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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table

By Oliver Wendell Holmes


1882, 1891, 1902

(1) p.2,l.7. The "body of scientific young men in a great foreign city" was the Société d'Observation Medicale of Paris of which M. Louis was President, and M. M. Barth, Grisotte and our own Dr. Bowditch were members. They agreed in admiring their justly honored president, and thought highly of some of their associates, who have since made good their promise of distinction.

About the time these papers were published, the "Saturday Club" was founded, or rather found itself in existence, without any organization, almost without parentage. It was natural enough that such men as Emerson, Longfellow, Agassiz, Peirce, with Hawthorne, Motley, Sumner, when within reach, and others who would be good company for them, should meet and dine together once in a while, as they did, in point of fact, every month, and as some, who are still living, with other and newer members, still meet and dine. If some of them had not admired each other they would have been exceptions in the world of letters and science. The club deserves being remembered for having no constitution or by-laws, for making no speeches, reading no papers, observing no ceremonies, coming and going at will without remark, and acting out, though it did not proclaim, the motto, "Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?" There was, and is, nothing of the Bohemian element about this Club, but it has had many good times and not a little good talking.

(2) p. 5, l. 27. The Treatise on Solitude is not so frequently seen lying about on library tables as in our younger days. I remember that I always respected the title and let the book alone.

(3) p.7, l. 1. It was an agreeable incident of two consecutive visits to Hartford Conn, that I met there the late Mrs. Sigourney. The second meeting recalled the first, and with it the allusion to the Huma, which bird is the subject of a short poem by another New England authoress, which may be found in Mr. Griswold's collection.

(4) p. 12, l. 25. There is something like this in J. H. Newman's Grammar of Assent. See Characteristics, arranged by W. S. Lilly, p. 81.

(5) p. 19, l. 3. The full-length pictures by Copler, [ed.: probably Copley] I was thinking of, are such as may be seen in the Memorial Hall of Harvard University, but many are to be met with in different parts of New England, sometimes in the possession of the poor descendants of the rich gentlefolks in lace ruffles and glistening satins, grandees and grand dames of the ante-Revolutionary period. I remember one poor old gentleman, who had nothing left of his family possessions but the full-length portrait of his ancestors, the Counsellor and his lady, saying with a gleam of the pleasantry that had come down from the days of Mather Byles and "Balch the Hatter," and Sigourney, that he fared not so badly after all, for he had a pair of canvas-backs every day through the whole year.

The mention of these names, all of which are mere traditions to myself and my contemporaries, reminds me of the long succession of wits and humorists whose companionship has been the delight of their generation, and who leave nothing on record by which they will be remembered; Yoricks who set the table in a roar, storytellers who gave us scenes of life in monologue better than the stilted presentments of the stage, and those always welcome friends with social interior furnishing, whose smile provoked the wit of others and whose rich, musical laughter was its abundant reward. Who among us in my earlier days ever told a story or carolled a rippling chanson so gaily, so easily, so charmingly as John Sullivan, whose memory is like the breath of a long bygone summer. Mr. Arthur Oilman has left his monument in the stately structures he planned; Mr. James T. Fields in the pleasant volumes full of precious recollections; but twenty or thirty years from now old men will tell their boys that the Yankee story-teller died with the first, and that the chief of our literary reminiscents, whose ideal portrait gallery reached from Wordsworth to Swinburne, left us when the second bowed his head and "fell on sleep," no longer to delight the guests whom his hospitality gathered around him with the pictures to which his lips gave life and action.

(6) p. 20, l. 12. "Our dear didascalos" was meant for Professor James Russell Lowell, now (1891) Minister to England. It requires the union of exceptional native gifts and generations of training to bring the "natural man" of New England to the completeness of scholarly manhood, such as that which adds new distinction to the name he bears, already remarkable for its successive generations of eminent citizens.

"Self-made" is imperfectly made, or education is a superfluity and a failure.

(7) p. 22, l. 20. This hoped-for but almost despaired-of event occurred on the 9th February 1875. The writer of the above lines was as much pleased as his fellow-citizens at the termination of an enterprise which gave constant occasion for the most inveterate pun on record. When the other conditions referred to are as happily fulfilled as this has been, he will still say as before, that it is time for the Ascension garment to be ordered.

(8) p. 23, l. 3. "The youngest of our great historians" referred to in the poem was John Lothrop Motley. His career of authorship was as successful as it was noble, and his works are among the chief ornaments of our national literature. Are Republics still ungrateful as of old?

(9) p. 29, l. 34. Accidents are liable to happen if no thoroughly trained expert happens to be present. When Catharine Hayes was burnt at Tyburn in 1726, the officiating artist scorched his own hands, and the whole business was awkwardly managed for want of practical familiarity with the process. We have still remaining a guide to direct us to one important part of the arrangements. Bishop Hooper was burned at Gloucester, England, in the year 1555. A few years ago in making certain excavations the charred stump of the stake to which he was bound was discovered. An account of the interesting ceremony, so important in ecclesiastical history-the argumentun ad ignum, with a photograph of the half-burned stick of timber, was sent to me by my friend Mr. John Bellows of Gloucester, a zealous antiquarian, widely known by his wonderful miniature French dictionary, one of the scholarly printers and publishers who honor the calling of Aldus and the Elzevirs. The stake was big enough to chain the whole bench of bishops to as fast as the Athanasian creed still holds them.

(10) p. 34, l. 3. We have been beaten in many races in England since this was written, and at last carried off the blue ribbon of the turf at Epsom. But up to the present time trotting matches and baseball are distinctively American, as contrasted with running races and cricket, which belong as of right to England. The wonderful effects of breeding and training in a particular direction are shown in the records of the trotting horse. In 1844 Lady Suffolk trotted a mile in 2.26 1/2, which was, I think, the fastest time to that date. In 1859 Flora Temple's time at Kalamazoo--I remember Mr. Emerson surprised me once by correcting my error of a quarter of a second in mentioning it--was 2.19 3/4. Dexter in 1867 brought the figures down to 2.17 1/4. There is now a whole class of horses that can trot under 2.20, and in 1881 Maud S. distanced all previous records with 2.10 1/4. Many of our best running horses go to England. Racing in distinction from trotting, I think, attracts less attention in this country now than in the days of American Eclipse and Henry.

(11) p. 36, l. 9. The beautiful island referred to is Naushon, the largest of a group lying between Buzzard's Bay and the Vineyard Sound, south of the mainland of Massachusetts. It is the noblest domain in New England, and the present Lord of the Manor is worthy of succeeding "the Governor of blessed memory."

(12) p. 43, l. 8. I remember being asked by a celebrated man of letters to let him look over an early, but somewhat elaborate, poem of mine. He read the manuscript and suggested the change of one word which I adopted in deference to his opinion. The emendation was anything but an improvement, and in later editions the passage read as when first written.

(13) p. 43, l. 28. I recollect a British criticism of the poem, with the slight alterations in which the writer was quite indignant at the treatment my convivial song had received. No committee, he thought, would dare to treat a Scotch author that way. I could not help being reminded of Sydney Smith and the surgical operation he proposed in order to get a pleasantry into the head of a North Briton.

(14) p. 58, l. 28. The Saturday Club, before referred to, answered as well to this description as some others better known to history. Mathematics, music, art, the physical and biological sciences, history, philosophy, poetry, and other branches of imaginative literature were all represented by masters in their several realms.

(15) p. 64, l. 7. The letters received by authors from unknown correspondents form a curious and, I believe, almost unrecorded branch of literature. The most interesting fact connected with these letters is this: "If a writer has a distinct personality of character, an intellectual flavor peculiarly his own, and his writings are somewhat widely spread abroad, he will meet with some, and it may be many, readers who are specially attracted to him by a certain singularly strong affinity. A writer need not be surprised when some simple-hearted creature, evidently perfectly sincere, with no poem or story in the background for which he or she wants your critical offices, meaning too frequently your praise, and nothing else, when this kind soul assures him or her that he or she, the correspondent, loves to read the productions of him or her, the writer, better than those of any other author living or dead. There is no need of accounting for their individual preferences. What if a reader prefer you to the classics, whose words are resounding through the corridors of time." You probably come much nearer to his intellectual level. The rose is the sweetest growth in the garden, but shall not your harmless necessary cat prefer the aroma of that antiquely, odorous Valerian, not unfamiliar to hysteric womanhood. "How can we stand the five things that are said of us," asked one of a bright New Englander, whom New York has borrowed from us. "Because we feel that they are true," he answered. At any rate if they are true for those who say them, we need not quarrel with their superlatives. But what revelations are to be read in these letters! From the lisp of vanity, commending itself to the attention of the object of its admiration, to the cry of despair, which means insanity or death, if a wise word of counsel or a helping hand does not stay it, what a gamut of human utterances! Every individual writer feels as if he or she were the only one to be listened to or succored, little remembering that merely to acknowledge the receipt of the letters that come by every post is no small part of every day's occupation to a good-natured and moderately popular writer.

(16) p. 66, l. 12. "The Leviathan" was the name first applied to the huge vessel afterwards known as the "Great Eastern." The trouble which rose from its being built out of its "native element," as the newspapers call it, was like the puzzle of the Primrose household after the great family picture, with "as many sheep as the painter could put in for nothing," was finished.

(17) p. 90, l. 28. I have now and then found a naturalist who still worried over the distinction between the Pearly Nautilus and the Paper Nautilus, or Argonauta. As the stories about both are mere fables, attaching to the Physalia or Portuguese men-of-war, as well as to the two Molluscs, it seems over-nice to quarrel with the poetical handling of a fiction sufficiently justified by the name commonly applied to the ship of pearl as well as the ship of paper.

(18) p. 165, l. 1. Since the days when this was written, the bicycle has appeared as the rival of the wherry. I have witnessed three appearances of the pedal locomotive. The first was when I was a boy. (The machine was introduced into Great Britain from France about 1820.) Some of the Harvard College students who boarded in my neighborhood had these machines, then called velocipedes, on which they used to waddle along like so many ducks, their feet pushing against the ground, and looking as if they were perched on portable tread-mills. They soon found that legs were made before velocipedes. Our grown-up young people may remember the second advent of the contrivance, now become a treadle locomotive. There were "rinks" where this form of roller skating had a brief run, and their legs again asserted their prior claim and greater convenience. At the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, in 1876, I first saw the modern bicycles, some of them, at least, from Coventry, England. Since that time the bicycle glides in and out everywhere, noiseless as a serpent,

And [wheels] rush in where [horses] fear to tread.

The boat flies like a sea-bird with its long, narrow, outstretched pinions; the bicycle rider, like feathered Mercury, with his wings on his feet. There seems to be nothing left to perfect in the way of human locomotion but aerial swimming, which some fancy is to be a conquest of the future.

(19) p. 221, l. 16. This poem was written for and read at a meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

(20) p. 236, l. 6. "Mr. Paddock's row of English elms" has gone, but "Poor Benjamin" lies quietly under the same stone the schoolmistress saw through the iron rails.

(21) p. 243, l. 26. "That friend of mine" was the late Joseph Roby, once a fellow-teacher with me in the Medical School of Dartmouth College, afterwards professor in the University of Maryland. He was a man of keen intellect and warm affections, but out of the range of his official duties seen of few and understood only by a very limited number of intimates. I used to refer to my wise friend so often, and he was so rarely visible, that some doubted if there was any such individual, or if he were not of the impersonal nature of Sairy Gamp's Mrs. Harris. I remember Emerson was one of these smiling skeptics.

(22) p. 259, l. 17. The marble tablets and memorial windows in our churches and monumental buildings bear evidence as to whether the young men of favored social position proved worthy of their privileges or not during the four years of trial which left us a nation.

(23) p. 279, l. 6. It would have been well if I had consulted Notes and Queries before telling this story. A year or two before the time when I was writing, a number of communications relating to the subject were sent to that periodical. A correspondent called my attention to them, and other correspondents--Miss H. P., of London, the librarian of a public institution at Dublin; a young gentleman writing from Cornwall, and others whose residences I do not now remember--wrote to me, mentioning stories like that which the coachman told me. The self-reproduction of the legend wherever there was a stone to hang it on, seems to me so interesting, as bearing on the philosophy of tradition, that I subjoin a number of instances from Notes and Queries.

In the first the thief's booty was a deer and not a sheep, as the common account made it. The incident not only involved a more distinguished quadruped, but also was found worthy of being commemorated in rhyme.

Notes and Queries, January 5, 1856.

"In Potter's Churnwood, p. 179, a 'Legend of the Hangman's Stone,' in verse, is given, in which the death of John of Oxley is described.

. . . . . . . . . .
"'One shaft he drew on his well-tried yew,
And a gallant hart lay dead;
He tied its legs, and he hoisted his prize,
And he toiled over Lubcloud brow.
He reached the tall stone, standing out and alone,
Standing then as it standeth now;
With his back to the stone he rested his load,
And he chuckled with glee to think
That the rest of his way on the down hill lay
And his wife would have spiced the strong drink.

. . . . . . . . . .

A swineherd was passing o'er great Toe's Head,
When he noticed a motionless man;
He shouted in vain--no reply could he gain--
So down to the gray stone he ran.
All was clear. There was Oxley on one side the stone,
On the other the down-hanging deer:
The burden had slipped, and his neck it had nipped;
He was hanged by his prize-all was clear.'

"'When I was a youth,' the same writer continues, 'there were two fields in the parish of Foremark, Derbyshire, called the Great and the Little Hangman's Stone. In the former there was a stone, five or six feet high, with an indentation running across the top of it, and there was a legend that a sheep-stealer, once upon a time having stolen a sheep, had placed it on the top of the stone, and that it had slipped off and strangled him with the rope with which it was tied, and that the indentation was made by the friction of the rope caused by the struggles of the dying man.'--C. S. Greaves."

Notes and Queries, April 5, 1856.

Similar legends at different places.--"At the end of Lamber Moor on the road side between Haverford West and Little Haven, in the county of Pembroke, there is a stone about four feet high called 'Hang Davy Stone,' connected with which is a tradition of the accidental strangling of a sheep-stealer, similar to the legend mentioned by Mr. Greaves with reference to the stone at Foremark.--J. W. Phillips."

Notes and Queries, May 17, 1856.

"THE HANGMAN'S STONE.--It may be interesting to your correspondent Mr. J. W. Phillips, to be informed that at about five miles from Sidmouth, on the road to Colyton, on the right hand side of the road, and near Bovey House, is a large stone known by the name of 'Hangman's Stone.' The legend is precisely similar to that noticed by Mr. Phillips and by Mr. Greaves. -~N. S. Heineker."

Notes and Queries, May 31, 1856.

"HANGMAN STONES.--Some years ago there was still to be seen in a meadow belonging to me, situate near the north-western boundary of the parish of Littlebury, in Essex, a large stone, the name of which and the traditions attached to it were identical with those recorded by your correspondents, treating of 'Hangman Stones.' This stone was subsequently removed by the late Mr. Jabez Gibson to Saffron Walden, and still remains in his garden at that place. I have a strong impression that other 'Hangman Stones' are to be met with elsewhere, but I am unable to point out the exact localities.--Braybrooke."

"On the right side of the road between Brighton and Newhaven (about five miles, I think, from the former place) is a stone designated as above, and respecting which is told the same legend as that which is quoted by Henry Keasington.--H. E. C."

Notes and Queries, June 21, 1856.

"HANGMAN STONES.--At a picturesque angle in the road between Sheffield and Barnsley, and about three miles south of the latter place, there is a toll-bar called 'Hangman Stone Bar.' Attached to this title is the usual legend of a sheep-stealer being strangled by the kicking animal, which he had slung across his shoulders, and which pulled him backwards as he tried to climb over the stone wall inclosure with his spoil. I do not know that any particular stone is marked as the one on which the sheep was rested for the convenience of the thief in trying to make his escape, but the Jehu of the now extinct Barnsley mail always told this story to any inquiring passenger who happened to be one of five at top--as quaint a four-in-hand as you shall see.--Alfred Gatty."

I have little doubt that the story told by the "Jehu," which my memory may have embellished a little, as is not unusual with travellers' recollections, was the one to which I listened as one of the five outsiders, and in answer to my question the country boys used to insist upon it in my young days that stones grew. It seems to me probable that a very moderate monolith may have grown in my recollection to "a handsome marble column," and that "the lord of the manor" was my own phrase rather than our coachman's.

(24) p. 279, l. 16. I sent two or three copies to different correspondents.

(25) p. 282, l. 30. There are trees scattered about our New England towns worth going a dozen or a score of miles to see, if one only knew where to look for them. A mile from where I am now writing (Beverly Farms, Essex County, Massachusetts) is one of the noblest oaks I have ever seen, not distinguished so much for its size, though its branches must spread a hundred feet from bough-end to bough-end, as for its beauty and lusty promise. A few minutes' walk from the station at Rockport is a horse-chestnut which is remarkable for size of trunk and richness of foliage. I found that it measures 8 feet and 3 inches in circumference about 4 feet from tile ground. There may be larger horse-chestnut treeS in New England, but I have not seen or heard of them.

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