Oliver Wendell Holmes Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111205148-Holmes.jpg Oliver Wendell Holmes Published by Salem Press, Inc.

A remarkably versatile writer, Oliver Wendell Holmes produced not only five volumes of poetry but also three novels (Elsie Venner, 1861; The Guardian Angel, 1867; and A Mortal Antipathy, 1885); several collections of essays, including The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858), The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), and The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872); biographies of John Lothrop Motley and Ralph Waldo Emerson; and a large number of essays dealing with medicine, including the classic study “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever” (1843).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Along with William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes has come to be known as one of the so-called Schoolroom poets (also known as the Fireside poets). The label is an unfortunate one: Half affectionate and half patronizing, it indicates that for the last 150 years these poets have been regarded as the creators of verse so simplistic in theme, rhyme, and meter that it is ideally suited to memorization and recitation by grade school children; indeed, until recently it was not uncommon to find the portrait of at least one of these five men gracing the wall of the average American grade school classroom.

In the final analysis, however, the amenability of a poem to memorization and recitation is not indicative of its intrinsic worth (or lack thereof). An objective reconsideration of Holmes’s poetry reveals that he did indeed produce verse worthy of the admiration of serious readers of poetry. Such poems as “Old Ironsides,” “The Last Leaf,” “Dorothy Q.,” “The Deacon’s Masterpiece,” and “The Chambered Nautilus” are still thought-provoking and entertaining works, and it is doubtful that future generations of poetry readers will find them any less so.

In addition, Holmes’s The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table is still studied, and his Elsie Venner, so curiously modern in its psychological and ethical dimensions, could very well enjoy a revival of sorts in the present age of Freudian and Jungian approaches to human behavior.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Dowling, William C. Oliver Wendell Holmes in Paris: Medicine, Theology, and “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.” Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2006. Biography of Holmes that focuses on his life as a physician but also describes his life as a writer.

Howe, M. A. De Wolfe. Holmes of the Breakfast Table. 1939. Reprint. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: P. P. Appel, 1972. Illustrated biographical study divides Holmes’s life into four periods. Each chapter uses his poetry in part to help describe his endeavors and illuminate his life. Contains an index.

Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: William Morrow, 1979. This definitive biography is thorough and well researched, with generous notes on each chapter. Chapters are short, well focused, and readable. Holmes as a literary figure is studied primarily in chapters 16 to 20, which quote a number of poems. Includes illustrations and a good index.

Podolsky, Scott H., and Charles S. Bryan, eds. Oliver Wendell Holmes: Physician and Man of Letters. Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Boston Medical Library/ Science History Publications, 2009. Although this collection of essays focuses on Holmes as a physician, it contains a chapter on Holmes as a writer.

Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Holmes. 1962. Reprint. New York: Twayne, 1970. Examines Holmes’s work in three groups: the breakfast-table series, the novels, and the poems for Harvard occasions. Biocritical study follows a chronology established by the autobiographical echoes in his prose and poetry. In addition to six chapters, the book includes a chronology, references and notes, select bibliography, and index.

Weinstein, Michael A. The Imaginative Prose of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Although this work deals with the novels and breakfast-table books, it provides a clear and detailed picture of who Holmes was, what he thought, and what he hoped to accomplish by writing.