Wit And Humor Of Oliver Wendell Holmes

( Originally Published 1916 )


OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES was an American Admirable Crichton. He was a man who could do a half dozen things as well as a specialist in each. As a poet he will be remembered longest by The One-Hoss Shay, The Last Leaf and Old Iron sides; as an essayist he gained immortality by The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table; as a novelist he produced that wonderful study in heredity, Elsie Venner; as a writer of occasional verses he was acknowledged to be without an equal; as a physician he took high rank, and many of his medical papers have become classics; as a literary critic he was both feared and admired, as he had the faculty of almost uncanny insight and an incisive style that pierced all pretense, as an after-dinner speaker he was without a superior in his day. He is lighter in his touch than Lamb, but his pathos is as true as Elia's or Tom Hood's.

What impresses the reader in all Holmes' work is the abounding vitality of the man, the quickness of his fancy, the readiness of his wit and the felicity with which he always chooses the right word, whether in verse or in prose.

Although of purest New England strain, Holmes had few of the genuine Yankee traits. In an age which was marked by religious intolerance, he early showed the greatest liberality in thought. Among men who were noted for their Puritan gravity, he saw the amusing side of every question, and knew how to extra& all the fun that was in it. Among a prosaic race, he revealed a sensitive instinct for poetical form that makes his verse a delight to read. When other writers were given to expounding their views in the orthodox way, Holmes devised the art of getting into close touch with his readers by means of his colloquial gifts. Much of the charm of the Autocrat lies in his familiar talks with the reader, his letting down the bars of reserve so that you see the kindly nature of the man, even when you hear the sharp words with which he castigates folly or vice. In this lies the great charm of Holmes, whose books can never become old-fashioned or tiresome. It seems easy, this colloquialism bristling with epigram, repartee and quaint conceit, but try to imitate it, and you will soon see how difficult it is.

Many have been the writers who have followed Holmes in this attractive path which he first blazed in the Autocrat, but not one has equaled the master. And although more than fifty years have passed since these delightful essays first saw the light in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, they are as fresh, as true and as stimulating as when they were written. Considering the remarkable advance in all the physical sciences, upon which Holmes drew largely for his apt illustrations, his skill in striking the modern note is simply miraculous. While much of the work of his contemporaries has been rendered obsolete, his remains as full of piquancy and truth as it was a half-century ago.

Dr. Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1809, and he lived until 1894, reaching the great age of eighty-five years, with most of his senses unimpaired. Even to the last he impressed every-one by the youthfulness and buoyancy of his spirits and his keen interest in all the concerns of life. His father was a preacher, but Holmes very early learned to look upon life with the eyes of a philosopher. He showed at preparatory school a pretty skill in the translation of Virgil into English verse, and at college he delivered a metrical essay before Phi Beta Kappa at his commencement.

At the age of twenty-four he went to Europe to continue his medical studies, and spent three years in London and Paris. This experience was invaluable in enlarging his point of view. He devoted his leisure to writing verse, and in 1836 he published his first volume of poems, which included Old Ironsides, that noble plea to save the frigate Constitution, which still has power to stir the blood of any patriotic American. Holmes was active in his profession for eleven years, when he accepted the Harvard chair of anatomy, which he held for thirty-five years, when he was retired as emeritus professor, a position which he held until his death. He was regarded as one of the best medical authorities in this country, while at the same time he came to be known as the wittiest after-dinner speaker in Boston and one of the cleverest writers of verses of occasion.

It was in 1858, when the ' ATLANTIC MONTHLY was founded, that Holmes first showed his rare ability as an essayist. He contributed to the first number the initial paper of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, a series of talks on all kinds of subjects, strung on a thread of amusing fiction. The sage who delivers these monologues is the central figure at a typical boarding-house table, and the other characters, like the young fellow John, the poetess, the landlady and her boy, Ben Franklin, all serve to add reality and point to the amusing talks.

It is difficult to indicate the charm of this work, which may be read with relish again and again, so full is it of real human nature, so saturated with that philosophy which believes that this world is a good place and that even the wicked and the ill-natured have more good than evil in their natures. The genial optimism of Holmes has nothing weak or sentimental in it. You feel in reading the Autocrat's sharp speeches that here is a man who has a very firm grip on the realities of life, who has seen the seamy side of life in the great cities of the world, but who has kept his nature sweet and hopeful because his mind is healthy and his spirit is open to all good influences.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table is Holmes' masterpiece. It is assured of immortality so long as the English language endures, for it will be just as good reading fifty years hence as it is today. It has a few earmarks of the period when it was written, such as the tendency to italicize striking sentences and to introduce bits of Latin quotations. But these are the only ones. It is packed full of intellectual meat, and a very pretty vein of humor serves to make the old Autocrat's preaching free from all tedium.

It will surprise anyone who looks through it to find how many ideas that have become commonplace now were first offered here by Dr. Holmes for public consideration. A strong medical streak runs through all the monologues, and many of the metaphors and similes are also drawn from the domain of natural science; but the charm of the book lies in the sunny philosophy of the old scholar, who has seen life at its best and at its worst, and who still finds it good to be alive and to feel the sap of youth in his veins although the years may have touched his head with frost. Here are bits of the Autocrat's wisdom, which may be taken as fair specimens of his talk:

Your self-made man, whittled into shape with his own jack knife, deserves more credit than the regular engine turned article, shaped by the most approved pattern, and French polished by society and travel. But as to saying that one is every way the equal of the other, that is another matter.

Don't flatter yourselves that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. On the contrary, the nearer you come into a relation with a person the more necessary do tad and courtesy become. Except in cases of necessity, which are rare, leave your friend to learn unpleasant truths from his enemies: they are ready enough to tell them.

Our brains are seventy-year clocks. The Angel of Life winds them up once for all, then closes the case, and gives the key into the hand of the Angel of the Resurrection.

Tic-tac! tic-tac! go the wheels of thought; our will cannot stop them; they cannot stop themselves; sleep cannot stop them; madness only makes them go faster; death alone can break the case, and, seizing the ever-swinging pendulum, which we call the heart, silence at last the clicking of the terrible escarpment we have carried so long beneath our wrinkled foreheads.

Holmes enlivens the "Autocrat" with many poems, which vary greatly in merit, but as they include The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, The Chambered Nautilus and The Living Temple, the average is lifted pretty high. The last two serve to illustrate very well Holmes' great gift of transmuting scientific truths into the finest poetry.

The Professor at the Breakfast Table appeared a year after the Autocrat. It was marked by a delightful love story, and the characters were more sharply drawn. Fourteen years later appeared The Poet at the Breakfast Table, a work which showed greater maturity than either of the others, but lacked their spontaneity and charm.

In Elsie Venner Holmes wrought out a story of the influence of prenatal impressions which would have attracted Hawthorne. He made of it a remarkable study, despite certain chapters that remind one that the author was a doctor Of Holmes' poems the two that have had the widest circulation are Old Ironsides and The Last Leaf, each perfect of its kind. The first was written to arouse public sentiment against the threatened destruction of the old frigate Constitution. The other was suggested to Holmes by Major Thomas Melville, the last of the old generation in Boston that dung to the cocked hat and the wig of the eighteenth century.

Holmes' poems fill a large octavo volume of 350 pages. They were mainly verses written for special occasions, but the poet put so much of real feeling into them that they are worthy of preservation. Take it all in all, Holmes fills a niche in American literature which is his by virtue of his originality and his pervading charm.

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