Oliver Wendell Holmes Essay - Critical Essays


Of the hundreds of poems that the prolific Oliver Wendell Holmes produced, at least six are still being given serious attention by students of American literature: “Old Ironsides,” “The Last Leaf,” “Dorothy Q.,” “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” “The Chambered Nautilus,” and “The Living Temple.” The six poems are surprisingly varied in theme, depth, and technical expertise, although generally speaking they do reveal Holmes’s lifelong interest in historical, scientific, and spiritual matters.

“Old Ironsides”

“Old Ironsides” was written virtually extempore in 1830 when the twenty-one-year-old Holmes read in the Boston Daily Advertiser that the American frigate Constitution was to be demolished. Launched in 1797, the forty-four-gun Constitution—better known as Old Ironsides because cannon balls allegedly would bounce off its sides—had served with great distinction in the Tripolitan War and the War of 1812. The Constitution was especially honored for its victories over two British vessels, the Guerrière (off Newfoundland) and the Java (off Brazil), in the War of 1812. Holmes’s poem so aroused public sentiment against the demolition of the Constitution that the ship was ordered saved and rebuilt. A rather brief poem (three octaves), “Old Ironsides” is still a powerful work that moves organically from a skillfully ironic opening (“Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!”) to an impassioned plea to let the ship be destroyed by “the god of storms” rather than by “the harpies of the shore.” Generally speaking, the imagery is neither imaginative nor well developed (“the battle shout,” “the cannon’s roar”), but there are some vivid, highly emotional images (“Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood”) that tend to compensate for the commonplace nature of so much of the poem. More important, “Old Ironsides” shows Holmes to be a master of psychology: Nowhere does he plead overtly that the ship be saved; nowhere does he mention its proper name or catalog its many victories. Rather, by manipulating tone and imagery, Holmes produced a poem that is above all intensely emotional; indeed, those universal emotions on which it plays—the honoring of the dead of war, the veneration of the old, the love of military glory—are probably as potent today as they were in the 1830’s. It is difficult to imagine that either the poem or the ship—carefully preserved and lying at anchor in the former Charlestown Navy Yard—will be treated with anything less than the deepest respect for generations to come.

“The Last Leaf”

“The Last Leaf” also reveals Holmes’s tendency to handle aspects of American history in an emotional fashion, although this poem also embodies a more personal dimension. The subject, a “Sad and wan” old man who walks the streets dressed in “the old three-cornered hat,/ And the breeches, and all that,” was Major Thomas Melville, the grandfather of Herman Melville. Of “The Last Leaf,” Holmes wrote in a prefatory note to the Riverside edition of his writings that it “was suggested by the appearance in one of our streets of a venerable relic of the Revolution, said to be one of the party who threw the tea overboard in Boston Harbor,” and that the smile with which Holmes (the poem’s persona) greeted him “meant no disrespect to an honoured fellow-citizen whose costume was out of date, but whose patriotism never changed with years.” Holmes goes on to note proudly that the poem was copied down by Edgar Allan Poe and memorized by Abraham Lincoln. “The Last Leaf” is not simply of historical or patriotic interest; it focuses on the resiliency of the human spirit and, more precisely, the need and desire to cling to life despite the loneliness and physical infirmities of old age. In this regard, the poem is something of a tour de force; it is rather remarkable to find someone so young (twenty-two) writing with such tenderness and empathy of old age. On the other hand, the poem may be seen as a reflection of Holmes’s extraordinary personality; for only someone as imaginative, compassionate, and observant as the author of “The Last Leaf” would be able to succeed in two such diverse pursuits as medicine and literature. One wonders whether the poem, first published in 1831 when Holmes was a medical student, was reread by him or his son as they approached old age (Holmes lived to be eighty-five; his son died in 1935 at ninety-four). Like Major Melville, each of them “live[d] to be/ The last leaf upon the tree/ In the spring.”

“Dorothy Q.”

“Dorothy Q.” also shows Holmes’s imaginative response to an actual person of the past, but in this charming poem the subject is one of his own ancestors: Dorothy Quincy, Holmes’s great-grandmother on the maternal side. The premise of the poem is simple enough: The poem’s persona (Holmes himself) regards a portrait of Dorothy made when she was only thirteen years old. The portrait itself was not painted with exceptional skill, and the canvas had been damaged by “a Red-Coat’s rapier-thrust,” but the girl, “a lady born,” reveals in “her slender shape” the “Hint and promise of stately mien.” Holmes realizes that he owes to Dorothy a “Strange” gift, for she gave him “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!” Here Holmes reveals, as he seldom does in his poetry, his deep interest (by both training and temperament) in human heredity; for by her acceptance of Edward Jackson’s proposal of marriage (the “tremulous question”), young Dorothy ultimately helped to create not only Holmes but also Amelia Jackson, the distant relative of Holmes whom he married in June, 1840 (hence the paradoxical line “Mother and sister and child and wife”). Holmes speculates on heredity by questioning what he would have been like had she declined Jackson’s marriage proposal; “Should I be I, or would it be/ One tenth another, to nine tenths me?”; and, touching on the...

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