Studies of a Biographer/Oliver Wendell Holmes
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
Few modern writers have roused a stronger feeling of personal affection than O. W. Holmes. His friends, known and unknown, have naturally looked forward to a life which might be complementary to the autobiography implicitly contained in his writings. Mr. Morse, to whom it has fallen to supply this want, apologises by anticipation for partially disappointing their expectations. They will ask, he thinks, for more correspondence, and his answer is the very conclusive one that more correspondence is not forthcoming. Dr. Holmes, it appears, disliked letter- writing; and, although he systematically replied to hosts of unknown admirers, wrote comparatively little to his own circle of intimates. The unknown admirers appear to have kept his answers to themselves, considering them as autographs or literary curiosities not to be dignified as 'letters.' I certainly regret with Mr. Morse that more of these documents have not been sent to him. There might have been formed a book which I have often desiderated,—a model letter-writer for the use of editors. It would have been exceedingly welcome. The problem how to tell a young author plainly that his rhymes are rubbish, and yet give no pain to an innocent aspirant, has weighed upon the souls of many sitters in the critical chair. A young author once showed me letters from two of the most distinguished men of the time, one of whom, while not committing himself, somehow suggested that he might be addressing the coming Shakespeare; while the other roundly declared that most lads had put better work in their waste-paper basket. They meant much the same thing, and Dr. Holmes was one of the few men who might have fused the two letters and combined courtesy with the wholesome truth. I, for one, should have been glad to have had the secret communicated, or, at least, a few examples given of the method. It is some comfort to be told that even his good-nature was sometimes requited with abuse. In any case, as Mr. Morse had not the materials, his excuse is unanswerable. One good result is that the life is given in two volumes of modest size; and for the record of so simple a history that seems to be ample. We do not, perhaps, know very much more than an attentive reader could infer from Dr. Holmes's own writings; but the facts are brought together in a definite and authentic shape, and combined in a simple and agreeable narrative.
Every reader of the Autocrat has his own distinct image of the author. As he remarks himself in a characteristic passage, there are three people on each side of every dialogue; the real John, and John's ideal John, and Peter's John; and no doubt there may be a real Holmes, different both from the Holmes of Holmes's own imagination and the reader's Holmes. There are, however, very few people of whom one believes that the three have a more substantial identity. The true man, as every one remarks, shows himself with all his idiosyncrasies in every page of his writing. This suggests certain difficulties for the writer. Mr. Morse observes that the true Holmes was a New Englander 'from the central thread of his marrow to his outermost rind.' That is undeniable; but Mr. Morse proceeds to answer that nagging critic, who is invisibly present whenever one writes, and who hereupon suggests that Holmes was provincial. Mr. Morse replies that no creative writer, except Shakespeare, who has been cosmopolitan has also made himself a 'place in the hearts of mankind.' I should myself reply by denying that Shakespeare was an exception. Nobody, surely, ever reflected more fully and faithfully the great imaginative movement of his own time; and, if we knew the people of Stratford-on-Avon and the frequenters of the Globe Theatre as we know the people of Scott's Edinburgh, I suspect that we should recognise the Shallows and the Falstaffs of the plays as clearly as we recognise Scott's friends in the Waverley Novels. Or to drop Shakespeare, who is apt, I sometimes fancy, to intrude a little too often, was there ever any one who was at once more full of personal and local idiosyncrasies, and, at the same time, more thoroughly 'cosmopolitan,' than Montaigne?—one of the numerous list of authors to whom, as Mr. Morse reminds us, Holmes has been compared. A man surely need not cease to be cosmopolitan because he is provincial, any more than he ceases to be an athlete because he plays the game of his country—cricket in England and baseball in America. What interests us in the sport is the display of strength and activity: which may be shown in one game as well as another. The great writer is great because he displays a powerful intellect or a vivid imagination, and does not cease to be great because he applies his reasoning to particular questions or casts his imagery into the artistic mould of the day. There are obvious dangers in 'provincialism.' A man shut up in a village may be ignorant of the thoughts that are stirring outside; he may express himself in a dialect unintelligible to the larger world, or his mind may be atrophied for want of collision and excitement, and he may therefore limit himself to trifles interesting to a petty circle alone. But every man has got to be incarnate at a particular time and place, and to apply his mind to the questions which are stirring in them. Holmes was not the less a New Englander because he was also an individual; nor the less a citizen of the great world because he belonged to this particular province. The New England of his day, whatever its limitations, was seething with important movements as interesting, in slightly different applications, on this side of the Atlantic as well as on the other; and the fact that Holmes looked at them from a New England point of view does not show that he did not appreciate their wider significance.
His characteristic nationality has, however, one result; namely, that in criticising Holmes one seems to be criticising New England or the United States. That is always a little awkward for an Englishman. To speak of Americans is to steer between opposite difficulties. One fears to fall into the old tone, when poor Mrs. Trollope and the critics of her day caused all the wrath of the democrat under the sneers of kid-gloved gentility, while, on the opposite side, there are certain commonplaces about Shakespeare and community of race, which are not precisely true, and are apt to be flung back contemptuously in one's face. There is a more personal difficulty for such Englishmen as have received the hospitality of the society which Holmes frequented. Those to whom the name recalls the actual presence and the vivid memory of Emerson and Hawthorne and Longfellow and Lowell, can hardly trust themselves to speak with due critical coolness. A writer, especially, who has many recollections, which, for good reasons, he is unwilling to manufacture into 'reminiscences,' almost feels his tongue tied. I think of a young gentleman who, in the heat of the Civil War, was most courteously welcomed by the men I have mentioned, and who is half afraid to give full utterance to feelings which might seem overstrained, and yet equally anxious not to appear deficient in warmth of gratitude. I must, however, venture to make a few of the remarks about Holmes which are suggested by this biography; though I am not quite sure whether the vividness of certain very pleasant memories is a qualification or the reverse.
I have said that Holmes's career was singularly simple. He was born in 1809, and passed a long life almost continuously at Boston and the immediate neighbourhood, his only long absence being caused by two years of medical studies at Paris. On returning he set up as a physician without obtaining much practice. He married in 1840, in 1847 became professor in the medical school at Harvard, and held the office for thirty-five years. He retired in 1882, at the age of seventy-three, and survived as a venerated and happy old man till 1894. His works are not voluminous; and, though he had published some of his best verses before he was thirty, he was nearly fifty before he began the series of essays which really made him famous. Few popular authors have had a narrower escape from obscurity. He would, in any case, have been remembered in his own circle as a brilliant talker, and there would have been some curiosity as to the writer of the Last Leaf and two or three other poems. But had it not been for the judicious impulse given by his friend Lowell which induced him to make his appearance as the 'autocrat,' his reputation would have resembled that of Wolfe, of 'not a drum was beat' celebrity. Who, it would have been asked, was the author of the few lines which we all know by heart? and we should have turned up the article devoted to him in a biographical dictionary. But he would not have revealed himself with that curious completeness upon which all his critics have remarked. He often heard, as he says in an interesting letter, that he 'had unlocked the secret of some heart which others, infinitely more famous, infinitely more entitled to claim the freedom, have failed to find opening for them.' He cannot help believing that‘there is some human tone in his written voice which sometimes finds a chord not often set vibrating.' The secret of this gift is not hard to penetrate, though this biography will enable readers to understand it a little more fully. He remarks in the same letter that his life was 'rather solitary than social'; and the society which he did frequent was not in one of the greatest centres of intellectual movement. In certain ways, too, even Bostonians must admit that the social atmosphere was of a kind to nip some of the luxuriant growths congenial to older abodes of art and letters. Holmes's attachment to his surroundings was as keen as if the conditions had been of the most genial. Indeed, he illustrates what has become a commonplace. Americans, as Colonel Chester proved, often take with special enthusiasm to genealogy; although the interest of the study would at first sight appear to be less in a country where the claims of long descent are supposed to be ridiculous. This perhaps illustrates the principle which accounts for Scottish skill in gardening. The materials to be mastered are not so multitudinous, and when you cannot trust to nature your own energy may be stimulated. So Holmes cherished whatever could be called historically interesting in his own country, because there was so little spontaneously supplied. Men who live in the shadow of Westminster Abbey or go to universities which the great men of many centuries have filled with associations, are apt to become a little bored with the topic. Holmes loved the old 'gambrel-roofed house' in which he was born, all the more because a house which existed at the time of Washington represented exceptional antiquity in America. The deluge of growing civilisation sweeps away such relics of the past so rapidly that their scarcity gives them exceptional value. The buildings of Andover Academy and of the Harvard University are not, in themselves, comparable to Eton or to King's College, Cambridge. But they represent the only persistent thread of historical continuity in the country, and the affection which they excite is proportioned, not to their absolute grandeur or antiquity, but to the degree in which they have to satisfy whatever instinctive affections there may be in their alumni. Holmes certainly loved his old home, and cherished his school and college associations as ardently as if he had been born in a Norman manor-house or played his boyish games under the statue of Henry VI. As he grew up his patriotism did not diminish in intensity. All that happened was that he became qualified to catch its comic aspects. When the 'young fellow they call John' laid down the famous proposition that 'Boston State House is the hub of the solar system,' and adds that 'you couldn't pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar,' the Autocrat accepts the 'satire of the remark,' and admits that the 'axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town and city.' But he does not pretend to conceal that the sentiment, outrageous if literally accepted, tickles his fancy agreeably. When we drink a man's health after dinner, we often express an estimate of his virtues which we might sometimes shrink from maintaining in cold blood. Yet our sentiment may be essentially genuine, though we have dropped some implied qualifications. Holmes as a man shares the young fellow's enthusiasm, though he wishes us to understand that he is aware in cold blood that it is not quite the whole truth. The little deformed gentleman in the Professor is a still more vigorous mouthpiece of the same sentiment. 'A new race, and a whole new world for the newborn human soul to work in! And Boston is the brain of it, and has been any time these hundred years! That's all I claim for Boston, that it is the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet!'—in which respect its superiority to Philadelphia and New York is easily demonstrated. The little gentleman is one of Holmes's most spirited characters, and makes a very convenient organ for the utterance of opinions not to be turned into serious dogmas—but also not to be overlooked. Boston is an ideal as well as a real city; it represents 'the American principle,' whatever that may precisely be. It is the three-hilled city as opposed to the seven-hilled city or reason against Rome. Democratic America has a different humanity from feudal Europe, 'and so must have a new divinity.' Religion has to be 'Americanised,' and Boston is in the van of the struggle.
This might suggest a good many remarks to which Holmes would, perhaps, leave his deformed gentleman to reply. He has not committed himself to an unreserved support of a personage who reflects only one of his moods. One point, however, has to be noticed. Holmes, like others, had revolted against Calvinism as represented by the Westminster Confession. Many pages in his essays are directed against the old-fashioned creed; and, as we are told, made him the object of warm denunciations by the orthodox. Young people, Mr. Morse informs us, were forbidden to read the Autocrat, and Elsie Venner was regarded as a dangerous manifesto. This, it must be admitted, sounds strange at the present day. Were any books ever more obviously harmless? People who remember certain English controversies about Maurice, which happened a little before the appearance of the Autocrat, may succeed in understanding why, in the country of the Puritans, Holmes should have passed for a heresiarch. Yet it now requires an effort to put oneself in that position, and certainly Holmes's remarks would now hardly excite a shudder in the best-regulated families. Yet they represented what seems to have been the most important passage of his mental history. The old Puritanism, one may guess, appeared to him in a new light when he had sat at the feet of Parisian professors. The old Boston, at any rate, was not quite the 'hub of the universe' in a physiological point of view; and he fancied, when the old and the new currents met, a good deal of the sediment of old-fashioned dogma would be precipitated. Still, the old problem which Calvinism had answered in its own way came up in a new form. The doctrine of hereditary sin might be abandoned, but the problems of scientific 'heredity' took its place. Jonathan Edwards's discussions of moral responsibility have still a serious meaning when they are dissociated from the ghastly visions of hell-fire. Holmes gave more place to these controversies than some of his readers liked; and I need say nothing as to the merit of his own conclusions. They interest us chiefly because they give rise to that provoking book, Elsie Venner. I call it 'provoking' merely because it will not square nicely with any orthodox canons of criticism. In the first place it has an air of being didactic, or is a book with a tendency, or, in the old-fashioned phrase, is a novel with a purpose. I confess that I should have no objection to it upon that ground. I always found Sandford and Merton a delightful work in my childhood, and I partly preserve that degrading taste. I like books with a moral. Some authors, it is true, are cramped by their morals, and occasionally tripped up into flat absurdity. Still, a writer generally derives a certain unction from the delusion that he is preaching as well as story-telling; and so long as any one is working with a will, and defying the critics and all their ways, he has the root of the matter in him. Holmes, it must be remarked, did not suppose that he was proving anything in Elsie Venner; he recognised the truth of the axiom propounded in the Rose and the Ring that blank verse is not argument; and the imaginary behaviour of an impossible being cannot possibly lead to any conclusion. When we meet a being who is half woman and half a snake it will be time to settle the moral code for judging her. Holmes, in fact, says in his preface that he only took an imaginary case in order to call attention to the same difficulty in the common course of things. To that I can see no objection. Clearly, every great tragedy involves some interesting question of casuistry; and casuistry may repay the debt by suggesting a good plot for a novel. The only question is, whether the extravagant hypothesis, be it purely fantastic or contrived to illustrate a point in ethics, has really been turned to good account. I confess to a conflict of feeling which, I suspect, is shared by others. The book makes me read it whenever I take it up, and yet I am never satisfied. Perhaps it is that I want more rattlesnake; I want to have the thrill which my ancestors felt when they told legends of were-wolves; I wish the snake-woman to be as poetical as Coleridge's Geraldine, to tremble while I read, and to be encouraged in my belief by such an infusion of science as will reconcile me to the surroundings of the nineteenth century in England. That is, no doubt, to wish at the lowest that Holmes could have been combined with Hawthorne—not to suggest the creator of Caliban—and that their qualities could have coalesced with as little interference as those of Elsie and the snake. So much is suggested that one wants a more complete achievement. The fact is simply, I suppose, that Holmes had not the essential quality of the inspired novelist. He did not get fairly absorbed in his story and feel as though he were watching, instead of . contriving, the development of a situation. That, for example, is the way in which Richardson declares himself to have written, and which partly explains the fascination to our forefathers of his moralising and long-winded narratives. Holmes is distinctly a spectator from outside, and his attention is too easily distracted. I do not in the least object to a novelist discoursing or supplying comments if it be his natural vein; I am not simple-minded enough to care for the loss of the illusion. But the novelist should not give an analysis in place of a concrete picture, or wander into irrelevant remarks. Now, Holmes's intellect is so lively and unruly that the poor snake-lady gets too often squeezed into the background. He is struck by the peculiarities of New England villages, their toasts, or their 'co-lations,' or their 'hired men,' and is immediately plunged into vivacious descriptions and disquisitions. We have to change moods too rapidly; to feel on one page a shudder at the uncanny being, with something not human looking out of her eyes; and, on the next, to be laughing at the queer social jumble of a village gathering. If, in spite of these artistic defects, the book somehow takes so firm a grasp of one's memory, it is the stronger proof of the excellence of the materials which form so curious a mosaic. After all, the writer never goes to sleep, and that is a remit which redeems a good many faults of design.
One condition of the excellence of the Autocrat and its successors is of course that in them this irrepressible vivacity and versatility finds in him a thoroughly appropriate field. They have, as we see at once, the merits of the best conversation. Mr. Morse, in speaking of this, assures us that Holmes's talk was still better than his writing. We have unfortunately to take such statements on faith. No one, except Boswell, has ever succeeded in the difficult task of giving us a convincingly accurate report of conversation, or rather of something better than a report—a dramatic reflection of the position which would be lost in a detailed account. Would the talk at the theatre have been as impressive as it appears if we could have it reproduced by phonograph? Locke, it is said, once wrote down the actual words of Shaftesbury and some great men of the day, to show them how trivial it looked on paper. The moral was, if I remember rightly, that they ought to talk about the origin of ideas instead of discussing their hands at cards. But I fear that the test, if applied to the very best of talk, would have a depressing effect. The actual words dribbled out at a century's distance would be depressingly flat. The brilliant things, even of the most brilliant talker, are exceptional flashes; they are the few diamonds among a mass of pebbles, and generally want a good deal of polishing before they get moulded into the famous gems which we admire. The actual talk includes all the approximations and the ramblings round about the point. The 'master-bowman,' as Tennyson puts it, may come at last and hit the target in the centre; but even he generally wastes a great many arrows in the process. Then, of course, half the effect of most good talk is dramatic; its success depends not only upon what is said, but upon what is omitted and upon the mental attitude of the moment of the other players in the game. As Holmes says himself, 'The whole force of conversation depends on how much you can take for granted'—that is, in your hearers. I have no doubt of the excellence of Holmes's talk; but it was, I guess, partly due to the fact that it was part of a spontaneous concert. Talking is, as Holmes said, 'one of the fine arts,' and it is one which requires above all things a harmonious co-operation. The hearers must join themselves, and must also act as an effective sounding-board. They must catch the ball quickly, and return it nimbly, or the best performer will flag.
Holmes found his best co-operators in his famous 'Saturday Club.' He was always referring to it fondly, and Mr. Morse produces various testimonies to its merits. Lowell said that he had never seen equally good society in London. Colonel Higginson observes that Holmes and Lowell were the most brilliant talkers he ever heard, but suggests a qualification of this comparison. They had not, he says,‘the London art of repression,’ and monopolised the talk too much. They could, he intimates, overlook the claims of their interlocutors. He once heard Lowell demonstrating to the author of Uncle Uncle Tom's Cabin that Tom Jones was the best novel ever written; while Holmes was proving to her husband, the divinity 'professor, that the pulpit was responsible for all the swearing. Dr. and Mrs. Beecher Stowe, it is implied, must have been reduced to ciphers before they could be the passive recipients of such doctrines. In spite of this, I can easily believe that the Club deserved its fame. The 'art of repression,' I fancy, is very often superfluous in London. Conversation in ever-shifting crowds requires stimulation more often than restraint, and it is sometimes as hard to set talk going in the fortuitous concurrence of human atoms at a large party as to start a real exchange of ideas in an excursion train. The best talk that I have ever heard has certainly been in obscure corners, where a few friends meet habitually, and distribute their parts instinctively. A society which included all the best scholars and men of genius within reach of Boston had abundance of the raw material of talk. They might be compared in point of talent even with the men who met Johnson at the 'Turk's Head,' and certainly had as great a variety of interest in men and books. They had, it would seem, fewer jealousies, or, as the sneerer would put it, were readier for 'mutual admiration'; and such admiration, when it has a fair excuse, is the best security for forming the kind of soil in which the flower of talk grows spontaneously.
Talk, said Holmes, is 'to me only spading up the ground for crops of thought.' He was half his time 'interviewing himself’ and looking for his own thoughts, 'as a schoolboy turns his pockets inside out to find what is in them.' The Autocrat is the outcome of this investigation. It might have been more amusing to watch the actual process; but a reader may be content to get the fine extract. Holmes, as he intimates himself, was his own Boswell. He had a quaint satisfaction in following the career of Johnson, whose age differed by exactly a century from his own, and missed an old companion when he outlived his parallel. It would be absurd to make a comparison, as a Johnson fused with a Boswell would have been a singularly different person. Indeed, the most obvious peculiarity of Holmes's mind is one to which his ponderous predecessor could make no pretension. Johnson went into conversation like a gladiator into the arena; and if Holmes could have met him the pair would have been like a Spanish bull encountered by a dexterous picador. Holmes would have been over his head and behind his back, and stabbing him on the flank with all manner of ingenious analogies, and with squibs and crackers of fancy, instead of meeting the massive charge face to face. To invent an imaginary conversation between the two is altogether beyond my powers, and I can only hope that it is taking place somewhere in Elysium. Holmes's most peculiar excellence is foreshadowed in a passage which Boswell quotes from Barrow's sermons as applicable to Wilkes. 'Facetiousness,' as Barrow says, among other things, 'raiseth admiration as signifying a nimble sagacity of apprehension, a special felicity of invention, a vivacity of spirit and reach of wit more than vulgar; it seeming to argue a rare quickness of parts, that one can fetch in remote conceits applicable; a notable skill that he can dexterously accommodate them to the purpose before him; together with a lively briskness of humour, not apt to damp those sportful flashes of imagination. Where in Aristotle—' but there I had better stop. Barrow probably knew Holmes as pre-existing in one of the ancestors who transmitted to him the power of 'fetching in remote conceits.' The Autocrat might suggest a series of riddles or problems for some future examiner in English literature. Why is controversy like the Hydrostatic Paradox? Why is a poem like a meerschaum? What is the very obvious resemblance between the pupil of the eye and the mind of the bigot? In what respects may truths be properly compared to dice and lies to marbles? Why should a trustworthy friend be like a cheap watch? How does the proper treatment for Guinea-worm illustrate the best mode of treating habitual drunkards? The answers to these and many equally ingenious parallels illustrate Holmes's power of procuring analogies; and show, too, how his talent had been polished in the conversational arena. The commonest weakness of popular writers in the eyes of severe critics is that they resemble barristers addressing dull juries. Such an one feels that he must not simply state a reason, but pound it into a thick head by repetition. When a joke seems to answer, he makes it again and again till the stare of puzzled suspicion that the man may be not quite serious passes into the broad grin of steady conviction that he is actually making a joke. The instrument upon which Holmes had performed, the circle of congenial friends, was, of course, far more responsive. Still, an after-dinner criticism requires to be played with and flashed in different lights if it is to win the ear of the party. In that act of dexterously manipulating a subtle analogy, playing with it long enough to excite attention, and yet not so long as to bore the intelligent, Holmes had certainly become a master.
Wit of this kind has a close affinity to logic; and Holmes is the man of science playing with a weapon available for more serious purposes. According to himself, he played with it a little too much in his professional capacity. A man who could say that the 'smallest fevers would be thankfully received' had not the excessive gravity which we desire in our medical advisers. In some hands the danger would be rather that the wit would be too heavily weighted with the logic. Holmes succeeded in making his logic sparkle and play over the surface of his sentiment; and achieved the feat happily described in the saying of his friend, Thomas Appleton—famous for many good sayings—that he had 'put the electricity of the climate into words.' The force which may crush a fallacy can also coruscate like mild summer lightning. This logical tendency makes a characteristic difference between Holmes and Charles Lamb, the most obvious parallel to him in our own language. Holmes, as became a quick logician, was an unequivocal lover of clearness and common sense. He may play with an extravagance, as in the case of Boston, but he is anxious always to show that he sees its extravagance. Lamb loves the quaint and grotesque for its own sake; falls in love with his prejudices; delights in yielding to them unreservedly, and caressing them and flouting the reasonable matter-of-fact person, the solid Scot who demonstrates that an absurdity is absurd. He may be quite reasonable at bottom, but he will not condescend to interpret his meaning to the hopelessly commonplace. So, for example, he dilates upon his 'imperfect sympathy' with the Jews. He has, 'in the abstract, no disrespect for them. They are a piece of stubborn antiquity compared with which Stonehenge is in its nonage.' But, he adds, 'old prejudices cling about me. I cannot shake off the old story of Hugh of Lincoln.' Holmes meets some Jews 'at the pantomime' and remembers the same legend:—
Up came their murderous deeds of old,
The grisly story Chaucer told;
And many an ugly tale beside,
Of children caught and crucified.
Whether, as Holmes hoped, democracy will prove to be the reign of reason and of true refinement of respect for man as man, and also of respect for the traditional culture, is not a question to be asked here. The shorter and more answerable problem concerns his own character. Holmes shocked the orthodox by some of his theories: and perhaps, if he had fully perceived or uttered some of their consequences he would have shocked them more. He might have been respected: but to the ordinary reader he would have appeared as a scoffer, or at least as a blast from the nipping north-east air, blighting the fairest flowers of old tradition. One can perhaps fancy Holmes under other surroundings, producing a book not unlike Candide, incomparably witty, but not exactly conciliatory to the other side. But with all his power of ridicule Holmes had not a touch of the satirist about him. He shrinks from painting even his enemies in too black colours. He can denounce bigotry, but he always prefers to point out that the bigot in theory may be the kindliest of men in practice. In one of his early bits of pure fun, he tells how his servant was thrown into a fit by reading some of his merry lines:—
Ten days and nights with sleepless eye
I watched that wretched man;
Since then I never dare to write
As funny as I can.
Certainly he never wrote as sharply as it is abundantly plain that he could. He always remembered that the other person was a human being. It was very shocking to burn the witches, but he could not find it in his heart to sentence the burner to his own flames.
If Holmes, that is, had revolted from his early teachers he had never become bitter. This was, perhaps, because he never grew to manhood, He requests all but youthful readers to abstain from one of his papers, and explains that 'youthful' includes some 'from the age of twelve to that of four-score years and ten.' Youth is 'something in the soul which has no more to do with the colour of the hair than the vein of gold in a rock has to do with the grass a thousand feet above it.' No one has ever insisted upon that text so emphatically and persistently. The 'poems of the class of 1829' have no doubt been surpassed in the highest qualities by some autobiographical series that might be mentioned, but their merits as occasional verse have an almost unique personal interest. Every year from 1851 till 1889 sees the laureate of the old set of friends proclaiming—as long as it can be done by even a poetical fiction—that they are still 'boys,' and when even the fiction would be too sad, still claiming undying youth for the old affection. So, as he says in 1884, after setting forth a characteristic analogy:—
So, link by link, our friendships part
To loosen, break, and fall,
A narrowing zone; the loving heart
Lives changeless through them all.
Although when Lamb wrote his pathetic Old Familiar Faces, bewailing the loss of schoolfriends, he was a little over twenty, his mood seems appropriate to one who, in the decline of life, feels his solitude to be almost unbearable. Humour which reveals the seamy side of life generally goes with a melancholy temperament, and Lamb's sweetness is generally toned by the sadness, due both to circumstance and to disposition. It is Holmes's special peculiarity that the childish buoyancy remains almost to the end, unbroken and irrepressible. He could hardly indeed have sympathised with the doctrine that heaven lies about us in our infancy, for we cherish that—illusion is it or faith? when we are forced to admit that we can only see the light of common day. Holmes never seems to have lost the early buoyancy—only to have acquired new toys; even physiology, which he studied seriously enough, and which is not generally regarded as amusing, supplies him with intellectual playthings, quaint fancies, and remote analogies to be tossed about like balls by a skilful juggler. The early poems, written in the pure extravagance of boyish fun, like the Spectre Pig and The Mysterious Visitor, show characteristics which may be overlaid but are never obliterated, I don't know that any of his poems are more thoroughly himself than the early lines on a portrait:—
That thing thou fondly deem'st a nose,
Unsightly though it be,
In spite of all the world's cold scorn,
It may be much to thee.
The inimitable One-Horse Shay was written when he was near fifty, and the Broomstick Train, almost equally full of fun, when he was over eighty, and had sorrows enough to quench most men's last sparkles of vivacity. No human being ever fought more gallantly with the old enemy who defeats us all in the end.
Holmes's boyishness appears in his quaint love of athletic sports, more eccentric in America when he wrote than it seems to be at present; his love of boxing and rowing and walking. We can almost believe the Autocrat when he says that he was tempted to put on the gloves with the 'Benicia Boy,' though that hero was of twice his weight and half his age. His exuberant feelings betray him into some bacchanalian lyrics, for which he half apologises. He goes back in spirit to the jovial old British squires who once possessed his punch-bowl—
I tell you there was generous warmth in good old English cheer,
I tell you 'twas a pleasant thought to bring its symbol here!
'Tis but the fool that loves excess; hast thou a drunken soul,
The fault is in thy shallow brain, not in my silver bowl.
This, indeed, may remind us that the everlasting 'boy' in Holmes is not to be confounded with the young of the human species as known to us by actual experience. The real boy is sometimes a brute, who loves boxing and the punchbowl after the manner of brutes. Holmes's boyishness means the actual possession of such qualities as are attributed to boys—rashly sometimes—by loving mothers; the perfect simplicity, the confiding trustfulness of a nature which has not been soured into cynicism; and the confident assumption that their own happiness implies the general goodness of all their fellow-creatures. Holmes's early revolt against Calvinism had left to him, as I have said, the belief that a Calvinist was a really good man with an offensive dogma floating on the surface of his mind. His heretical outbursts might be taken in good part by the judicious, because they remind even the orthodox not so much of the assaults of a determined enemy as of the naïve irreverence of a child who expresses in pure simplicity his view of some accepted dogma. He may have hit upon a really grave objection, but it implies no personal antipathies. This, as it requires no wizard to say, is the secret of the method by which Holmes unlocked the doors of so many hearts. The tenderness and simplicity combined were irresistible passports to admittance; even his logic appeared in the form of a dazzling display of wit; and the pathos touches us because it is presented without the slightest tinge of affectation. Nobody can be at once more feeling and more free from sentimentalism. His compliments, always delicately turned and sometimes exquisite, often remind me of Boswell's portrait of Garrick 'playing round' Johnson with a 'fond vivacity,' and looking up in his face with a lively archness, till the old gentleman was warmed into ' gentle complacency.' If Garrick was presumably the better actor, he could not have been more dexterous in administering praise. But I need not try to expound what every one perceives who has read his poems, such especially as the famous Last Leaf and Dorothy Q., and the Chambered Nautilus. The last of these, I humbly confess, does not quite touch me as it should, because it seems too ingenious. Like Blanco White's famous sonnet, it rather tempts me, at least, to think what reply I could make to the argument. But the Last Leaf might be made into the text of all that I wish to say. The exquisite pathos of the verse about the mossy marbles linked to the fun of the irresistible though sinful 'grin' is the typical instance of Holmes's special combination of qualities. He is one of the writers who are destined to live long—longer, it may be, than some of greater intellectual force and higher imagination, because he succeeds so admirably in flavouring the milk of human kindness with an element which is not acid, and yet gets rid of the mawkishness which sometimes makes good morality terribly insipid. This biography, in spite of the scantiness of material, falls in at every point with the impression derived from the books, and leaves us with the satisfactory conviction that we have no errata to correct in our previous judgment.