Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bicentennial of Dr. Holmes

Also celebrating his bicentennial in 2009 is Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor-writer who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 29, 1809.

Through Holmes's lengthy life and career (he was alive in every decade of the 19th century), he would be a doctor, professor, medical reformer, poet, author, essayist, lecturer... a true Renaissance Man. However, many of his major works were not published during Poe's lifetime. His Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table series far off, Holmes's early literary career hinged on only one poem: "Old Ironsides." It was an auspicious beginning; the poem's publication in 1830 is directly responsible for the preservation of the U.S.S. Constitution. At the time, it was in serious danger of being scrapped; today, because of Holmes, it remains the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy and the oldest afloat anywhere in the world. It was an early blossoming that Holmes had trouble living up to for a time.

Poe included Holmes in his "Autography" series and acknowledged a side of Holmes which would later become his legacy: his humor. Elsewhere, Poe offered substantial praise to Holmes — no small feat, considering the rarity of Poe's praise for New England writers. In fact, it's rare to find unqualified praise from Poe at all; most of the writers he lauded were also the on the receiving end of Poe criticism. Holmes, however, never seems to have earned any negative commentary from Poe.

In particular, Poe enjoyed Holmes's poem "The Last Leaf" (another admirer was Abraham Lincoln, who also celebrated his 200th birthday in 2009) — a seriocomic poem which mentions Thomas Melvill (grandfather of Herman Melville). Melvill was a remnant of the Revolutionary era and still wore 18th-century fashions, including a tricornered hat. Holmes found it comical to see the man so out of place but, somewhat romantically, mused would it would be like if he himself were the last of his own generation:

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.

The poem turned out to be prophetic. Holmes outlived all of his writer-friends, including Longfellow, Lowell, Emerson, Hawthorne, and others. Holmes was, in fact, "The Last Leaf," just as he predicted. He died October 7, 1894 — exactly 45 years after the death of Edgar Poe, but not before contributing a poem for the dedication of a new Poe monument in Baltimore in 1875.

Not to worry, folks — Holmes is not being forgotten on his birthday. The city of his birth is hosting a pretty substantial birthday party for him this morning.


Anonymous said...

But not as big a celebration as Poe's 200th, I assume. Has any other bicentennial celebration been bigger than Poe's?

Rob Velella said...

It's this sort of thing that annoys me: Mass Moments for August 29. To paraphrase, Dr. Holmes's "greatest legacy" is his son. Wow! Way to give him no credit at all!