Dr. Holmes--Sic Sedebat

IT is an old complaint, which Mr. Morse 1 revives, that biographies of men of letters are apt to be dull, both because the lives led are without moving incident, and because the man of letters anticipates his biographer by putting the best of himself into his books. Disappointing such biographies often are, but usually in proportion to the dullness of the biographer. Of course, if the reader cares only for action, he will find John Paul Jones’s life more readable than the life of the author of Tom Jones, and a great variety of incident does not seem yet to have made any life of Defoe absorbingly interesting. The truth is, the more completely an author depends for his vitality upon his own power of expression, the more engaging will his biography be, if he is fortunate enough to tall into the hands of a biographer who recognizes that readers wish to know more about a man who has already made himself fairly well known to them. We look to biographies for the means of driving our intimacy to greater lengths ; and if a person whom we have never met, but who has endeared himself to us by his writings, has had other forms of expression now at last disclosed to us, — letters, private judgments, companionships, decisions in choice of a career, interpretative acts in social life, — we welcome them as enlarging, enriching, illuminating, it may be, the conception we had already formed of his personality.

For what, after all, is the highest service which biography can render, whether the subject be a man of action or a man of thought, but the disclosure of personality, and that in its highest, most elusive aspect of self-consciousness ? It is true, both biographer and reader have to contribute toward this final clearing up, and it is often only by much sorting out and piecing together that we clumsily reconstruct our figure, and write beneath it Sic sedebat; but nothing short of some such attempt at person-building is worth the pains of the writer of biography, and we suspect that though few great successes have been won in literary biography, there is no field of human life which offers quite so many advantages to the biographer who would add another to the gallery of human statues. For, as we have intimated, the man of letters has learned the art of expression, and he is likely to have given more varied careless accounts of himself than the man of action, who has to be translated from deeds into words. In the dozen volumes of prose and verse which constitute Dr. Holmes’s writings, it is easy to become acquainted with the author, so that though he scarcely stirred from his little corner of creation, there was no writer of his day who was on the whole better known to his countrymen; at least they thought they knew him, and Mr. Morse remarks, in speaking of the manner in which the news of his death was received : “ It was singular to note how strong a personal feeling there was in all the utterances of regret. I sent to a ‘ press - cutting agency ’ for the newspaper notices, and thus gathered and glanced over, more or less carefully, probably not less than three or four thousand ‘clippings,’ which must have represented not only a very large percentage of the cities and towns, but a goodly proportion of the villages, of the United States, with a great number from England, and some from France and Germany. I doubt whether in all this number fifty could have been found which did not call the Doctor either ‘ genial ’ or ‘kindly.’ A verdict from so numerous a jury was conclusive. It was strange, too, how the world had become so profoundly penetrated by the impression. It could not be explained by saying that the Doctor had attacked the inhumanity of the religious creeds, for others had done this; or by saying that he gave constant utterance to amiable sentiments in his writings, for this also had been done by others, even to the point of mawkishness. But in some way or another his writings were so impregnated by an atmosphere of humaneness that it rose from them like a moral fragrance, and the gracious exhalation permeated the consciousness of every reader.”

Now, this fact of a uniform and widespread conception of certain fundamental characteristics of Dr. Holmes’s nature makes the best possible basis upon which to erect a more detailed and precise familiarity with the personal history of one so well worth knowing, and we can heartily thank Mr. Morse for the frankness and fullness of his revelation. His own comments are candid, and for the most part judicious. They reflect with an honest freedom the judgments which intelligent readers will form upon the whole course of the life, and his criticisms upon the successive writings are manly and sane, even though they may sometimes strike one as a little lacking in the finest sympathy. But over and above his own contribution as critic and interpreter we must value the great service Mr. Morse has rendered in his judicious selections from and groupings of Dr. Holmes’s correspondence, and the clear manner in which he has put at the disposal of the reader the means for forming his own conception of the fine spirit which lay behind the prose and verse of the complete works, and of the development of that spirit in the course of a long life of singular tranquillity in outward conditions, of great activity in the realm of thought.

“ His life,” as Mr. Morse succinctly reviews it at the outset of his memoir, “ was so uneventful that the utter absence of anything in it to remark upon became in itself remarkable. He passed two years of his youth in Europe studying medicine ; in his old age he went there again for three months ; otherwise he lived all his years, almost literally all his days, in or near Boston, within tethering distance, so to speak, of that State House which he declared to be ‘ the hub of the solar system,’ — and by the phrase made true his accompanying words: ‘You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.’ All his intimate friends lived within a few miles of him, save when some one of them went abroad, as Motley and Lowell did. He was not, like so many English and a few American men of letters, connected in any way with political affairs ; he never held any office ; nothing ever happened to him. Fortunately, the picturesqueness of poverty was never his, nor the prominence of wealth. Days and years glided by with little to distinguish them from each other, in that kind of procession which those who like it call tranquil, and those who dislike it call monotonous.”

All the more interesting is it, therefore, to note the development of a life which was so little dependent upon external conditions ; or rather, to speak more accurately, which took up into itself, with large power of assimilation, the nutrition of the very soil in which it was reared. Dr. Holmes began, it may be, too late in life to set down in order the circumstances and influences of his early life ; he had already, in many less formal passages, given hints of his experience; yet the autobiographical notes which constitute a chapter in the Life and Letters have some revealing value, especially as the Doctor classified his impressions under convenient headings, and so managed to concentrate what otherwise might have been mere random recollections and observations. It is interesting to see how fundamental was the habit of mind which made Dr. Holmes not only a very keen observer, but a rational systematizer of his observations. The wit which formed such a large ingredient in his composition was not only a penetrating, it was a dividing instrument; and there have been few instances, surely, in modern literature where a man’s study of himself has been so fruitful and so trustworthy as that of Dr. Holmes. Had he undertaken his autobiography earlier, we think he would have expanded some of the passages reflecting his childish imaginations and fears into important psychological studies. As it is, one can catch glimpses of the man in the lively scenes of his childhood, and of the keen eyes and ears that were assailed in tender years by those external contrasts of humanity and formal theological science which were to play so large a part of Dr. Holmes’s later philosophy. There is a striking sentence in the midst of these recollections, which not only contains a truth not generally recognized, but is of value as illustrating an important phase of Dr. Holmes’s own experience, namely, the steady development which took place under the unremitting exercise of a healthy mind upon problems of human life in a spirit of genuine curiosity.

“ I had long passed middle age,” he writes, “ before I could analyze the effect of these conflicting agencies, and I can truly say that I believe I can understand them better now than when I was at the comparatively immature age of threescore years and ten. There are many truths that come out by immersion in the atmosphere of experience ; which reminds me of an old experiment in the laboratory : an irregular lump of alum being placed in water dissolves gradually in such a way as to expose the crystal in form underlying the shapeless outline. It seems to me that hardly a year passes over my head in which some point or angle, some plane, does not start out and reveal itself as a new truth in the lesson of my life. Tins experience is more common than most people would suppose. The great multitude is swept along in the main current of inherited beliefs, but not rarely under the influence of new teachings, of developing instincts ; above all, of that mighty impulse which carries the generation to which we belong far away from the landmark of its predecessors.”

There are other bits scattered through these autobiographic notes which let one into the secrets of the author’s mental habits, as in what he says respecting his use of his father’s library, and the frequent recurrence to those great questions of human nature which never ceased to present themselves to Holmes indicates surely his dominant intellectual and moral interest; but perhaps the freshest and most suggestive section is that in which he reviews the poetical influences of his youth, and refers them substantially to two major forces : Pope in literature, and the beauty of the familiar landscape which was always before his eye as he looked toward the west from his chamber in the Cambridge home. It might be fancied from mere external resemblance that Prior rather than Pope would be the poetic godfather of Holmes. But inspiration comes not from the peer ; it comes from one who is regarded as superior ; and though the likeness between Holmes and Pope is not formal, it is easy to see how readily the American would admire the great Englishman, and how sane would be the influence of a poet who, with all the assurance of a high imagination, was rigorous in his obedience to poetic law.

These notes stop abruptly with college life. Had Holmes continued them so as to cover his early European experience, we think there is little doubt that he would have given definite sanction to the conclusion which Mr. Morse draws from his reading of the letters written by Dr. Holmes at that time, and from his study of the working of the young student’s mind. The two years’ absence from home completed the emancipation which had been begun in the formative years of youth and college lifeintense application to medical study and frugal living had preserved for Holmes the integrity of his nature, and had concentrated his thought; but the complete change from the limitations of a New England village and the family of a minister of the old school to the metropolitan scene of Paris and an occasional scamper through Europe did not so much implant new ideas as they gave opportunity for the rapid growth of convictions already formed. Holmes came back from Europe not only with a better training in medical science than he could have secured at home, but with what was to be of greater consequence to him, a maturity of judgment and a freedom of mind largely due to the healthy working out of his instinctive principles under favorable conditions. In brief, he had not to wrest himself from a control set up by tradition and home training ; he would most certainly have done this had he been forced so to do ; the germs of a more generous belief had been given a chance to expand, and a development rather than a revolution took place in his mental life. In more than one passage in his writings Holmes bears testimony to the persistence of early habits of religious life, and to the half-humorous charity which he observed toward the remnant of his older self. In a letter to Mrs. Stowe, written in 1871, he says : —

“ I occupied a great part of my Sunday (yesterday) in reading your story, which I had just received with the author’s compliments. Let me thank you first for the book, and secondly for the great pleasure I have had from it. Would you believe that to this day I do not read novels on Sunday, at least until ‘ after sundown ’ ? And this not as a matter of duty or religion, — for I hold the sabbatical view of the first day of the week as a pious fraud of the most transparent description, —but as a tribute to the holy superstitions of more innocent years, before I began to ask my dear, good father those enfant terrible questions which were so much harder to answer than anything he found in St. Cyprian and Tarretin and the other old books I knew the smell of so well, and can see now, standing in their old places.”

The whole group of letters to Mrs. Stowe has a value, apart from its intrinsic interest, as showing how eagerly Dr. Holmes seized the opportunity afforded by letters to a sympathetic woman representing in the main the religious order from which he had revolted, of defining with greater clearness than he could in polemic discussion the common ground which he held with unhardened Christianity of whatever name. Like most sensitive correspondents, he unconsciously assimilated his color to the leaf upon which he was resting.

With his entrance upon work at home, and especially with his marriage and his definite connection with the Harvard Medical School, the disclosure of Dr. Holmes’s growth of personality passes its most interesting point. That is to say, the attentive reader becomes tolerably sure that he has witnessed the most important formative influences upon a life which, as his biographer notifies us, was singularly tranquil to the close. But to the generous observer there is another pleasure to be found in the survey of a life so varied in its expression as this. Growth invites the closest scrutiny, but expansion, the attitude of such a life toward society and contemporaneous activity, offers an interest scarcely less absorbing, and the two volumes, which inclose so much of Dr. Holmes’s personal career as material would permit, are full of delightful intimations of a serenity of temper coupled with the liveliest curiosity concerning life that make up, surely, one of the most enjoyable personalities ever disclosed to public view. It is partly in consequence of the early secure possession of the citadel of his being, partly a natural inference from a nature which could thus expand instead of taking the kingdom of heaven by violence, that Dr. Holmes through the whole of his long and active life impresses one as a most cheerful and interested spectator. The term must not be pressed too far. At least it should not be forced into meaning that Dr. Holmes had but a speculative concern for the life going on about him. His fidelity to his great profession refutes such a charge. But it is true that by temperament and by choice he limited the sphere of his activity to his profession and to literature. It may even be doubted if he was what might be called socially aggressive. He was quite content to accept the best that fell to him, and to use it generously and freely. It should be remembered that he came upon the stage when the community in which he lived was a bubbling pot of ethical, political, and religious elements, and literature was never far from the lid. Even Longfellow, most tranquil and cosmopolitan of authors, must needs publish a thin volume of poems on slavery. It was held to be either cowardice or selfishness which would keep one out of the fray at such a time. When the time came, Holmes himself was a very pertinacious combatant, and in his own way espoused a “ cause ” which had no committees and no organization, but an effective organ nevertheless. Meanwhile, his position was sufficiently conspicuous to make his indifference, if such it was, highly objectionable. He was bidden take sides, and Lowell wrote him a letter designed to prick his conscience. It is a great pity we have not that letter, for it would undoubtedly do as much in the way of defining Lowell’s earnestness as the reply which Holmes made does in defining the latter’s position. The elaborateness of the reply, and the air of defense which it contains, make it evident that Holmes felt the pressure upon him. The whole letter is well worth reading. We must content ourselves with extracts from it, premising that Lowell’s letter was called out by the poem Urania, now entitled A Rhymed Lesson, which Holmes had read before the Mercantile Library Association: —

“ I am not aware that I have arrayed myself against any of the ‘ Causes ’ to which you refer, and I hardly know where to look for the ‘ many shrewd rubs ’ you say I have given them. First, War. That old poem you refer to had a single passage in which I used expressions which I think I should be unwilling to use now. But its main object was to show that war is one of the most powerful stimulants in bringing out the power of the human intellect. Some years afterwards I wrote a Canadian war-song, which my better feelings prompted me not to print. I own that I find in myself a growing hatred and disgust to this mode of settling national quarrels, and that in many points I sympathized with Mr. Sumner in his Fourth of July oration. But I cannot shut my eyes to the beauty of heroism and self - devotion which the battlefield has witnessed. I think our fathers were right in takingup arms to defend their liberties, and I have even now a mitigated and quasi kind of satisfaction in hearing of the courage and constancy of our countrymen in so poor a quarrel as we are engaged in. I believe there is nothing in this last poem which would go farther than defending our revolutionary struggle, and certainly I have a right to claim some credit for not lugging in Major Ringgold and General Taylor. If, as you seem to think, silence in regard to any great question is affording an incidental aid to its antagonists, then I administered a rebuke to the war party in not alluding to our recent ‘ glorious victories.’

“ Secondly, Slavery. I plead guilty of a thoughtless verse delivered at the same time with my Φ B poem, — meant in the most perfect good nature for a harmless though a dull jest, and taken, to my great surprise, as a harsh and brutal expression of contempt. ‘ The abolition men and maids,’ etc. Very certainly I should not write such a verse now, partly because this party has grown more powerful, perhaps, but partly also because I now know it would give offence to many good persons, whose motives and many of whose principles I hold in profound respect. I believe my positive offences under this head stop at this period — 1836 — with this one hardlyjudged stanza.

“ Fifthly and lastly, Reform in general, and reformers. It is a mistake of yours to suppose me a thoroughgoing conservatist; and I think you cannot have found that in my writings which does not belong to my opinions and character. I am an out-and-out Republican in politics, a firm believer in the omnipotence of truth, in the constant onward struggle of the race, in the growing influence and blessed agency of the great moral principles now at work in the midst of all the errors and excesses with which they are attended. In a little club of ten physicians, I rather think I occupy the extreme left of the liberal side of the house. The idea of my belonging to the party that resists all change is an entire misconception. I may be lazy, or indifferent, or timid, but I am by no means one of those (such as a few of my friends) who are wedded for better for worse to the status quo, with an iron ring that Reason cannot get away unless it takes the finger with it.

“ I listen to your suggestions with great respect. I mean to reflect upon them, and I hope to gain something from them. But I must say, with regard to art and the management of my own powers, I think I shall in the main follow my own judgment and taste rather than mould myself upon those of others.

“ I shall follow the bent of my natural thoughts, which grow more grave and tender, or will do so as years creep over me. I shall not be afraid of gayety more than of old, but I shall have more courage to be serious. Above all, I shall always be pleased rather to show what is beautiful in the life around me than to be pitching into giant vices, against which the acrid pulpit and the corrosive newspaper will always anticipate the gentle poet. Each of us has his theory of life, of art, of his own existence and relations. It is too much to ask of you to enter fully into mine, but be very well assured that it exists, — that it has its axioms, its intuitions, its connected beliefs, as well as your own. Let me try to improve and please my fellow-men after my own fashion at present ; when I come to your way of thinking (this may happen), I hope I shall be found worthy of a less qualified approbation than you have felt constrained to give me at this time.”

This incident made a great impression upon Dr. Holmes himself, apparently, for more than once in later life he referred to the letter as if it were in the nature of a studied apologia. Its value is in its clear exposition of the point of view which he took, and more especially as confirming an unspoken judgment which it is ours, at any rate, to affirm. For be it said emphatically that Dr. Holmes was an artist, and had the artist’s temperament which almost inevitably separates a man from the exercise of the didactic function. The art which he practiced was a very fine art, so fine that it is often mistaken for unstudied ebullition of nature. In its simplest term, its most evanescent form, it is the art of conversation ; in its highest it found expression in The Autocrat; but nearly all of Dr. Holmes’s writings, whether in prose or verse, are essays at this expression of personality, this speaking outloud in finished phrase. Sometimes the measure was rhythmic and poetic, sometimes it was epigrammatic, but always it was with a certain high degree of consciousness the exploiting of self. In a humorous letter to James Freeman Clarke, Dr. Holmes set forth his utter aversion to societies and meetings of all sorts. “ I hate,” he says, “ the calling of meetings to order. I hate the nomination of officers, always fearing lest I should be appointed Secretary. I hate being placed on committees. They are always having meetings at which half are absent and the rest late. I hate being officially and necessarily in the presence of men most of whom, either from excessive zeal in the good cause or from constitutional obtuseness, are incapable of being bored, which state is to me the most exhausting of all conditions, absorbing more of my life than any kind of active exertion I am capable of performing.”

Other men can fervently echo these sentiments, but the whole tenor of Dr. Holmes’s life and art shows him not at all out of touch with men and women about him ; on the contrary, he was most social in his nature; but he was gifted with a high power of spontaneous expression, and was impatient of all that mechanism which tended to cabin, crib, and confine personality. Law he required, social order, decorum, the defenses of a highly organized community ; and we suspect that much of his content with the home life from which lie rarely strayed was due to his consciousness that he was freer within these bounds than he could be by any wide straying.

The individualism which made it easy for Dr. Holmes to keep aloof from organized society is especially noticeable in the entirely isolated position which he held when engaged in the warfare against Calvinism. There were many persons and there were associations actively concerned in the same polemic business, but so far as these two volumes show, Dr. Holmes had but the faintest outward alliance with any of them. Partly because his militancy had a strong literary purpose, but quite as much because he was a free lance by force of nature, he showed in this most determined expression of himself the same spirit which ruled in his ordinary life. It is curious to note that the moral earnestness which he displayed in this steadfast demand for the freedom of the soul interfered with the catholicity of his taste ; or, perhaps more accurately, the limitations of his nature were seen most distinctly in the light of this ruling passion ; for the liberality which he claimed as a birthright did not extend, in his literary appreciation, to Dante and Bunyan. The exclusion of these two names from his calendar of literary saints is a striking illustration of the extent to which his zeal for the faith delivered to him had carried him.

The letters which fill the last two thirds of the second volume, and are sprinkled so liberally through the Life proper, are witnesses to that rare combination which makes the character and career of Dr. Holmes so significant in the history of American letters and life. He had independence and freedom of mind, but he had also a measureless content with the conditions under which his life was led. He had a splendid curiosity about himself, his fellows, and his God, but he was untouched by that corroding restlessness which drives natures of less equipoise into the wilderness of lost paths. It used to he the fashion, in the acrimonious days of the Professor, to speak of Holmes as a sort of American Voltaire; but it is to be suspected that those who flung the nickname at him never knew either Voltaire or Holmes. His best work is so seasoned with wit that though propositions which when first uttered seemed novel and startling may, largely through the force of his cleverness, become truisms, the form they take is likely to become proverbial. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that the man himself, even though he be ticketed “genial,” as Lamb has to carry the label of “ gentle,” will remain a gracious figure in American letters long after his entire writings have been reduced to The Autocrat, The Last Leaf, and The Chambered Nautilus.

  1. Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes. By JOHN T. MORSE. JR. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1896.