Dr. Holmes's Progress

THAT diligent antiquary, Mr. John Nichols, in his Royal Progresses, scraped together all the entertaining gossip respecting the tours through their kingdom of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and his Majesty James I. with his royal consort, among which Progresses and Public Processions, he duly advises the reader, “ are interspersed other Solemnities, Public Expenditures, and Remarkable Events, etc. ; ” while in raking after James he gathers in “ annotated lists of the Peers, Baronets, and Knights who received these honors during the Reign of James I.” He did not find a loyal pleasure in performing this task in memory of that Oliver who was in the habit of making a different sort of progress through the kingdom, and scattered abroad rather than gathered in. The big volumes, with their ample margins and general air of sumptuous royalty, may have answered well enough for progresses which inevitably suggest a prodigious amount of eating and drinking and giving of presents, followed by an exhaustion all along the line of the Solemnities, but the trim book 1 with the familiar winged and spectacled urn on its side, which contains the Progress of the American Autocrat through his outlying provinces of England and Paris, is more to our mind.

Readers of The Atlantic do not need to be furnished with copious extracts from this book. They can easily turn to those parts of the last half dozen numbers whose leaves have been cut, and find their favorite passages for themselves, though in the carefully revised book, with its excellent index, they will discover some extensions of initials to their full value, and note other marks of

that literary conscience which refuses to regard the magazine form as final. The book, moreover, permits one the pleasure of taking in at a more rapid glance the features of a Progress which appeals to the imagination with a singular force. Dr. Holmes is so friendly a figure in the eye of the American public that when he refers good-naturedly to “ the reader who glances over these papers, and, finding them too full of small details and the lesser personal matters which belong naturally to private correspondences, turns impatiently from them,” everybody complacently observes to himself, “ He does n’t mean me.” The kings in Andersen’s tales always appear to be wearing their crowns except at night, when they hang them on the nearest nail; but the Autocrat gives one the feeling that he has forgotten to put his crown on at all, even upon occasion of the Solemnities of his Progress.

One often hears the idle wish that it were possible to come back to this little world after a half century’s absence, in order to be surprised by the new turn which it has taken on its axis, as if the traveler who had said good-by to his friends dozed the fifty years away in a dreamless sleep. But there are advantages in perspective which one would fain possess himself of, and the reader of this book laments a little his nearness to it. We are disposed to envy our posterity some good things, and among them the enjoyment at a distance of what we are too entangled with to see in epical roundness. For example, what a capital time reviewers and literary historians will have, one of these days, when they can draw their lines from a long base, and make them meet at such a figure as Dr. Holmes, after fifty years of resolute home-keeping, upon a rapid progress through the circles of London society. What queer readjustments time will have effected among the persons in the peep-show of Our Hundred Days in Europe ! Some will have been thrust forward, some will have retired, and the painstaking editor of the day will have to manufacture footnotes for some in order to lift them high enough to be seen clearly.

Meanwhile, the literary student of to-day has it in his power to construct for himself the striking image which this book suggests ; to note the contrasts not only between the England which Dr. Holmes visited in his youth and the England which he played with in his age, but between the unknown medical student, who remembered with quaint precision the two houses at which he dined, and the lettered doctor, who could not crowd into his book a tithe of the personages whom he honored by his company, and wore out a sturdy amanuensis with the labor of declining invitations.

Especially is it worth while to note that the England which Dr. Holmes visited was that which he knew mainly through literature. The references to political leaders and religious activity are slight compared with those to historic and literary England. Even the doctor comes to the front but seldom. Everywhere one discerns that the visitor has drunk deep at the Pierian spring; it is the return of the native, of one nurtured on English poetry and on the memory of great Englishmen.

This strong sound of the voice of literature above the chatter of London drawing-rooms recalls one to the fact that Dr. Holmes, with his almost boyish entertainment at the great show which displays itself for him, is always the poet and wit; retiring now and then into the calm of poetic contemplation, or flashing a light upon this or that object. The reader, almost bewildered by the rapid succession of dinners, receptions, honors, crowds, lays aside the book to remember such moving passages as that which recites the lark rising and singing before clouded eye to dulled ear; such still hours as those by quiet Bemerton and in the company of Tennyson; the revisiting of student scenes in Paris; the visit to Windsor Park ; and then the bright comments on thermometrical divergences, on an imaginary tourist-party, on the advantages which Boston has to offer to its good children, and all the other bits of color which make Dr. Holmes’s liveliness something more than glow-worm wit.

As we intimated, this book is likely to have a double value. It will give, as it has already given in its earlier form, great entertainment to the reader who is in daily communication with the England which it instantaneously photographs. Later, when all the people of the book are stone statues, or painted pictures, or possibly only initials on headstones, the progress of the poet will itself have made a page in literary history, and the discontented reader who looks wistfully back to these days as we wish ourselves back at Lamb’s suppers will have his annotated edition of Our Hundred Days in Europe, and be paying handsome prices for a copy of the first edition uncut. The book will give that phosphorescent light upon persons and places which the genuine, spontar neous expression of notable men regarding their own day and generation always holds, unquenched by the waters of oblivion.

  1. Our Hundred Days in Europe. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.