Dr. Holmes's New Volume
THE small volume 1 into which Dr. Holmes has gathered the verses of his later years is in the main a book of memory. He has filled it with the sentiment of the past to which he is so strongly attached, and he has expressed this poetic affection for persons and places and traditions in a variety of forms. He has been a great part of what he sings, at Cambridge, at the old Saturday Club, and at King’s Chapel. The subject delights him, and perhaps this is why his occasional verses are uniformly so successful. To him the occasion is all that, inspiration is to the less ready and versatile poet, — a true gift of the Muse. Some fancy floats into his mind, and he subdues it to his uses with an ease and firmness that come from a command of style. It is a study to take a series of His Harvard poems, all upon very similar topics, and observe how he varies the image, what new terms he gives to the old thought, and yet how single is the feeling. At the beginning is a group of seven such poems, written at intervals of a year between each two, for the gatherings of his college class; and all are not only much better than anniversary verses, but several of them are likely to haunt the memory, and none is without some touch or flash that betrays the poet. The story of the diminishing girdle of friendship is very prettily adapted to its new application, and the comparison of the aged survivors of his youth to the leaning stones in Salisbury plain is just one of those inimitable strokes which, once made, remains unforgotten and unrepeated. In The Angel Thief, also, there are some attractive felicities of diction, like the “ soft-shod vault explorers ; ” but in The Broken Circle there is a strength that is of nobler quality, and a pathos quite unapproached by the other members of this group : —
Leans on these wrecks that press the sod ;
They slant, they stoop, they fall at last,
And strew the turf their priests have trod.
A wreck, a remnant, yet the same.
While one last, loving, faithful hand
Still lives to feed its altar flame ! ”
This ability to seize some striking figure and make it express the sentiment of the hour is just the characteristic which, in connection with the poet’s capacity for strong and direct expression, raises Dr. Holmes’s faculty for a kind of verse which seldom lives beyond the moment to a point at which it is not distinguishable from that for ordinary meditative and elegiac poetry. These stanzas add a new association to “old Sarum’s plain.”
These few Harvard pieces, with which the collection begins, give the tone to the volume. It is most deeply touched with reminiscence ; the light upon it is not that “ which never was,” but that which has been, and will never be again. One sees it in the various tributes to the poet’s old friends, Clarke, Peirce, Hedge, and in the admirable lines to Dr. Gould, in which there is a mingling of scientific and friendly inspiration that gives unusual glow to the sounding verses ; but the best expression of this personal regret and fondness for the former times is found in the vision the poet summons up at the club in “ the palace inn,” with its “ northern side ” always “ in grateful shadow,” while the sunshine beats on the walls opposite. Here he sketches for us portraits of Longfellow, Agassiz, Emerson, and Hawthorne which may well be placed beside any that have been drawn of these favorites of New England’s literary age. The lines are already familiar to our readers, but we will not forbear quoting a few of them, so vivid are they, so brief and clear, and conveying not only a true picture of the man, but the sense of his personality at the same time ; —
Amid the noisy clamor of debate
The looked-for moment, when a peaceful word
Smooths the rough ripples louder tongues have stirred.
In every tone I mark his tender grace,
And all his poems hinted in his face.”
The last line has the condensation of genius, at once the most beautiful, the most expressive, and the most true, the trait that puts life in the sketch. Emerson’s figure is without this final touch, but it has the same reality : —
The calm, scholastic mien, the clerkly stoop,
The lines of thought the sharpened features wear.”
But this describes a type, “ the Brahmin tribe,” and one reads further to find the special features of the man. Dr. Holmes has singled out in his case, too, the most characteristic thing to mark Emerson’s individuality, and he finds it in his method of speech, his hesitating slowness as he picks the chosen words for his diction. So all these portraits have the truth of intimate observation, but they are not less remarkable for the certainty of the expression, the sureness of a formed style excellently adapted to such uses as it is put to in this instance. The Harvard Commemoration Poem, which is the longest of the collection, introduces us to still a third form of the reminiscences of the author, and in this he takes the reader back to a much earlier time, when an elder generation held the stage, and he and his coevals were beginning their careers; but though there is much “ honorable mention ” in it, as befitted the occasion, there are no special characterizations that detain the mind, and none of those touches, such as we have called attention to, that endear the memory of the poet’s friends.
There is here, however, something more than eulogy and elegy in their forms of pleasant remembrance. There has always been in Dr. Holmes’s work a strong infusion of local feeling, of that attachment to places which is one of the most pronounced traits of the New Englander. The place here, of course, is Boston. That sketch of School Street which we have quoted is one that a realistic novelist could not better, and there are other bits of description quite as lifelike. The verses entitled The Flaneur are the best example of local color, and there is in them, besides, a lightness and spirit which go far to make them the most attractive of any lines in the collection. Many of our readers will readily recall the scene on the Common at the time of the transit of Venus, which was the occasion of Dr. Holmes’s paying the “ white exiguous coin” to him who “ farms the firmament: ” —
That shuts the road to sun and star.’ ’
This is a kind of subject which requires the nicest handling between grave and gay, and the perfection of the author’s skill is unquestionable. Only quotation could do any justice to the poem, or show the temperament of the poet in his town delights. One goes back to some scenes in the London poets to meet with anything of the same sort, though every frequenter of the Mall will find pleasure in these decasyllables that confess the attraction of the common and trivial when they have become habitual and have been mingled with many associations.
In tones the withered sibyl grinds.”
It was in this way that Dr. Johnson loved Fleet Street. In this poem, too, one comes on the scientific element which is never far off in Dr. Holmes’s books ; and indeed the contrast between the spot on the sun’s disk —
Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb’s rim ” —
and the “ blessed, beauteous evening star ” was too excellent an opportunity for any poet with science in his thoughts to miss. The same scientific element is perhaps more nobly expressed in the lines to Dr. Gould, one stanza of which is really in the grand style of the pentameter stanza (which indeed does not admit of much grandeur) : —
To find her central sovereignty disowned,
While the wan lips of priest and pontiff quivered,
Their jargon stilled, their Baal disenthroned. ”
There is in it, perhaps, a touch of the odium scientificum, if there be such a thing, but it only serves to give heat to the lines. In one of the Harvard poems, also, one finds the same modern spirit, with a touch between satire and comedy in that instance; and in the Harvard Commemoration Poem there is a danger-signal or two to be observed.
Altogether, although there is an undertone of regret often noticeable, the collection is a many-sided expression of the author’s personality, his tastes, his friendships, and the qualities of mind and heart that have given him so marked an individuality in the literary group with which he is indissolubly associated, and to which these new poems bind him with still more bands. Their prevailing characteristic is sentiment rather than anything else, the feeling for the past, whether in historical or literary associations, in church, or college, or town; and, besides that, there is also a real poetic style in the workmanship, strong, able, and telling, and, whether light or serious, always true in its stroke. The poems are too well known to our readers to permit our making such extracts as would more fully illustrate these few words, many of them having appeared in our pages ; but there is such a difference between the impression which poems make singly and that which they make when gathered together that the reader is often surprised at the variety, force, and evenness of the work as a whole, although he may know it very well part by part: and this is particularly true of this volume, which is a most agreeable addition to the long list of varied works which already bear the author’s name on our shelves.
- Before, the Curfew and Other Poems, Chiefly Occasional. By OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1888.↩