The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIII. Writers of Familiar Verse
§ 1. Ancestry.
ONE of the best known passages in Elsie Venner is that in which Holmes asserted the existence of an aristocracy in New England, or at least a caste, which “by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation,” has “acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy.” This caste is composed of those whose ancestors have had the advantage of college training and have practised one or another of the three learned professions. The young man born in this selected group is commonly slender, with a smooth face and with features regular and of a certain delicacy. “His eye is bright and quick,—his lips play over the thought much as a pianist’s fingers dance over their music,—and his whole air, though it may be timid, and even awkward, has nothing clownish.” Teachers discover that he “will take to his books as a pointer or setter to his field work.” He may be intended for the bar while his father was a minister and his grandfather a physician; and by the very fact of this heredity he “belongs to the Brahmin caste of New England.”
The man who thus described this caste was himself a Brahmin of the strictest sect, endowed with its best qualities, and devoid of its less estimable characteristics,—the tendency to anæmia and to the semi-hysterical outlook of the dyspeptic reformer. He was energetic, wholesome to the core, sound and sane, unfailingly alert, fundamentally open-minded, never tempted to crankiness or freakishness. He was born in an illustrious year, 1809, which saw the birth of Darwin and Lincoln, of Tennyson and Gladstone, of Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Edgar Allan Poe. It was toward the end of August that the Rev. Abiel Holmes, author of the Annals of America, made a brief entry at the foot of a page in his almanac, “—29. son b.” The son was named Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Wendell being the maiden name of his mother, descended from an Evert Jansen Wendell who had been one of the early settlers of Albany; and thus her son could claim a remote relationship with the Dutch poet Vondel:
- And Vondel was a Wendell who spelt it with a V.
Through his father, the Calvinist minister, and his grandfather, a physician who had served in the Revolution with the Continental troops, Holmes was descended from Anne, daughter of Thomas Dudley, governor of Massachusetts Bay, and wife of Simon Bradstreet, twice governor of the province. The author of the Autocrat shared with R. H. Dana, author of Two Years before the Mast, the honour of descent from this literary ancestress. Holmes was born in Cambridge, in an old gambrel-roofed house that had served as General Ward’s headquarters at the outbreak of the Revolution: “The plan for fortifying Bunker’s Hill was laid, as commonly believed, in the southeast room, the floor of which was covered with dents, made, it is alleged, by the butts of the soldiers’ muskets.” Holmes’s mother, it may be recorded here, to account in a measure for the veracity and the vigour of his Grandmother's Story of Bunker-Hill Battle, was only a little girl of six when she was hurried off from Boston, then taken by the British, who were preceded by rumours that “the redcoats were coming, killing and murdering everybody as they went along.”
§ 2. Education.
It was in Cambridge that Holmes grew to boyhood, playing under the Washington Elm. He was sent to what was then known as a “dame’s school.” He had an early inclination to verse, and composed rhyming lines in imitation of Pope and Goldsmith before he knew how to write; and Pope and Goldsmith remained his masters in metrical composition to the end of his long life. His father had a library of between one and two thousand volumes, and in this the son browsed at will, reading in books rather than through them. “I like books,” he told us later; “I was born and bred among them and have the easy feeling when I get into their presence, that a stable boy has among horses.” When he was fifteen he was sent to Phillips Academy at Andover; and at sixteen he entered Harvard, graduating in 1829, eight years after Emerson and nine before Lowell. Among his classmates were James Freeman Clarke and S. F. Smith, the author of America (1832). He wrote freely for the college papers, both in prose and verse, preserving in his collected works only a very few of his earlier humorous lyrics.
Upon his graduation he hesitated as to his profession, spending a year at the Dana Law School without awakening any liking for the law, and confessing later that “the seduction of verse-writing” had made this period “less profitable than it should have been.” Yet it was while he was supposed to be studying law, and when he was just twenty-one, that he wrote the first of his poems to achieve an immediate and lasting popularity. This was the fiery lyric on Old Ironsides, protesting against the breaking up of the frigate Constitution, victor in the naval duel with the Guerrière. The glowing stanzas were written in a white heat of indignation against the proposed degradation of a national glory; they were published in 1830 in the Boston Advertiser; they were copied in newspapers all over the country; they were reprinted on broadsides; and they accomplished their purpose of saving the ship, which did not go out of commission for more than half a century after Holmes had rhymed his fervent appeal for its preservation.
§ 3. Medicine.
At last he turned from the law to medicine, the profession of his grandfather. He studied for a while at the private school of Dr. James Jackson; and then he crossed the Atlantic to profit by the superior instruction to be had in Paris. Half a century later he recorded:
- I was in Europe about two years and a half, from April, 1833, to October, 1835. I sailed in the packet ship “Philadelphia” from New York to Portsmouth, where we arrived after a passage of twenty-four days…. I then crossed the channel to Havre, from which I went to Paris. In the spring and summer of 1834 I made my principal visit to England and Scotland…. I returned in the packet ship “Utica,” sailing from Havre, and reaching New York after a passage of forty-two days.
§ 4. Professional Career.
On his return to America he settled in Boston as a practising physician, taking as his motto “the smallest fevers thankfully received.” He was twenty-seven when he obtained the degree of doctor of medicine and when he issued his earliest volume of poems. Nothing that he had written before or that he was to write later was more characteristic than one of the lyrics in this book,—The Last Leaf. He won several prizes for dissertations upon medical themes, published together in 1838; and the next year he was appointed professor of anatomy and physiology in the medical school of Dartmouth College, a position which he held for only a brief period. In 1840 he married Amelia Lee Jackson. He had resumed his practice in Boston, and he continued to contribute freely to the literature of his profession. He was always justly proud of his share in diminishing the danger from puerperal fever and of his trenchant attack upon Homeopathy and its Kindred Delusions (1842). Then in 1847 he was called to Harvard as professor of anatomy and physiology; and this position he was to fill with distinction for thirty-five years.
The career of Holmes was placid and uneventful even beyond the average of literary careers. Nothing happened to him other than the commonplaces of life; he took part in nothing unusual; he practised medicine for a few years and he taught medical students for many years; he wrote prose and verse in abundance; and in the fulness of years he died. The only dates that call for record here are those of the publication of his successive books. Until he was almost at the summit of his half-century he was known to the general public only as a writer of verse. He used prose for his discussions of medical questions; and whenever he was moved to express his opinions on other themes he chose the medium of metre. Those were the fertile years of the Lyceum System, and Holmes went the rounds of the lecture-halls like many others of the New England authors who were his contemporaries; but even as a lecturer he preferred rhyming verse to the customary colloquial prose. Then quite unexpectedly, when he was forty-eight, an age when most men shrink from any new departure disconcerting to their indurated habits, he revealed himself in an entirely new aspect. The Atlantic Monthly was started in 1857 with Lowell as its editor; and to its early numbers Holmes contributed The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Lowell had insisted as a condition precedent to his acceptance of the editorship that Holmes should be a constant contributor, awakening him “from a kind of lethargy in which” he was “half-slumbering.”
Much of the vogue of the new magazine was due to the novel flavour of Holmes’s series of papers; and he was persuaded to follow up his first success with kindred volumes entitled The Professor at the Breakfast-Table (1860), The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872), and Over the Teacups (1890). For the same monthly he wrote many disconnected essays, some of which he sent forth in 1863 under the appropriate name Soundings from the Atlantic. In the several volumes of the Breakfast Table series there is a thin thread of story and the obligatory wedding winds them up at the end; and in his three attempts at fiction, Elsie Venner (1861), The Guardian Angel (1867), and A Mortal Antipathy (1885), the thread is only a little strengthened and there is no overt abandonment of the leisurely method of the essayist. From the telling of fictitious biographies to the writing of the lives of two of his friends was only a step; and he published a memoir of John Lothrop Motley in 1878 and a study of Emerson in 1884.
It was in 1883, when he was seventy-four, that he resigned his professorship; and it was in 1886, when he was seventy-seven, that he paid his second visit to Europe. He spent the summer mainly in England, and in London he was “the lion of the season.” It was almost exactly half a century since his first voyage across the ocean; and on his return from this second voyage he wrote out a pleasantly personal narrative of Our Hundred Days in Europe. At intervals, for nearly sixty years, he had sent forth volumes of verse; the latest to appear (in 1888) was aptly entitled Before the Curfew,—as Longfellow had called his final volume In the Harbour and Whittier had felicitously styled his last book At Sundown. On 7 October, 1894, Holmes died at the ripe age of eighty-five, unusual even among the long-lived American poets of his generation, of whom he was the last to survive.
During his second visit to London, Holmes was the guest of honour at a dinner of the Rabelais Club, founded to cherish the memory of an earlier humorist who was also a practitioner of medicine; and in his letter accepting the invitation he took occasion to confess his regard for another physician-author, Ambroise Paré, whom he termed “good, wise, quaint, shrewd, chatty.” And all five of these characteristics he possessed himself. He was a gentleman and a scholar—to revive the fine old phrase—who was also a physician learned in the lore of the healing art and keenly interested in its history. He was a gentleman and a scholar, who was also a man of the world, in the best sense of that abused term,—a man of the world holding a modest place as a man of science. And at bottom he was a Yankee, with a true Yankee inventiveness,—the hand-stereoscope he devised being the outward and visible sign of this native gift, which was exhibited incessantly in his writings, notably in The Physiology of Verse and in The Human Wheel, its Spokes and Felloes. In prose and in verse he disclosed an unfailing Yankee cleverness, whittling his rhymes and sharpening his phrases with an innate dexterity.
“The secret of a man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested,” William Dean Howells has told us; “and this was above all the secret of the charm Doctor Holmes had for every one.” There is zest and gusto in all that he wrote, and the reader can share the writer’s own enjoyment. Especially was the writer interested in himself, as the true essayist must be. His delight in talking about himself was complacent, contagious, and innocent. “I have always been good company for myself,” Holmes once confessed; and this is one reason why he has been pleasantly companionable to countless readers who found in him a friendly quality which took them captive. His egotism was as patent as Montaigne’s, even if it was not so frank in its expression nor so searching in its analysis. The more of himself he revealed, the more he won the hearts of his fellow men, who relished the gentleness and the firmness of the character so openly disclosed, its kindliness, its urbanity and amenity, its lack of all acerbity or acridity, its total freedom from the rennet of meanness which curdles the milk of human kindness.
In a letter which Whittier wrote for a celebration of Holmes’s seventy-fifth birthday, the Quaker poet singled out for praise the Boston bard’s “genial nature, entire freedom from jealousy and envy, quick tenderness, large charity, hatred of sham, pretence and unreality, and his reverent sense of the eternal and permanent.” This is keen criticism. Holmes was a wit, but there was no bitterness in his laughter, because it lacked scorn; and there was in it no echo of the cruel sterility of Voltaire’s irony. We can say of Holmes what Moore said of Sheridan, that his wit
- ne’er carried a heart-stain away on its blade.
We can say this with the weightier emphasis when we recall the cheerful courtesy with which he met the vindictive and virulent retorts evoked by his dissolvent analysis of the abhorrent and horrible aspects of Calvinism, a disestablished code inherited from a less civilized past. Holmes’s influence was civilizing and humanizing; and it was more important than we are likely now to recognize. He had in a high degree the social instinct which has given grace to French life and which was perhaps accentuated in him during his two years’ stay in Paris in his malleable youth. He was the constant exponent of good manners and of right feeling, at a period in the evolution of American society when the need for this was even more evident than it is now.
§ 5. Biographies of Motley and Emerson.
It was in a score of his poems and in the successive volumes of the Breakfast-Table series that Holmes most completely disclosed himself. His two biographies and his three novels are far less important,—in fact, these other prose writings are important chiefly because they are the work of the “Autocrat”; and it may be well to deal with them briefly before considering his major work, in which he is expressing the essence of his cheerful optimism. The less significant of his two memoirs is that of Motley, a labour of love undertaken in the months that followed hard upon the death of the historian. “To love a character,” said Stevenson, “is the only heroic way of understanding it.” Possibly an author could write a vigorous life of a man he hated, since hatred is the other side of love. But no author could paint a vital portrait of a personality which left him indifferent; to his biographer at least a man must be a hero; and no valet has yet written an acceptable account of his master’s life. But love needs to be controlled by judgment; and Holmes, at the time he composed his memoir, felt too keenly the injustice from which Motley had suffered to be able to survey the career and to estimate the character of the eminent historian with the detachment necessary to the painting of a portrait for posterity. What he did was to put forward an apology for Motley, with undue insistence upon the temporary griefs of the man and with less adequate consideration of the histories by which his fame is supported.
The biography of Emerson is far better, even if it also is not wholly satisfactory. It is in no sense an apology, for there was nothing in Emerson to extenuate. It is less personal, more detached, more disinterested, more comprehensive. It is admirably planned, with the adroitly articulated skeleton which we have a right to expect from a professor of anatomy. It is rich in appreciation and abundant in phrases of unforgettable felicity, for Holmes was ever the neatest of craftsmen. But when all is said, we cannot repress the conviction that he was out of his natural element when he undertook to deal with a figure so elusive as Emerson’s. Holmes’s very qualities, his concreteness, his sense of reality, his social instinct, tended to unfit him for interpreting an intangible personality like Emerson. He was characteristically witty when he compared Emerson to those “living organisms so transparent that we can see their hearts beating and their blood flowing through their transparent tissues”; but he did not altogether succeed in making us feel the ultimate purpose for which Emerson’s heart beat and his blood flowed. The interest of the biography—and it has its full share of the interest which animated all that Holmes wrote—is kept alive rather by the adroitness of its author than by the revelation of its subject.
§ 6. Novels.
Such also is the interest of his three novels; they appeal to those who relish the flavour of Holmes’s personality rather than to those who expect a work of fiction to be first of all a story, and secondly a story peopled with accusable characters. In one of the prefaces to Elsie Venner Holmes cited the remark of a dear old lady who spoke of the tale as “a medicated novel”; and he declared that he was “always pleased with her discriminating criticism.” It is not unfair to say that all three novels were conceived by a physician and composed by an essayist. Holmes, so Leslie Stephen asserted, lacked the “essential quality of an inspired novelist,” which is “to get absorbed in his story and to feel as though he were watching instead of contriving the development of a situation.”
§ 7. Elsie Venner.
Of Elsie Venner Holmes himself said that the “only use of the story is to bring the dogma of inherited guilt and its consequences into a clearer point of view”; and he declared that his “heroine found her origin not in fable or romance, but in a physiological conception, fertilized by a theological dogma.” In other words, Elsie Venner is a novel-with-a-purpose; it is a fiction devised by a nineteenth-century physician to attack eighteenth-century Calvinism. Perhaps a born story-teller could have so constructed his narrative as to fascinate the reader in spite of the argument it was intended to carry, but Holmes was not a born story-teller. He described characters and places, not for their bearing on the story itself, and not even for suggesting the appropriate atmosphere of the action, but mainly if not solely for their own sake, and quite in the manner of the character-writers who had blazed the trail for the early essayists. By the side of figures thoroughly known and delicately delineated, there are others, not a few, outlined in the primary colours and trembling on the very verge of caricature. In this we can discover the unfortunate influence of Dickens, as we can perceive the fortunate influence of Hawthorne in the treatment of the abnormal heroine. And equally obvious is the influence of Thackeray, who also began and ended his career as an essayist. Thackeray, even if he had a bias toward moralizing, confessed to the Brookfields that he found his ethical lectures very convenient when he had to pad out his copy to fill the allotted number of pages in the monthly parts in which his larger novels originally appeared. But Thackeray, after all, was a born story-teller, an inspired novelist, who got absorbed in his story and felt as though he were watching and not inventing his situations. Holmes lingered by the way and chatted with the reader, not from any external necessity, but because digression and even disquisition is to the essayist the breath of life.
§ 8. The Guardian Angel; A Mortal Antipathy.
In The Guardian Angel, the heroine is a composite photograph of half a dozen warring ancestors of whom now one and now another emerges into view to insist upon the reappearance of his or her identity in Myrtle Hazard. Yet, when all deductions are made, both Elsie Venner and The Guardian Angel have many a chapter that only Holmes could have written, rich in wisdom, in wit, in whimsy, and in knowledge of the world. But this can scarcely be said of A Mortal Antipathy, the latest of the medicated fictions and the feeblest, written when its author had long passed threescore years and ten. The physiological theme is too far-fetched, too unusual, too abnormal, to win acceptance even if it had been handled by a master of fiction; and we may doubt whether even Balzac could have dealt with it triumphantly. As Holmes dealt with it, it did not justify itself; the narrative was too fragmentary for fiction and too forced, while the intercalary papers lacked the freshness of view and the unpremeditated ease of Holmes’s earlier manner as an essayist.
“The prologue of life is finished at twenty; then come five acts of a decade each, and the play is over, with now and then a pleasant or a tedious afterpiece, when half the lights are put out, and half the orchestra is gone.” When Holmes wrote this, he could not foresee that he would be able to keep in their seats more than half of the spectators, if not the most of them, to the very end of his pleasant afterpiece. He was not forty when he first discoursed as the “Autocrat” and he was twice forty when he gossiped “Over the Teacups.” In the octogenarian book he may be a little less spontaneous and a little more self-centred than in its predecessor of twoscore years earlier; and the shadowy figures who take part in its conversations may seem to talk a little because they are aware that they were created on purpose to converse, instead of talking freely for the fun of it as the solider persons who met around the breakfast table were wont to do. Yet the latest of the group, even if its wit be less pungent, has almost as many samples of shrewd sagacity as adorned the two books that came after the Autocrat. “Habits are the crutches of old age,” Holmes tells us; and he never lost the habit of cheerfulness. There is no hypocritic praising of past times; on the contrary there is a blithe and buoyant recognition of the gains garnered in eighty years.
Over the Teacups may be a little inferior to The Poet at the Breakfast-Table but only as the Poet is a little inferior to the Professor and the Professor to the Autocrat, because the freshness had faded and because we were no longer taken by surprise. The Autocrat struck the centre of the target and the hit was acclaimed with delight; the later books went to the same mark, even if they were not winged by an aim as unerring. No doubt, a part of the immediate success of the Autocrat was due to its novelty,—novelty of form and novelty of content. Holmes was characteristically shrewd when he declared that “the first of my series came from my mind almost with an explosion, like the champagne cork; it startled me a little to see what I had written and to hear what people said about it. After that first explosion the flow was more sober, and I looked upon the product of my wine-press more coolly”; and he added, “continuations almost always sag a little.” Perhaps the novelty of form was more apparent than real, since Steele and Addison had given us a group of characters talking at large as they clustered about Sir Roger de Coverley. But there is this salient difference, that in The Spectator the talk is mainly for the purpose of creating character, whereas in the Autocrat the characters have been created that they might listen.
Yet in so far as the Autocrat has a model, this is plainly enough the eighteenth-century essay, invented by Steele, improved by Addison, clumsily attempted by Johnson, and lightly varied by Goldsmith. Steele is the originator of the form, since the earlier essay of Montaigne and of Bacon makes no use of dialogue; it has only one interlocutor, the essayist himself, recording only his own feelings, his own opinions, and his own judgments. Steele was probably influenced by the English character-writers, perhaps also by the lighter satires of Horace, and quite possibly by the comedies of Molière,—notably by the Précieuses Ridicules and the Femmes Savantes. The outline Steele sketched the less original Addison filled with a richer colour. As Holmes had begun when a child by imitating the verse of Pope and Goldsmith, so as a man when he wrote prose he followed the pattern set by Steele and Addison. Although he was not born until the ninth year of the nineteenth century, he was really a survivor from the eighteenth century; and his prose like his verse has the eighteenth-century characteristics, despite the fact that he himself was ever alert to apprehend the new scientific spirit of the century in which he lived.
§ 9. The Breakfast-Table Series.
The real novelty of the Autocrat was in its content, that is to say, in Holmes himself, the master talker of the Breakfast-Table, in the skill with which the accent of conversation is caught. The other characters are responsible for an occasional remark not without individuality and point; but the Autocrat himself tends to be a monopolist and to intermit his discourse only that his adversary in the verbal combat may lay himself open to a series of sharp thrusts in retort. This is as it should be, since the others who gather about the breakfast table were but ordinary mortals, after all, whereas the Autocrat was an extraordinary mortal, an artist in conversation, gifted by nature and trained by long experience, a man who had thought widely if not deeply about life, who had read the records of the past and who could revive them to shed light on the present, a physician abreast of modern science and swift to bring its new discoveries to bear on the old problems of life. In reading the Breakfast-Table series in swift succession the reader cannot help remarking the frequency with which Holmes draws on his professional experience; he sees men and women through the clear spectacles of the family physician;—and perhaps one reason why he arrogates to himself the major part of the conversation is in revenge for the silence imposed on the practitioner by the tedious and interminable talk of his patients about themselves to which the family physician has perforce to submit. Holmes used medical analogies and dropped into the terminology of the anatomist and physiologist with the same frequency that Shakespeare employed the vocabulary of the theatre, even in incongruous situations finding material for figures of speech in his own experience on the stage.
Holmes is not only a man of science and a man of the world, he is also a humorist and a wit,—a wit who has no antipathy even to the humble but useful pun,—a humorist abounding in whimsy. And as a result of this fourfold equipment his talk is excellent merely as talk. It has the flavour of the spoken word; it is absolutely unacademic and totally devoid of pedantry. Therefore it is not only delightful but stimulating; it continually makes the reader think for himself and turn back upon himself. Despite its acuteness, its liveliness, its briskness, its vivacity, it never lacks seriousness, without ever becoming ponderous.
It may be that Holmes does not attain to the high seriousness, the deep seriousness, of enduring philosophy; and it cannot be denied that there are pages here and there which are not as valid today as when they were written. It would be doing the Autocrat an ill-service to compare him with his remote and mighty predecessors Montaigne and Bacon. And it may be admitted that there is more or less warrant for the remark of John Burroughs, to the effect that Holmes always reminded him “of certain of our bird songsters, such as the brown thrasher or the cat-bird, whose performances always seem to imply a spectator and to challenge his admiration.” Holmes seems “to write with his eye upon his reader, and to calculate the advance upon his reader’s surprise and pleasure.” To admit this would be only to acknowledge the truth of the French saying that every man has the defects of his qualities. But it cannot be admitted if it implies that Holmes was unduly self-conscious or affected or pretentious. In fact, much of the charm of the Autocrat is due to the entire absence of affectation and to the apparent spontaneity of the talk which pours so easily from his lips and which discloses so abundantly the winning personality of Holmes himself. “Every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it,” so Stevenson has told us; and Holmes was fortunate in that his circular letter made a friend of every one who received it.
§ 10. Serious Verse.
The qualities which give charm to Holmes’s prose are those which please us also in his verse. He has left a dozen or a score of lyrics secure in the anthologies of the future. But he wrote too easily and he wrote too much to maintain a high average in the three hundred double-columned pages in which his complete poems are collected. No poet or prose man can take down to posterity a baggage wagon of his works, and he is lucky if he can save enough to fill a saddle-bag. Holmes’s reputation as a poet will rise when his verses are winnowed and garnered into a thin volume of a scant hundred pages wherein Old Ironsides and The Last Leaf, The Chambered Nautilus and Homesick in Heaven, The Wonderful “One-Hoss Shay” and The Broomstick Train, Grandmother's Story of Bunker-Hill Battle, and a handful more are unincumbered by the hundreds of occasional verses which were each of them good enough for its special occasion and yet not good enough to demand remembrance after the event.
There are a few of Holmes’s loftier poems in which we feel that the inspiration is equal to the aspiration; but there are only a few of them, with The Chambered Nautilus at the head, accompanied by Homesick in Heaven,—not overpraised by Howells when he called it one of the “most profoundly pathetic of the language.” And Stedman was right also when he suggested that Holmes’s serious poetry had scarcely been the serious work of his life. Even at its best this serious poetry is the result of his intelligence rather than of his imagination. It lacks depth of feeling and largeness of vision. It has a French felicity of fancy, a French dexterity of craftsmanship, a French point and polish; and also a French inadequacy of emotion. “Assuredly we love poetry in France,” said Anatole France when he was discussing the verse of Sainte-Beuve; “but we love it in our own fashion; we insist that it shall be eloquent, and we willingly excuse it from being poetic.” Old Ironsides, fiery as its lines ring out, is eloquent rather than truly poetic.
Here again Holmes declares himself as a survival from the eighteenth century, when English literature conformed to French principles. His favourite reading as a child was Pope’s Homer, the couplets of which “stimulated his imagination in spite of their formal symmetry.” And even their formal symmetry was not displeasing to his natural taste:
- And so the hand that takes the lyre for you
- Plays the old tune on strings that once were new.
- Nor let the rhymester of the hour deride
- The straight-backed measure with its stately stride;
- It gave the mighty voice of Dryden scope;
- It sheathed the steel-bright epigrams of Pope;
- In Goldsmith’s verse it learned a sweeter strain,
- Byron and Campbell wore its clanking chain;
- I smile to listen while the critic’s scorn
- Flouts the proud purple kings have nobly worn.
§ 11. Occasional Pieces.
The even merit of its occasional verse is one of the obvious qualities of the eighteenth century which we find also in Holmes. Late in life he admitted that he had become rather too well known in connection with “occasions.” He was intensely loyal to Boston; and he felt that he had no right to refuse the summons to stand and deliver whenever the city received an honoured guest or when an honoured citizen died or went away or came back. As he explained in one of these occasional pieces,
- I’m a florist in verse, and what would people say
- If I came to a banquet without my bouquet?
Late in life Holmes admitted that “many a trifling performance has had more good honest work put into it than the minister’s sermon of that week had cost him”; he confessed to strenuous effort over his copy of verses, insisting that “if a vessel glides off the ways smoothly and easily at her launching, it does not mean that no great pains have been taken to secure the result”; and he proudly reminded his readers that “Pindar’s great odes were occasional poems … and yet they have come down among the most precious bequests of antiquity to modern times.” The noblest example of English prose in the nineteenth century, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, was also evoked by an occasion. Even if Holmes’s occasional verse has not the lofty elevation of Pindar’s odes or the pathetic simplicity of Lincoln’s little speech, it has almost always an exquisite propriety to the event itself, an unfailing happiness of epithet, a perfect adequacy to the moment of local importance. Its chief fault, if not its only defect, is that there is too much of it, even if its average is higher than might reasonably be expected.
§ 12. Lighter Lyrics.
In a letter to Lowell, Holmes declared, speaking of Bostonians in particular and yet perhaps also of Americans in general, that “we Boston people are so bright and wide-awake … that we have been in danger of thinking our local scale was the absolute one of excellence—forgetting that 212 Fahrenheit is but 100 centigrade.” There is one department of poetry in which Holmes can withstand without any danger of shrinking the application of the centigrade scale; this is the department of vers de société, so called, although it is never merely society verse. Perhaps Cowper’s term best describes it, “familiar verse,” the lyric commingled of humour and pathos, brief and brilliant and buoyant, seemingly unaffected and unpremeditated, and yet—if we may judge by the infrequency of supreme success—undeniably difficult, despite its apparent ease. Dr. Johnson, who was himself quite incapable of it, too heavy-footed to achieve its lightness, too polysyllabic to attain its vernacular terseness, was yet shrewd enough to see that it is
- less difficult to write a volume of lines, swelled with epithets, brightened with figures, and stiffened by transpositions, than to produce a few couplets, grand only by naked elegance and simple purity, which require so much care and skill that I doubt whether any of our authors have yet been able for twenty lines together nicely to observe the true definition of easy poetry.
In this “easy poetry,” which is the metrical equivalent of the essay in its charm, in its grace and in its colloquial liberty, Holmes has few rivals in our language. It was with strict justice that Locker-Lampson, in the preface to the first edition of Lyra Elegantiarum (1867)—to this day the most satisfactory anthology of vers de société,—declared that Holmes was “perhaps the best living writer of this species of verse.” It may be recorded also that Locker-Lampson paid Holmes the even sincerer compliment of imitation, borrowing for two of his delightful lyrics not only the spirit but also the stanza Holmes had invented for The Last Leaf. With characteristic frankness the London lyrist once told an American admirer that this stanza might seem easy but it was difficult, so difficult that no one had handled it with complete success—except Holmes and himself.
Locker-Lampson derived directly from Praed, whose verses have an electric and dazzling brilliance, whereas in Holmes the radiance is more subdued and less blinding. Of all the writers of familiar verse no one has ever surpassed Holmes in the delicate blending of pathos with humour, as exemplified most strikingly in The Last Leaf, in which fantasy plays hide and seek with sentiment. Scarcely less delightful in its eighteenth-century quaintness is the family portrait, Dorothy Q; and close to those two masterpieces are lesser lyrics like Contentment, Bill and Joe, and the lines On Lending a Punch Bowl and To an Insect:
- I love to hear thine earnest voice,
- Wherever thou art hid,
- Thou testy little dogmatist,
- Thou pretty Katydid!
- Thou mindest me of gentlefolks,—
- Old gentlefolks are they,—
- Thou say’st an undisputed thing
- In such a solemn way.
These are only a few of the best of his lighter lyrics, now sprightly and sparkling, and now softer and more appealing, often evoking the swift smile, although never demanding the loud laugh, and sometimes starting the tear on its way to the eyelid; and in them Holmes proved that Stedman was only just when he declared that familiar verse may be “picturesque, even dramatic,” and that it may “rise to a high degree of humor and of sage and tender thought.”
§ 13. Early Writers.
It is in a half dozen of the ineffably graceful lyrics of the Greek anthology and in a like number of the more personal songs of Horace that we may find the earliest analogue of English familiar verse, better and more abundant than the French vers de société, even though the native English form has been compelled to borrow a French name for itself. The Greek anthology has the freedom of the fields and of the solitary hillside, and therefore it lacks a little of the social tone which is the dominating quality of familiar verse. Yet Horace is never rustic—he belongs to the town; and Stevenson is right in saying that Horace is urban, even when read outdoors; he has the abundant urbanity and the total absence of rusticity which familiar verse must ever reveal. Familiar verse is a species of poetry which can flourish only where men and women meet frequently, without undue parade, not wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and hiding their deeper feelings behind the semi-transparent mask of conventional detachment from the serious duties of life.
Familiar verse can develop only when men congregate in cities; it is a town-product; and Boston can claim a share in Holmes’s success in this difficult department of song. Other Americans in other cities have been inspired to risk the dangers of familiar verse and to rhyme the sayings and doings of their fellow citizens. Sometimes they give to their airy nothings a local habitation and a name as easily recognizable as the background of Dorothy Q. Could Nothing to Wear, detailing the sad plight of Miss Flora McFlimsy of Madison Square, and the Visit from Saint Nicholas on
- the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
- Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
—could either of these have been composed elsewhere than in New York? And could The Truth about Horace have been told with such stern veracity anywhere else than in Chicago?
In the first century of the American republic there were only a few large cities, and yet urban amenity was to be discovered here and there in towns where the social organization had advanced beyond its elementary stages. Benjamin Franklin, a pioneer in so many different departments of human endeavour, seems to have been the earliest American to adventure himself among the difficulties of this lighter poetry, so closely akin to prose in its directness and in its seeming lack of effort; and perhaps his lines on Paper could open an American selection of familiar verse only by favouritism. Philip Freneau essayed it more than once; so did Royall Tyler, our first writer of comedy; so did John Quincy Adams and James Kirke Paulding and Washington Irving,—prose men all of them, dropping into rhyme only occasionally, and only when the spirit moved them. And it is a significant fact, supported by a host of examples in both branches of English literature, British and American, that it is in familiar verse that the expert essayist is most likely to be successful when he risks himself in the realm of rhyme.
§ 14. Lighter Verse of Serious Poets.
Yet it is possible also to select specimens of this special type from the major poets, the sport of their frolicsome moods, and no adequate anthology would fail to include Bryant’s Robert of Lincoln, Emerson’s Humble-Bee, Whittier’s In School Days and Longfellow’s Catawba Wine. From Lowell the examples would be half a dozen at least, with Auf Wiedersehn and Without and Within as the first flowers to be picked. Indeed, Lowell is Holmes’s only chief rival among American poets in the limited field of familiar verse, but he is less meticulous in finish and polish and more likely to charge his lines with a meaning too large for the lyric which aims above all else at lightness and brightness.
Three other American poets of high ambition, Stedman, Aldrich, and Bret Harte, gave a more abundant share of their attention to the poetry which is blithe and buoyant; and in any selection of the best in this kind, it would be inexcusable to omit Stedman’s Pan in Wall Street, Aldrich’s In an Atelier, or Bret Harte’s Her Letter. Nor would any competent editor exclude from such a collection Weir Mitchell’s Decanter of Madeira, George Arnold’s Jolly Old Pedagogue, or Charles Henry Webb’s Dum Vivimus Vivamus. Nor would it be difficult largely to increase this list of examples chosen from the verse of men whose reputation has been won mainly in other fields.
§ 15. Saxe.
Three of our lighter lyrists demand a little more detailed consideration,—John Godfrey Saxe (1816–87), Eugene Field (1850–95), and Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855–96), though the last two belong to a period somewhat later than that chiefly considered in this chapter. Of these Saxe is the earliest and the least important. He is not only the earliest, he is also the most old-fashioned in his method and the least individual in his outlook. His verse is modelled upon Praed’s, to whose dazzling brilliance he could not attain; and he borrowed also the pattern of Hood in his more broadly comic lyrics. He was clever and facile; but he was a little too easy-going to achieve the delicate fineness which we have a right to demand in familiar verse. He does not understand that the thinner the theme the more care must be exercised to redeem its exeguity by certainty of touch and by infinite solicitude in execution. The immanent difficulty of familiar verse is due to the fact that poetry of this type at its best ought to be humorous without broadening into mere fun, while it ought also to be pathetic without slopping over into sentimentality. Saxe is quite free from sentimentality, in fact he does not often succeed in suggesting sentiment. His defect is that his verse tends to be frankly laughter-provoking. It is in Little Jerry that he has hinted the sentiment which sustains humour, as it is in The Mourner à la Mode that he has echoed the more worldly manner of mere society verse.
§ 16. Eugene Field.
Eugene Field is like Saxe in one respect at least,—that his verse is frankly comic more often than not. His humour is bold, exuberant, energetic, spontaneous, and easy; and there is cause for wonder, therefore, that he was able to restrain himself on occasion and to curb his comic verse within the strictest bounds of familiar verse, endowing it with genuine sentiment without foregoing either blitheness or brilliancy. He had far more freshness than Saxe, a more fertile originality, and knowledge of men and of books both wider and deeper. He is superior also in technical dexterity, in variety of rhythm, and in fertility of rhyme. His feeling is more spontaneous, his sentiment more abundant and finer in feeling. He can when he chooses hint at the tear which trembles above the lips that seem to smile. There is warrant for the wide popularity of his Little Boy Blue, in which the pathos is pure and tender, without any taint of mawkish sentimentality. Only a little narrower in its appeal is Old Times, Old Friends, Old Loves. Field’s command of sentiment is so certain that he can impart true feeling even to stanzas as frolicsome and as rollicking as those which delight us in Apple Pie and Cheese.
§ 17. Bunner.
The youngest of these three younger practitioners of familiar verse, Henry Cuyler Bunner, could also be broadly comic; he had an ample outlook on literature and on life; and he was truly a poet, who won a memorable position among our lyrists by lyrics of a loftier flight than mere comic verse. His lyre was a winged instrument on which he could strike at will the resonant note of patriotism or the gentler strain of peaceful sentiment. The Way to Arcady is almost too poetical, its spirit is almost too ethereal, to let it fall within the narrow circle of social verse; it has a simple grace and a light freedom not often discoverable since the songs of the Elizabethan dramatists. In certain of his brisker and brighter poems Bunner reveals himself as a disciple of Austin Dobson; in others he is treading the trail of Herrick or following in the footsteps of Heine. He sat at the feet of many masters and learned what they had to teach him, standing forth in time upon his own feet and giving voice to a note of his own. No one of his predecessors in social verse could be credited with the suggesting of Forfeits or Candour, the Chaperon or One, Two, Three, exquisite in its certainty of execution, in the skill with which the sadness of the theme is relieved by the joyousness of the treatment. It is the abiding quality of Bunner’s familiar verse that it discloses the spirit of the true poet, even while it confines itself within the bounds of the brevity, the brilliancy, and the buoyancy which are the hampering limitations of familiar verse.
- See Book II, Chap. XVII.
- For Anne Bradstreet, see Book I, Chap. IX.
- See Book II, Chap. VIII.
- See Book I, Chap. IX.
- See Book II, Chap. XV.
- See Book II, Chap. V.
- See Book II, Chap. IV.
- See Book III, Chap. X.
- See Book III, Chaps. V. and VI.
- See also Book III, Chap. IX.
- See also Book III, Chap. VI.