• Peter Templeton

Oliver Wendell Holmes

On his birthday, we share a few quotations and a limerick from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Holmes was one of the Fireside Poets, a group from new England who, taken collectively, might rank as the most canonical group in the history of American Poetry. Along with Longfellow, Bryant, Whittier and Lowell, Holmes was read widely across the English-speaking world and were considered appropriate reading for family situations.


Holmes was an important figure in the preservation of the USS Constitution, writing the famous poem, ‘Old Ironsides’.


Ay, 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!


O, 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 thread-bare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,—

The lightning and the gale!


The cutting irony of the poem was rhetorically successful, and eventually the ship was saved – it can still be visited in the Boston Navy Yard. This would not be Holmes final poetic contribution to military themes, as during the Civil War would pen verse in support of the Union cause.


“A Voice of the Loyal North”

WE sing "Our Country's" song to-night

With saddened voice and eye;

Her banner droops in clouded light

Beneath the wintry sky.

We 'll pledge her once in golden wine

Before her stars have set:

Though dim one reddening orb may shine,

We have a Country yet.


'T were vain to sigh o'er errors past,

The fault of sires or sons;

Our soldier heard the threatening blast,

And spiked his useless guns;

He saw the star-wreathed ensign fall,

By mad invaders torn;

But saw it from the bastioned wall

That laughed their rage to scorn!


What though their angry cry is flung

Across the howling wave,—

They smite the air with idle tongue

The gathering storm who brave;

Enough of speech! the trumpet rings;

Be silent, patient, calm,—

God help them if the tempest swings

The pine against the palm!


Our toilsome years have made us tame;

Our strength has slept unfelt;

The furnace-fire is slow to flame

That bids our ploughshares melt;

'T is hard to lose the bread they win

In spite of Nature's frowns,—

To drop the iron threads we spin

That weave our web of towns,


To see the rusting turbines stand

Before the emptied flumes,

To fold the arms that flood the land

With rivers from their looms,—

But harder still for those who learn

The truth forgot so long;

When once their slumbering passions burn,

The peaceful are the strong!


The Lord have mercy on the weak,

And calm their frenzied ire,

And save our brothers ere they shriek,

"We played with Northern fire!"

The eagle hold his mountain height,—

The tiger pace his den!

Give all their country, each his right!

God keep us all! Amen!


He died in 1894, at the age of 85. To conclude, here are some notable quotations and some verse from the man himself.


“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it - but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”


“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.”


“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprang up.”


“Don't be 'consistent', but be simply true.”


And finally, a limerick:


God’s plan made a hopeful beginning.

But man spoiled his chances by sinning.

We trust that the story

Will end in God’s glory,

But at present the other side’s winning.

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