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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

The Last Leaf

By Oliver Wendell Holmes


[This version is text-only, with no illustrations.
Another version has all the illustrations, but only sketchy text descriptions. (CAUTION: it will take more than five minutes to load!)
Each shares the author's note, history of the poem, and online editor's note, all at the end of this file.
Neither poem text contains any hypertext links to distract the reader who wishes to memorize the poem (you'll need your best Boston or New England accent).]

I 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 he 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.


(by the author)

My publishers tell me that it would add to the interest of the Poem if I would mention any circumstances connected with its composition, publication, and reception. This request must be the excuse of my communicativeness. Just when it was written I cannot exactly say, nor in what paper or periodical it was first published. It must have been written before April, 1833; probably in 1831 or 1832. It was republished in the first edition of my poems, in the year 1836.

The Poem was suggested by the sight of a figure well known to Bostonians of the years just mentioned, that of Major Thomas Melville, "the last of the cocked hats," as he was sometimes called. The Major had been a personable young man, very evidently, and retained evidence of it in

"The monumental pomp of age,"--

which had something imposing and something odd about it for youthful eyes like mine. He was often pointed at as one of the "Indians" of the famous "Boston Tea-Party" of 1774. His aspect among the crowds of a later generation reminded me of a withered leaf which has held to its stem through the storms of autumn and winter, and finds itself still clinging to its bough while the new growths of spring are bursting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it. I make this explanation for the benefit of those who have been puzzled by the lines

The last leaf upon the tree
In the Spring.

The way in which it came to be written in a somewhat singular measure was this. I had become a little known as a versifier, and I thought that one or two other young writers were following my efforts with imitations, not meant as parodies and hardly to be considered improvements on their models. I determined to write in a measure which would at once betray any copyist. So far as it was suggested by any previous poem, the echo must have come from Campbell's "Battle of the Baltic," with its short terminal lines, such as the last of these two,

By thy wild and stormy steep,

But I do not remember any poem in the same measure, except such as have been written since its publication.

The Poem as first written had one of those false rhymes which produce a shudder in all educated persons, even in the Poems of Keats and others who ought to have known better than to admit them. The guilty verse ran thus:--

But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
So forlorn,
And he shakes his feeble head
That it seems as if he said
"They are gone!"

A little more experience, to say nothing of the sneer of an American critic in an English periodical, showed me that this would never do. Here was what is called a "cockney rhyme,"--one in which the sound of the letter r is neglected,--maltreated as the letter h is insulted by the average Briton by leaving it out everywhere except where it should he silent. Such an ill-mated pair as "forlorn" and "gone" could not possibly pass current in good rhyming society. But what to do about it was the question. I must keep

"They are gone!"

and I could not think of any rhyme which I could work in satisfactorily. In this perplexity my friend, Mrs. Folsom, wife of that excellent scholar, Mr. Charles Folsom, then and for a long time the unsparing and infallible corrector of the press at Cambridge, suggested

"Sad and wan,"

which I thankfully adopted and have always retained.

The Poem has been occasionally imitated, often reprinted, and not rarely spoken well of. I hope I shall be forgiven for mentioning three tributes which have been especially noteworthy in my own remembrance.

Good Abraham Lincoln had a great liking for it, and repeated it from memory to Governor Andrew, as the Governor himself told me.

I have a copy of it made by the hand of Edgar Allan Poe, with an introductory remark which I will quote in connection with the one which precedes it.

"If we regard at the same time accuracy, rhythm, melody, and invention, or novel combination of metre, I would have no hesitation in saying that a young and true poetess of Kentucky, Mrs. Amelia Welby, has done more in the way of really good verse than any individual among us. I shall be pardoned, nevertheless, for quoting and commenting upon an excellently well conceived and well managed specimen of versification, which will aid in developing some of the propositions already expressed. It is the 'Last Leaf' of Oliver W. Holmes."

Then follows the whole poem carefully copied in the well-known delicate hand of the famous poet and critic. The roll of manuscript nearly five feet long closes with this poem, so that the promised comment is missing. The manuscript was given me by the late Mr. Robert Carter, a former collaborator with Mr. James Russell Lowell, one of Poe's biographers. Poe was not always over civil in speaking of New England poets. To such as were sensitive to his vitriolic criticism, his toleration was tranquillizing, and his praise encouraging. Fifty years ago those few words of his would have pleased me if they had been published, which they never were. But the morning dew means little to the withered leaf.

The last pleasant tribute antecedent to this volume of illustrations, of which it is not for me to speak, is the printing of the poem, among others, in raised letters for the use of the blind.

Reminiscences--idle, perhaps, to a new generation. It is all right; if these egotisms amuse them they amuse me, too, as I look them over; and so

Let them smile as I do now
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.


BEVERLY FARMS, July 9, 1885.

Author's note

[When this poem was issued with an accompaniment of illustration and decoration in 1894, Dr. Holmes wrote to his publishers (this is reproduced in Holmes's own quaint script):--

"Beverly Farms, July 9, 1894

"I have read the proof you sent me and find nothing in it which I feel called upon to alter or explain.

"I have lasted long enough to serve as an illustration of my own poem. I am one of the very last of the leaves which still cling to the bough of life that budded in the spring of the nineteenth century. The days of my years are threescore and twenty, and I am almost half way up the steep incline which leads me toward the base of the new century so near to which I have already climbed.

"I am pleased to find that this poem, carrying with it the marks of having been written in the jocund morning of life, is still read and cared for. It was with a smile on my lips that I wrote it; I cannot read it without a sigh of tender remembrance. I hope it will not sadden my older readers, while it may amuse some of the younger ones to whom its experiences are as yet only floating fancies.

"Oliver Wendell Holmes."]

Online editor's note

As copy-text we use the Boston Public Library's circulating copy at PS1957.A1, 1895, Houghton Mifflin and Company, as well as the 1895 Cambridge Edition of the Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, 811.4 H752c, pp 4-5.

The exclamation mark used in the author's comments after the phrase, "They are gone" is printed as a period in the Complete Works, but we retain the exclamation mark, as in the illustrated text.

Major Melvill usually spelled his name without the final "e". He was the grandfather of Herman Melville. Holmes met Melville at the famous picnic at Monument Mountain, Lenox, Massachusetts, August 5, 1850, along with Hawthorne and others. Holmes lived in Boston but spent many of his early summers in Pittsfield, Mass., where his mother's family owned some 26,000 acres. Holmes was an anatomy professor at Harvard Medical School and was quite familiar with withered old bodies and the psychology needed for us to deal with them, with respect, love, and humor.

The Bostonian Society museum in the Old State House, Boston, Massachusetts, has some artifacts of Melvill. You can see on display (admission fee) the three-cornered hat he was the last to wear in Boston. It is stiff and black. In a small glass jar are some tea leaves discovered in his boots after the Boston Tea Party. And there is a very nice sketch of his youthful and handsome face.

A further critical reference to this poem, among many, can be found online in some criticism by Mark Twain of the writings of William Dean Howells.

The illustrated edition was printed in a large and a small edition (we used the small one for scanning purposes). In the large edition, the poem text was printed from engravings of handwritten cursive script instead of set in type. The small edition has red ink on some of the title page; the rest is black and white. We have not reproduced the beautiful gold enbossed binding, which made the editions suitable for presentation at birthdays of older New England readers. (We've seen some editions you can buy from rare book stores for about $75, if you are a withered leaf this HTML edition does not satisfy, or you'd rather spend your money on hardbound books than download time over the Internet.)

We have described the elaborately decorative illustrations in the other file only briefly, after each picture, or in the ALT text, instead of in separate notes. One illustration shows the old man walking up the Boston Common toward the new State House, and the Houghton Mifflin offices. Another shows a beautiful maiden in a bonnet. She has a jaw and mouth like Holmes's. The final picture is of a graveyard.

One little artist joke needs explanation. The name on one gravestone is "Prudence Prynne." The adulteress in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is named Hester Prynne. At the end of the book, she dies and is (fictionally) buried in King's Chapel Burying Ground, Boston. Literate visitors to Boston consequently look for her grave in vain.