Saturday, August 29, 2015

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., both physician and poet, was born today in 1809.  He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1835 after a brief consideration of law school, and also having already published one of his most famous poems, Old Ironsides, in 1830.  He went into private practice, but during the first year of that practice his success as a poet was even greater. This did not enhance his reputation as a serious medical professional to potential patients, and eventually he moved into teaching and lecturing in medicine, first at Dartmouth and later at Harvard Medical School, where he taught until 1882.

Friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged a parallel career as a poet and he published his first of several collections of poetry in 1836.  Twenty years later he was asked by his friend, poet James Russell Lowell, to assist him in editing a new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly (still published today) and Holmes's frequent writings in the magazine, both in poetry and prose, contributed to the success of the new venture.

His father, Abiel Holmes, was a Congregationalist minister, but Holmes became a Unitarian, perhaps due to the influence of his Harvard education.  His views seem to have been even more liberal than many Unitarians, and John Quincy Adams supposedly once accused him of preaching "wild atheism."  Several of Holmes's poems have been used or adapted as hymns, such as today's text, originally written for the fortieth reunion of his Harvard class of 1829.

O gracious Power, whose mercy lends
The light of home, the smile of friends,
Our families in your arms enfold
As in the peaceful days of old.

Will you not hear us while we raise,
In sweet accord of solemn praise,
The voices that have mingled long
In joyous flow of mirth and song?

For all the blessings life has brought,
For all its sorrowing hours have taught,
For all we mourn, for all we keep,
The hands we clasp, the loved that sleep.

Thank you, Creator; let your grace
Our widening circle still embrace,
Your mercy shed its heavenly store,
Your peace be with us evermore.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1869; alt.
Robert Schumann, 1839; adapt.

I made one significant alteration to this text, attempting to adapt it for modern use.  In the final stanza, Holmes wrote "our narrowing circle still embrace," which was appropriate for the original occasion, the reunion of an aging community of colleagues then approaching the twilight of their lives.  But after reading some of his other works, I think he would approve of the reversal, and agree that a worshipping community should be open to wider experiences and influences, as he was.

The line that may be remembered from one of his famous poems, The Chambered Nautilus (1858), opens the final stanza: Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul. The whole poem uses the spiral shape of the chambered nautilus as a metaphor for the constantly-expanding lives we live, if we are open to the experience. The final line of the poem is Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea! 

P.S. - The Chambered Nautilus was set to music in 1908 by Amy Beach for women's voices and can be heard in a partial performance on YouTube (though the chorus's diction is not to be commended).

Seven Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Three Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

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