Oliver Wendell Holmes


Although nearly ten years the senior of Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes survived his younger contemporary three years, and after Whittier's death in 1892 became the last member of that distinguished group which gave New England her preëminence in nineteenth-century literature. A genial humorist in verse and prose, a gracious and happy "poet of occasions," a shrewd observer of the significant commonplaces of experience, and a master in the art of easy discourse upon things in general, Dr. Holmes fairly holds his position in American letters, an original and conspicuous figure, while, perhaps, less highly gifted than any of these poets with whom he was so intimately associated.

Ancestry and Childhood.

Like Emerson and Lowell, Holmes was a typical representative of what he himself termed the "Brahmin caste" of New England.1 His father, a descendant of one of the early settlers of Connecticut, was Rev. Abiel Holmes, for forty years a minister in Cambridge, and an author of some note. The poet's mother, Sarah Wendell Holmes, whom he closely resembled in slightness of figure and vivacity of spirits, was a lineal descendant of Governor Bradstreet and his wife, Anne, best remembered for her poetical gifts and celebrated in her generation as the Tenth Muse.2 His great-grandmother was the Dorothy Quincy whose portrait is so charmingly presented in the poem Dorothy Q. Wendell Phillips was his cousin.

The poet was born at Cambridge, August 29, 1809, in a picturesque gambrel-roofed house on the edge of the Harvard campus.3 His earliest literary explorations were, like those of Lowell, associated with his father's study, where, as he says, he "bumped about among books," from the time when he was hardly taller than one of his father's folios.


When ten years old, Wendell was placed in a school where Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and Margaret Fuller were also pupils. Five years later, as it was in the mind of Rev. Abiel Holmes that his son should become a minister, the boy was sent to Andover to take his preparatory course in Phillips Academy, under the sober influences which dominated that orthodox community.1 Holmes remained but a year at the Academy, however, and returned to Cambridge to enter Harvard College in 1825, becoming a member of the famous class of 1829,2 for whose successive anniversaries some of his most notable poems were composed.

Early Productions.

After graduation, Holmes decided upon the legal profession and entered the Harvard Law School. It was at this period that he published his earliest verse. The first of his poems to attract attention was Old Ironsides (1830). This spirited lyric was inspired by the announcement that the frigate Constitution, then lying in the navy yard at Charlestown, was to be dismantled and broken up. Hastily writing the ringing lines which so effectively stirred the patriotic feelings of the nation, the young law student sent his verses to the editor of the Boston Advertiser, from whose columns they were immediately copied far and wide. The astonished Secretary of the Navy recalled his order; the "tattered ensign," figuratively speaking, was not torn down.3 A year after Old Ironsides, Holmes wrote The Last Leaf, one of his finest poems, which with its exquisite blending of humor and pathos still remains our choicest example of what is technically called "society verse." Nearly all the other poetry of this period is broadly humorous, and includes The Ballad of the Oyster-Man, The Height of the Ridiculous, My Aunt, and The Comet. In 1831, also he wrote for the New England Magazine two papers entitled The Autocrat of the Breakfast- Table, forerunners of the admirable series resumed twenty-six years later in the Atlantic Monthly. Thus at twenty-three, Oliver Wendell Holmes had already entered the fields of literary effort in which he was to win such happy success, and had duly registered his claim.

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