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Famous Poet-Physician

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), Selected Poems.
Vol. 42, pp. 1365-1370 of The Harvard Classics

One of America's famous New Englanders, Oliver Wendell Holmes, devoted his life principally to medicine. His name, however, was made famous through his poem, "Old Ironsides," by which he saved America's most famous battleship from de­struction when her fighting days were ended.


The Chambered Nautilus

THIS is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
        Sails the unshadowed main,—
        The venturous bark that flings
    On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
    In gulfs enchanted, where the siren sings,
        And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

    Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
        Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
        And every chambered cell,
    Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
        As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
        Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

    Year after year beheld the silent toil
        That spread his lustrous coil;
        Still, as the spiral grew,
    He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
        Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
        Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

    Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
        Child of the wandering sea,
        Cast from her lap, forlorn!
    From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
        Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
        While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

    Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
        As the swift seasons roll!
        Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
        Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
        Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!


Old Ironsides

AY, 1 tear her tattered ensign down!
  Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
  That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
  And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
  Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck once red with heroes’ blood,
  Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood
  And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor’s tread,
  Or know the conquered knee;—
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
  The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
  Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
  And there should be her grave:
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
  Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
  The lightning and the gale!


Note 1. This was the popular name by which the frigate “Constitution” was known.



The Last Leaf

SAW him once before,
As he passed by the door;
      And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o’er the ground
      With his cane.

They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
      Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
      Through the town.

But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
      Sad and wan;
And shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
      “They are gone.”

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
      In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
      On the tomb.

My grandmamma has said—
Poor old lady, she is dead
      Long ago—
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
      In the snow.

But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
      Like a staff;
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
      In his laugh.

I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
      At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches and all that,
      Are so queer!

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
      In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
      Where I cling.


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