Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2516
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” 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.” 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 rather serious issue of the degree to which people are to be held morally responsible for creating new human life, Holmes wonders, “Shall I bless you, Dorothy, or forgive/ For the tender whisper [that is, her saying “Yes”] that bade me live?” The hint of unhappiness that pervades that final couplet is uncharacteristic of Holmes. It evidently does not reflect Holmes’s personal dissatisfaction with being alive, for apparently he was a singularly contented man; however, it does seem to reflect his realization that many people certainly do regret having been born because of their physical or emotional problems. This unfortunate state of affairs, which would have been especially apparent to Holmes in his capacity as a physician, gave rise to two of his most enduring concerns. Is it not true that in large measure people are simply the victims of genetic factors beyond their comprehension or control? Furthermore, as “victims,” should people—or their parents, or no one—be held morally responsible for their behavior? Several decades before the rise of naturalism in American literature, Holmes was confronting the power of human sexuality and the problem of determinism. Virtually all that confrontation took place in Holmes’s “medicated novels” (most notably Elsie Venner). In such poems as “Dorothy Q.,” one sees but a glimmer of Holmes’s deep interest in sex and genetic determinism.
“The Deacon’s Masterpiece”
More widely known than “Dorothy Q.” are “The Deacon’s Masterpiece: Or, The Wonderful ’One-Hoss Shay’” and “The Chambered Nautilus,” both of which were originally published in Holmes’s Autocrat papers but can be read outside that context. “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” one of Holmes’s longest poems (120 lines), is also one of his most controversial. The story line is extremely simple: A deacon in 1755 sets out to build a “one-hoss shay.” Mindful of the belief that in building a chaise “There is always somewhere a weakest spot” that is responsible for its eventual destruction, he constructs the carriage of the finest materials using the soundest technical knowledge available. One hundred years to the day after its creation, this ostensibly perfect carriage literally falls to pieces “in a heap or mound,/ As if it had been to the mill and ground!” The controversy resides in the poem’s meaning: Is it a story about logic, a parable suggesting that any theoretically airtight system of beliefs is doomed to collapse simply because it cannot accommodate changes in context, attacks from without, or the passage of time? Or, is the poem (as is believed by many commentators) specifically a parable on the demise of Calvinism? The latter interpretation was first proposed in 1900 by Barrett Wendell, and the details in the poem on which this reading is based are rather convincing. As Hyatt Waggoner points out in his American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present (1968), the shay is specifically “a ’deacon’s’ masterpiece, and it disappeared just as the parson got to ’fifthly’ in his sermon.” The religious element in the poem is insistent, and although Calvinism as such is not mentioned, “those who wanted to take the hint could do so.”
Even more convincing is Holmes’s emphasis on the fact that the shay was constructed in 1755, a singular year in the history of Calvinism, or, more precisely, in its decline. In 1755 came the death of Jonathan Edwards, the author of the Calvinist tract The Freedom of the Will (1754), as well as the great Lisbon earthquake, an event that raised serious questions concerning free will and Original Sin. Between Edwards’s death and the earthquake, Calvinism suffered blows from which it never recovered, and by 1855, that inflexible system of religious beliefs was perceived as being so inappropriate for the rapidly changing American way of life that it was simply rejected wholesale. Further support for this reading of “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” is to be found in Holmes’s personal attitude toward Calvinism: He felt that it was “not just mistaken but vicious.” As Waggoner further reveals, Holmes felt that Calvinism not onlydenied man his dignity, it denied God his sublimity, reducing him to an unjust Oriental potentate. But most of all it offended the moral sense, especially in its doctrine of Election. “Any decent person,” he once wrote, “ought to go mad if he really holds . . . such opinions.”
Several other interpretations of “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” have been offered (including the theory that it is an allegory about manufacturing), but in the light of Holmes’s personal contempt for Calvinism and various details in the poem, it seems most reasonable to agree with Wendell’s reading. The poem can be enjoyed even without accepting or rejecting it as a religious allegory. Its rollicking couplets, thick New England dialect, and lively humor still make interesting reading; it helps to explain why Holmes is regarded today as a master of light verse.
“The Chambered Nautilus”
Even better known than “The Deacon’s Masterpiece” is “The Chambered Nautilus.” The controlling image of the poem is the shell of a type of cephalopod native to the South Pacific and Indian oceans. The shell, a “ship of pearl,” fancifully believed to sail about in the depths of the ocean, has been washed ashore and split open—“Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!” The splitting has revealed the internal structure of the shell: a spiral consisting of the progressively larger chambers that the cephalopod constructed, occupied, and abandoned as it grew to maturity. The image of that broken shell with its spiraling chambers is interpreted as conveying a “heavenly message”: “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,/ As the swift seasons roll!” The poem, with its carefully controlled movement from poetic fancy (the shell as the “venturous bark” that sails where “the cold sea-maids . . . sun their streaming hair”) to science (the observation and analysis of the beached shell) to spiritual faith, demonstrates that the didactic impulse that was so potent a force in early American poetry was still evident in Holmes’s verse in 1858.
Evident it was, but not necessarily predominant. Although Holmes was enough of a proper Boston Brahmin not to question anyone else’s religious beliefs overtly (witness the veiled allegorical attack on Calvinism in “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”), he was much more a man of science than a man of faith, and in that respect he embodied the increasing tendency on the part of nineteenth century Americans to place their trust in technology rather than in religion. True, the persona of “The Chambered Nautilus” sees a “heavenly message” in the structure of the shell, but this does not qualify his obvious interest in conchology.
“The Living Temple”
Holmes’s preference for science over faith is especially evident in his poem “The Living Temple” (1858). Working from the biblical statement that “your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost,” Holmes provides a surprisingly effective paean to human physiology. It is true that in the first of the seven stanzas, he indicates that the poem is intended to prove that God’s “Eternal wisdom” may be detected as clearly in man’s “wondrous frame” as it is in “the world of light” and “in earth below,” but the fact remains that for the next five stanzas, God is quite forgotten in the elaborate, neoclassical discussion of the human body and its functions. The second stanza focuses on breathing: “The smooth soft air with pulse-like waves/ Flows murmuring through its hidden caves”; the third deals with the circulatory system, that “woven net” at the center of which is the “throbbing slave . . ./ Forever quivering o’er his task”; the fourth focuses on muscles and bones, the “living marbles jointed strong/ With glistening band and silvery thong”; the fifth discusses vision (the eyes as “lucid globes”) and hearing (“Hark how the rolling surge of sound,/ Arches and spirals circling round”); and the sixth deals with the human brain (“the cloven sphere”) and, more abstractly, the mind (“Think on the stormy world that dwells/ Locked in its dim and clustering cells”).
Holmes’s excitement over the wonders of the human body is palpable in this poem, so much so that the final stanza—with its apostrophe to the “Father” to “grant thy love divine/ To make these mystic temples thine,” and its request that when the marvelous human body dies its “poor dust” may be “mould[ed] . . . into heavenly forms”—sounds more than a little forced and artificial. One may, in fact, be reminded of the poetry of Holmes’s Puritan ancestor, Bradstreet, who often undercut the powerful personal emotions in her verse by introducing religious doctrine (see, for example, “Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House,” where her agony over the loss of her home is ostensibly nullified by the thought that she has “an home on high erect;/ Framed by that mighty Architect”). Even though “The Living Temple” has its origins in a biblical text and the first and last stanzas introduce matters of religious faith, the fact remains that this is far more a poem of physiology than of religious orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the tension generated between the real and the ostensible subject weakens the poem significantly.
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