FOR WHITTIER'S SEVENTIETH BIRTHDAY
DECEMBER 17, 1877
BY OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
I BELIEVE that the copies of verses I've spun,
Like Scheherezade's tales, are a thousand and one,--
You remember the story,--those mornings in bed,--
'T was the turn of a copper,--a tale or a head.
A doom like Scheherezade's falls upon me
In a mandate as stern as the Sultan's decree:
I'm a florist in verse, and what would people say
If I came to a banquet without my bouquet?
It is trying, no doubt, when the company knows
Just the look and the smell of each lily and rose,
The green of each leaf in the sprigs that I bring,
And the shape of the bunch and the knot of the string.
Yes,--"the style is the man," and the nib of one's pen
Makes the same mark at twenty, and three-score and ten;
It is so in all matters, if truth may be told;
Let one look at the cast he can tell you the mould.
How we all know each other! no use in disguise;
Through the holes in the mask comes the flash of the eyes;
We can tell by his--somewhat--each one of our tribe,
As we know the old hat which we cannot describe.
Though in Hebrew, in Sanscrit, in Choctaw you write,
Sweet singer who gave us the Voices of Night,
Though in buskin or slipper your song may be shod;
Or the velvety verse that Evangeline trod,
We shall say, "You can't cheat us,--we know it is you,"
There is one voice like that, but there cannot be two,
Maestro, whose chant like the dulcimer rings:
And the woods will be hushed while the nightingale sings.
And he, so serene, so majestic, so true,
Whose temple hypaethral the planets shine through,
Let us catch but five words from that mystical pen,
We should know our one sage from all children of men.
And he whose bright image no distance can dim,
Through a hundred disguises we can't mistake him,
Whose play is all earnest, whose wit is the edge
(With a beetle behind) of a sham-splitting wedge.
Do you know whom we send you, Hidalgos of Spain?
Do you know your old friends when you see them again?
Hosea was Sancho! you Dons of Madrid,
But Sancho that wielded the lance of the Cid!
And the wood-thrush of Essex,--you know whom I mean,
Whose song echoes round us while he sits unseen,
Whose heart-throbs of verse through our memories thrill
Like a breath from the wood, like a breeze from the hill,
So fervid, so simple, so loving, so pure,
We hear but one strain and our verdict is sure,--
Thee cannot elude us,--no further we search,--
'T is Holy George Herbert cut loose from his church!
We think it the voice of a seraph that sings,--
Alas! we remember that angels have wings,--
What story is this of the day of his birth?
Let him live to a hundred! we want him on earth!
One life has been paid him (in gold) by the sun;
One account has been squared and another begun;
But he never will die if he lingers below
Till we've paid him in love half the balance we owe!