peculiarities. It almost seems as if Emerson's lofty idealism had smitten Holmes with inquiring but hopeless awe. In the Introduction to "A Mortal Antipathy," Holmes writes of Emerson:
358 HOLMEs's "MEMOIR OF MOTLEY"
It is a great privilege to have lived so long in the society of such a man. "He nothing common" said, "or mean." He was always the same pure and high-souled companion. After being with him, virtue seemed as natural to man as its opposite did according to the old theologies. But how to let one's self down from the high level of such a character to one's own poor standard? I trust that the influence of this long intellectual and spiritual companionship never absolutely leaves one who has lived in it. It may come to him in the form of self-reproach that he falls so far short of the superior being who has been so long the object of his contemplation.
"This long intellectual and spiritual companionship," it must be remembered, was a companionship with Emerson's books and relics after Emerson's death. Holmes was the recipient of a posthumous influence from Emerson's writings far greater than any which he received while Emerson was alive. One other biography was written with more intimate knowledge—I mean Holmes's " Memoir of Motley." John Lothrop Motley was for years a trusted correspondent of Holmes—not even Lowell was so much his confidant. Our poet indeed was not a great letter-writer; but upon Holmes both Lowell and Motley, during their diplomatic service abroad, depended for information with regard to society and politics at home. Holmes's letters show much sagacity, in spite of the narrow round of his occupations. The " Memoir of Motley" lacks the breadth of view which foreign life and travel would have given, but it is a praiseworthy effort to make known the merits of a friend who had suffered unjust reproach. No other work of Holmes reveals so fully the sympathy of his heart, as do the letters he wrote to Motley upon the death of his wife. I quote from them only a few sentences:
HOLMES S TRIBUTES TO HIS FRIENDS 359
My dear Motley,—I read your letter with feelings I could not restrain—how could I read such a letter unmoved? . . Every word you say goes to my heart as to that of a friend who knows better than most can know what she was who was the life of your life. . . I dare not attempt to console a grief like yours. . . If you were here, I might sit by you in silence, just to give you the feeling that some one was with you in the shadow for the moment. . . We never know each other until we have come together in the hour of trial. . . I cannot tell you all that I feel I owe to you for making life more real, more sincere, more profound in its significance, during those hours I spent with you. To be told, as I have been, that they were comforting to you is a great happiness to me. . . My life has run in a deeper channel since the hours I spent in your society last summer. They come back to me from time to time, like visitations from another and higher sphere. No,—I never felt the depths and the heights of sorrow so before; and I count it as a rare privilege that I could be with you so often at one of those periods when the sharpest impressions are taken from the seal of friendship.
Holmes did not write many memorial verses; the elegiac and the funereal were not natural to him. But now and then the beauty of a life that had just passed from earth so challenged his admiration that he could not resist the impulse to commemorate it. He lived to see many noble friends precede him to their burial. He wrote poems or hymns in memory of Everett, Garfield, Sumner, Howe, Peirce, Andrew, Parkman, Whittier, Longfellow, and Lowell. But his best productions were those of welcome or farewell to living men of note, delivered at public dinners in their honor. Such were the tributes given to Peabody, Hedge, Gould, Collins, Clarke, Agassiz, Farragut, Hayes, and Grant. Each of these memorials is noteworthy for its subtle delineation of character, or for its revelation of the poet's geniality and sympathy. In my selection of
360 "A FAREWELL TO AGASSIZ"
specimen verses I must confine myself to three, and first of all must quote the poet's " Parting Health " to Motley, upon his return to England in 1857, after his publication of the "History of the Dutch Republic ":
Yes, we knew we must lose him,—though friendship may
To blend her green leaves with the laurels of fame;
Though fondly, at parting, we call him our own,
'Tis the whisper of love when the bugle has blown.
So fill a bright cup with the sunlight that gushed
When the dead summer's jewels were trampled and crushed;
The True Kn1ght Of Learn1ng,—the world holds him dear,—
Love bless him, Joy crown him, God speed his career!
In 1865, Holmes wrote "A Farewell to Agassiz," on the eve of the great naturalist's journey to Brazil:
How the mountains talked .together,
Looking down upon the weather,
When they heard our friend had planned his
Little trip among the Andes!
How they'll bare their snowy scalps
To the climber of the Alps
When the cry goes through their passes,
"Here comes the great Agassiz!"
"Yes, I'm tall," says Chimborazo,
"But I wait for him to say so.—
That's the only thing that lacks,—he
Must see me, Cotopaxi!"
Till the fossil echoes roar;
While the mighty megalosaurus
Leads the palaeozoic chorus,—
God bless the great Professor,
And the land his proud possessor,-
Bless them now and evermore!
POEMS TO HARRIET BEECHER STOWE 361
And on the seventieth birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1882, Holmes addressed to her two poems. The first was entitled " At the Summit," and it began:
Sister, we bid you welcome,—we who stand
On the high table-land;
We who have climbed life's slippery Alpine slope,
And rest, still leaning on the staff of hope,
Looking along the silent Mer de Glace,
Leading our footsteps where the dark crevasse
Yawns in the frozen sea we all must pass,—
Sister, we clasp your hand I
The second of these poems is named "The World's
Homage." Its first lines are:
If every tongue that speaks her praise
For whom I shape my tinkling phrase
Were summoned to the table,
The vocal chorus that would meet
Of mingling accents harsh or sweet,
From every land and tribe, would beat
The polyglots at Babel.
And the last stanza is the following:
When Truth herself was Slavery's slave,
Thy hand the prisoned suppliant gave
The rainbow wings of fiction.
And Truth who soared descends to-day
Bearing an angel's wreath away,
Its lilies at thy feet to lay
With Heaven's own benediction.
Holmes well knew how fleeting was the significance of poems such as these. "You understand," he said, "the difference between fireworks on the evening of July Fourth, and the look of the frames the next morning." He was content to give even temporary pleasure. z
362 HOLMES A POET OF THIS LIFE
Let me not be understood as depreciating his peculiar gift. He was an entertainer, rather than a teacher. He added to the gaiety of life. He cheered and comforted, lightened care, diverted the sorrowing. His was the ministry of humor. Shall we say that our chief poetical humorist has no proper place in the great singing choir? Rather let us be thankful that poetry is so wide a realm that it can include innocent mirth. John Milton was a serious poet, yet he wrote:
"Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles,
Nods, and Becks, and wreathed Smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe's cheek,
And love to live in dimples sleek;
Sport, that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides."
Holmes was a chronic protest against the narrowness of Puritan religion. True religion aims to possess and to develop the whole man, to stimulate and ennoble all his powers, to bring these powers to full flower and expression. The one defect of Shakespeare is not his consecration of humor, but his neglect of the spiritual element in man. The defect in Holmes is not his effervescent humor, but his ignorance of spiritual realities, and his consequent overvaluation of the seen and temporal. To this was added a positive fault of which Shakespeare was not guilty, namely, an attack upon the teaching of Scripture and the settled beliefs of the Christian church. Like Shakespeare, he was a poet of this life, but not of the life to come. We turn to him in vain for words that will give hope
HOLMES'S HUMOR FRESH IN HIS AGE 363
to the conscious sinner, or assurance to the dying. He lived a long life, and died at the age of eighty-five. Deafness interfered with his social enjoyments, but an abstemious diet and regular habits of sleep and exercise made him industrious to the end. His "Hundred Days in Europe" is the spicy record of a continuous ovation abroad, during which he was honored with the highest degrees of the British uersities, and was made the lion of London society. At Cambridge, the undergraduates saluted with the song, "Holmes, sweet Holmes"; and at Oxford a student cried out, "Did you come in your One-Hoss-Shay "? This English tour was his only period of travel since his first stay abroad fifty-three years before. But to all observers he seemed as fresh and sparkling as in the days of his youth. Some of his latest poems indeed give proof that his humor was an endowment that age could not stale or wither.
I cannot complete this picture of the poet without furnishing evidence that this last statement is true. Let me quote from a few of Holmes's last productions to prove my point. The poem entitled "The Broomstick Train; or, The Return of the Witches," commemorates the terrible witchcraft delusion of 1692:
Look out! Look out, boys! Clear the track!
The witches are here! They've all come back!
They hanged them high,—No use! No use!
What cares a witch for a hangman's noose?
They buried them deep, but they wouldn't lie still,
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! they lie!
364 "THE BROOMSTICK TRAIN"
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.
The poet humorously sees the witches now at work in the modern motor-car, with its mysterious motion without mule or horse:
Since then on many a car you '11 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! 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.
Often you've looked on a rushing train,
But just what moved it was not so plain.
It couldn't be those wires above,
For they could neither pull nor shove;
Where was the motor that made it go
You could n't guess, but now you know.
Remember my rhymes when you ride again
On the rattling rail by the broomstick train!
"Grandmother's Story of Bunker Hill Battle" might almost persuade us that Holmes was himself a looker-on at that famous fight:
"STORY OF BUNKER HILL BATTLE" 365
'Tis like stirring living embers when, at eighty, one remembers All the achings and the quakings of " the times that tried
men's souls"; When I talk of Whig and Tory, when I tell the Rebel story, To you the words are ashes, but to me they're burning coals.
Grandmother had nursed a young Continental soldier who had been wounded in the battle:
For they all thought he was dying, as they gathered round
him crying,— And they said, " Oh, how they'll miss him! " and, "What will
his mother do?" Then, his eyelids just unclosing like a child's that has been
dozing, He faintly murmured, "Mother!"—and—I saw his eyes were
"Why, grandma, how you're winking!" Ah, my child, it sets
me thinking Of a story not like this one. Well, he somehow lived along; So we came to know each other, and I nursed him like a—
mother, Till at last he stood before me, tall, and rosy-cheeked, and
And we sometimes walked together in the pleasant summer
weather,— "Please to tell us what his name was?" Just your own, my
little dear,— There's his picture Copley painted: we became so well
acquainted, That—in short, that's why I'm grandma, and you children all
"How the Old Horse won the Bet " is the story of a parson's " lean and bony bay " which, " lent to the sexton" to attend an alleged funeral, surprised the crowd at the race-track:
366 "THE IRON GATE"
The parson's horse had won the bet;
It cost him something of a sweat;
Back in the one-horse shay he went;
The parson wondered what it meant,
And murmured, with a mild surprise
And pleasant twinkle of the eyes,
"That funeral must have been a trick,
Or corpses drive at double-quick;
I should n't wonder, I declare,
If brother—Jehu—made the prayer!"
And this is all I have to say
About that tough old trotting bay,
Huddup! Huddup! G'lang! Good day!
Moral for which this tale is told:
A horse can trot, for all he's old.
At the breakfast given in honor of Doctor Holmes's seventieth birthday by the publishers of " The Atlantic Monthly," in 1879, he read his poem " The Iron Gate." It so well represents the spirit of his closing years, that I reproduce some fragments of it:
Where is this patriarch you are kindly greeting?
Not unfamiliar to my car 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?
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.
LOWELL "TO HOLMES" 367
Dear to its heart is every loving token
That comes unbidden ere its pulse grows cold,
Ere the last lingering ties of life are broken,
Its labors ended and its story told.
Time claims his tribute: silence now is 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!
And on his seventy-fifth birthday, in 1884, Lowell inscribed "To Holmes " some verses which may well serve for a final characterization of the poet and the man:
"Dear Wendell, why need count the years
Since first your genius made me thrill,
If what moved then to smiles or tears,
Or both contending, move me still?
"What has the Calendar to do
With poets? What Time's fruitless tooth
With gay immortals such as you
Whose years but emphasize your youth?
"Master alike in speech and song
Of fame's great antiseptic—Style,
You with the classic few belong
Who tempered wisdom with a smile.
"Outlive us all! Who else like you
Could sift the seedcorn from our chaff,
And make us with the pen we knew
Deathless at least in epitaph?"