POEM READ AT THE DINNER GIVEN TO THE AUTHOR
BY THE MEDICAL PROFESSION OF THE CITY OF
NEW YORK, APRIL 12, 1883
BY OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
Have I deserved your kindness? Nay, my friends,
While the fair banquet its illusion lends
Let me believe it, though the blood may rush
And to my cheek recall the maiden blush
That o'er it flamed with momentary blaze
When first I heard the honeyed words of praise;
Let me believe it while the roses wear
Their bloom unwithering in the heated air;
Too soon, too soon, their glowing leaves must fall,
The laughing echoes leave the silent hall,
Joy drop his garland, turn his empty cup,
And weary Labor take his burden up,--
How weighs that burden they can tell alone
Whose dial marks no moment as their own.
Am I your creditor? Too well I know
How Friendship pays the debt it does not owe,
Shapes a poor semblance fondly to its mind,
Adds all the virtues that it fails to find,
Adorns with graces to its heart's content,
Borrows from love what nature never lent,
Till what with halo, jewels, gilding, paint,
The veriest sinner deems himself a saint.
Thus while you pay these honors as my due
I owe my value's larger part to you,
And in the tribute of the hour I see
Not what I am, but what I ought to be.
Friends of the Muse, to you of right belong
The first staid footsteps of my square-toed song;
Full well I know the strong heroic line
Has lost its fashion since I made it mine;
But there are tricks old singers will not learn,
And this grave measure still must serve my turn.
So the old bird resumes the selfsame note,
His first young summer wakened in his throat;
The selfsame tune the old canary sings,
And all unchanged the bobolink's carol rings;
When the tired songsters of the day are still
The thrush repeats his long-remembered trill;
Age alters not the crow's persistent caw,
The Yankee's "Haow," the stammering Briton's "Haw;"
And so the hand that takes the lyre for you
Plays the old tune on strings that once were new.
Nor let the rhymester of the hour deride
The straight-backed measure with its stately stride;
It gave the mighty voice of Dryden scope;
It sheathed the steel-bright epigrams of Pope;
In Goldsmith's verse it learned a sweeter strain;
Byron and Campbell wore its clanking chain;
I smile to listen while the critic's scorn
Flouts the proud purple kings have nobly worn;
Bid each new rhymer try his dainty skill,
And mould his frozen phrases as he will;
We thank the artist for his neat device;
The shape is pleasing, though the stuff is ice.
Fashions will change--the new costume allures,
Unfading still the better type endures;
While the slashed doublet of the cavalier
Gave the old knight the pomp of chanticleer,
Our last-hatched dandy with his glass and stick
Recalls the semblance of a new-born chick;
(To match the model he is aiming at
He ought to wear an eggshell for a hat;)
Which of these objects would a painter choose,
And which Velasquez or Van Dyck refuse?
When your kind summons reached my calm retreat,
Who are the friends, I questioned, I shall meet?
Some in young manhood, shivering with desire
To feel the genial warmth of fortune's fire,--
Each with his bellows ready in his hand
To puff the flame just waiting to be fanned;
Some heads half-silvered, some with snow-white hair,--
A crown ungarnished glistening here and there,
The mimic moonlight gleaming on the scalps
As evening's empress lights the shining Alps;
But count the crowds that throng your festal scenes,
How few that knew the century in its teens!
Save for the lingering handful fate befriends,
Life's busy day the Sabbath decade ends;
When that is over, how with what remains
Of nature's outfit, muscle, nerve, and brains?
Were this a pulpit I should doubtless preach,
Were this a platform I should gravely teach,
But to no solemn duties I pretend
In my vocation at the table's end;
So as my answer let me tell instead
What Landlord Porter--rest his soul!--once said.
A feast it was that none might scorn to share;
Cambridge and Concord's demigods were there,--
"And who were they?" You know as well as I
The stars long glittering in our Eastern sky,--
The names that blazon our provincial scroll
Ring round the world with Britain's drumbeat roll!
Good was the dinner, better was the talk;
Some whispered, devious was the homeward walk;
The story came from some reporting spy,--
They lie, those fellows,--oh, how they do lie!
Not ours those foot-tracks in the new-fallen snow,--
Poets and sages never zigzagged so!
Now Landlord Porter, grave, concise, severe,
Master, nay, monarch in his proper sphere,
Though to belles-lettres he pretended not,
Lived close to Harvard, so knew what was what;
And having bards, philosophers, and such,
To eat his dinner, put the finest touch
His art could teach, those learned mouths to fill
With the best proofs of gustatory skill;
And finding wisdom plenty at his board,
Wit, science, learning, all his guests had stored,
By way of contrast, ventured to produce,
To please their palates, an inviting goose.
Better it were the company should starve
Than hands unskilled that goose attempt to carve;
None but the master-artist shall assail
The bird that turns the mightiest surgeon pale.
One voice arises from the banquet-hall,
The landlord answers to the pleading call;
Of stature tall, sublime of port he stands,
His blade and bident gleaming in his hands;
Beneath his glance the strong-knit joints relax
As the weak knees before the headsman's axe.
And Landlord Porter lifts his glittering knife
As some stout warrior armed for bloody strife;
All eyes are on him; some in whispers ask,
What man is he who dares this dangerous task?
When lo! the triumph of consummate art,
With scarce a touch the creature drops apart!
As when the baby in his nurse's lap
Spills on the carpet a dissected map.
Then the calm sage, the monarch of the lyre,
Critics and men of science all admire,
And one whose wisdom I will not impeach,
Lively, not churlish, somewhat free of speech,
Speaks thus: "Say, master, what of worth is left
In birds like this, of breast and legs bereft?"
And Landlord Porter, with uplifted eyes,
Smiles on the simple querist, and replies:
"When from a goose you've taken legs and breast,
Wipe lips, thank God, and leave the poor the rest!"
Kind friends, sweet friends, I hold it hardly fair
With that same bird your minstrel to compare,
Yet in a certain likeness we agree,
No wrong to him and no offence to me;
I take him for the moral he has lent,
My partner,--to a limited extent.
When the stern Landlord whom we all obey
Has carved from life its seventh great slice away,
Is the poor fragment left in blank collapse
A pauper remnant of unvalued scraps?
I care not much what Solomon has said,
Before his time to nobler pleasures dead;
Poor man! he needed half a hundred lives
With such a babbling wilderness of wives!
But is there nothing that may well employ
Life's winter months,--no sunny hour of joy?
While o'er the fields the howling tempests rage,
The prisoned linnet warbles in its cage;
When chill November through the forest blows,
The greenhouse shelters the untroubled rose;
Round the high trellis creeping tendrils twine,
And the ripe clusters fill with blameless wine;
We make the vine forget the winter's cold,
But how shall age forget its growing old?
Though doing right is better than deceit,
Time is a trickster it is fair to cheat;
The honest watches ticking in your fobs
Tell every minute how the rascal robs.
To clip his forelock and his scythe to hide,
To lay his hour-glass gently on its side,
To slip the cards he marked upon the shelf
And deal him others you have marked yourself,
If not a virtue cannot be a sin,
For the old rogue is sure at last to win.
What does he leave when life is well-nigh spent
To lap its evening in a calm content?
Art, letters, science, these at least befriend
Our day's brief remnant to its peaceful end,--
Peaceful for him who shows the setting sun
A record worthy of his Lord's Well done!
When he, the master whom I will not name,
Known to our calling, not unknown to fame,
At life's extremest verge, half conscious lay,
Helpless and sightless, dying day by day,
His brain, so long with varied wisdom fraught,
Filled with the broken enginery of thought,
A flitting vision often would illume
His darkened world, and cheer its deepening gloom,--
A sunbeam struggling through the long eclipse,--
And smiles of pleasure play around his lips.
He loved the art that shapes the dome and spire,
The Roman's page, the ring of Byron's lyre,
And oft when fitful memory would return
To find some fragment in her broken urn,
Would wake to life some long-forgotten hour,
And lead his thought to Pisa's terraced tower,
Or trace in light before his rayless eye
The dome-crowned Pantheon printed on the sky;
Then while the view his ravished soul absorbs,
And lends a glitter to the sightless orbs,
The patient watcher feels the stillness stirred
By the faint murmur of some classic word,
Or the long roll of Harold's lofty rhyme,
"Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime,"--
Such were the dreams that soothed his couch of pain,
The sweet nepenthe of the worn-out brain.
Brothers in art, who live for others' needs
In duty's bondage, mercy's gracious deeds,
Of all who toil beneath the circling sun
Whose evening rest than yours more fairly won?
Though many a cloud your struggling morn obscures,
What sunset brings a brighter sky than yours?
I, who your labors for a while have shared,
New tasks have sought, with new companions fared,
For nature's servant far too often seen
A loiterer by the waves of Hippocrene;
Yet round the earlier friendship twines the new,
My footsteps wander, but my heart is true,
Nor e'er forgets the living or the dead
Who trod with me the paths where science led.
How can I tell you, O my loving friends!
What light, what warmth, your joyous welcome lends
To life's late hour? Alas! my song is sung,
Its fading accents falter on my tongue.
Sweet friends, if, shrinking in the banquet's blaze,
Your blushing guest must face the breath of praise,
Speak not too well of one who scarce will know
Himself transfigured in its roseate glow;
Say kindly of him what is, chiefly, true,
Remembering always he belongs to you;
Deal with him as a truant, if you will,
But claim him, keep him, call him brother still!