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XVII. - OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES.

LIFE AND WORKS.

“Know Old Cambridge? Hope you do.
Born there? Don't say so! I was too:
Born in a house with a gambrel roof,
Standing still, if you must have proof.”

Yes, it was in the old gambrel-roofed house looking out on the College Green that the Reverend Doctor Abiel Holmes — pastor of the First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but of wider fame as author of the American Annals — had born to him the son, Oliver Wendell, who was to shed new luster on the name, and take rank as the brightest of American poets and essayists. His birth-date is August 29, 1809.

There still remains the copy of the old-time almanac in which Abiel Holmes made, opposite the date August 29 (1809), the significant marginal entry, son b. This was the time when our grandsires used to dry their ink-tracings by a shake of the sand-box; and, curiously enough, the shining grains that Parson Holmes shook over his four-letter record of the birth of a son remain still, uneffaced and sparkling, after nearly fourscore years. The self-same lasting quality shows itself in the work of our poet, whose early art is to-day as fresh in favor as though he were “at matins instead of evensong."

After the required “fitting,” young Holmes entered and passed through Harvard College (graduation year 1829), with good profit of scholarship. He must have

taken very kindly to his alma mater, for he has been Harvard's best laureate for half a century.

While still in college, Holmes began writing verses; and some of his best-known early pieces, as The Specter Pig, Evening : by a Tailor, The Dorchester Giant, etc., were contributed to a students' paper named “The Collegian.” The titles of these pieces indicate that the comic and satiric vein lay uppermost in the young poet's mind; and the mirth-loving spirit which they reveal did not bode over-well for success in the ministry, for which calling Holmes's reverend father had designed him. Neither did it promise very strict allegiance to the law, the study of which he took up after graduation. He soon, however, abandoned Coke and Blackstone, thus robbing the bar of a rare “convulser of juries,” and began preparing himself for the medical profession, towards which he felt strong attraction. After some years of study both at home and in medical schools abroad, he became Doctor Holmes in 1836. He was chosen professor of anatomy and physiology in Dartmouth College in 1838, and nine years later was called to the same chair at Harvard. From this last position he resigned in 1882, having instructed and delighted successive classes for five and thirty years.

With the duties of his chair and his private practice it may be inferred that Holmes has been all his life a busy man; and it is proof of the strength of his literary bent that he has been able so long and so successfully to carry on authorship while engrossed in the cares of his profession, — that Dr. Holmes the physician has never lost sight of Dr. Holmes the scholar, the wit, the

humorist. But, indeed, he was born to be a physician of mental “blues” as well as of bodily ailments, and for two generations has been the most successful practitioner of the “laughter cure” of whom we have record in the annals of fun or physic.

Holmes's first collection of poetry appeared in 1836, the year in which he was made Doctor. It showed that he was master of other strains than the comic, of lyric eloquence such as broke out in

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Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!

and of most musical pathos, as exemplified in The Last Leaf. The latter poem, it may be remarked, was always a great favorite with Abraham Lincoln (in whom was a vein of sadness that the minor key of this piece deeply touched), and he never tired of repeating the stanza, ,

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has pressed

In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year

On the tomb.”
During the twenty-one years between 1836 and 1857
Holmes was a prolific composer,

He attempted no sustained flight of an epic or dramatic character, finding full and free expression of what was within him in the short poem. These numerous pieces divide themselves, as to form, into two classes, - first, lyrics, and secondly, poetic essays in couplet verse.

In purpose they are very varied, — lighter lyrics that may be

sung, metrical essays composed for special occasions, exquisite society-verse, racy and festive ballads, pieces of sheer humor, tender and delicate limnings of character, and lastly — such is the range of our poet – poems of deepest purpose, with a lofty imaginative flight.

Holmes had reached the age of forty-eight, and it was fairly supposable that his literary capacity had been gauged, when he forced the public to take new count of his “stock” by putting forth the most taking serial in prose that had appeared in America. When the Atlantic Monthly was established in 1857, Professor Lowell, who was asked to be its editor, consented on condition that Dr. Holmes should be a regular contributor. The Professor knew his man; for, a decade before, he had written in his Fable for the Critics,

"There's Holmes, who is matchless among you for wit;
A Leyden-jar, always full-charged, from which flit
The electrical tingles of hit after hit.
His are just the fine hands, too, to weave you a lyric
Full of fancy, fun, feeling, or spiced with satiric
In so kindly a measure that nobody knows
What to do but just join in the laugh, friends and foes.”

All this the Doctor justified when he began, in the papers entitled The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, those “electrical tingles of hit after hit” that each month de. lighted all intelligent readers, and insured the fortune of the Atlantic. The next year he followed up the happy invention by a series on a similar plan, entitled The Professor at the Breakfast Table; and later he com

pleted the series by the delightful symposium called The Poet at the Breakfast Table.

These three works are a trilogy, forming an artistic whole. The scene of each is the same, - a boardinghouse table, where the author (whether called “ Autocrat,” “Professor,” or “Poet ') holds an intellectual tourney. “In these books,” Dr. Holmes tells us, “I have unburdened myself of what I was born to say. Many things that I have said in my riper years have been aching in my soul since I was a mere child." It was a rich and varied burden of which he had to deliver himself, exuberance of wit and gayety, the full ripened fruitage of thought, and the tender outpourings of a gentle heart.

Two of Holmes's prose works are novels, Elsie Venner and The Guardian Angel. Though these books do not fail, and could not fail, to show the hand of a master of literary expression, they will, in all probability, not hold a permanent place in fiction, for eminent success in which, the author was not equipped with the essentials of constructive power.

To the prose works of Holmes must also be added various papers, monographs, and books on medical and scientific subjects, which show remarkable skill in the lucid exposition of subjects usually deemed dry.

Dr. Holmes is small of stature, and may be likened to the pocket edition of a classic rather than to the folio tome; but it is a pocket edition of a rarest treas

Wit and humor lurk in his fine, expressive eyes; and if the lines of his mouth show gleams of that satiric power which he brings to the exposure of shams

ure.

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