Oliver Wendell Holmes – Portrait Of A Genius

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ fascination with the sky began when he was quite young. When he was nine years old he paid a dime for a look at Venus through a telescope. This was a transfiguring experience. In his own words: “I had seen Venus. The Earth on which I lived has never been the same to me since that time. All my human sentiments, all my religious beliefs, seem to have undergone a change.”

Love those sideburns!

Love those sideburns!

By the time this budding poet reached adulthood, celestial thoughts were often crossing his mind. When he was 21, Holmes visualized the destructive power of a giant comet impacting the Earth. He recorded his vision in the poem “The Comet” (1830).

The Comet! He is on his way And singing as he flies; The whizzing planets shrink before The spectre of the skies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And what would happen to the land, And how would look the sea, If in the bearded devil’s path Our Earth should chance to be? Full hot and high the sea would boil, Full red the forests gleam.

The poem continues with a gruesome description of the destruction of marine and terrestrial life caused by the collision.

Many years ahead of his time, Holmes regarded the Earth as a spaceship with an integral life-support system. He reasoned that if there is life on Earth, very possibly there is life on other planets. This became a recurring theme in his poems. In “The Secret of the Stars” (1850 -56), Holmes says

Is man’s the only throbbing heart that hides The silent spring that feeds its whispering tides? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . In vain the sweeping equatorial pries Through every world-sown corner of the skies, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Metes out the heavenly concave with a span, Tracks into space the long-lost meteor’s trail, And weighs an unseen planet in the scale; Still o’er their doubts the wan-eyed watchers sigh, And Science lifts her still unanswered cry: “Are all these worlds, that speed their circling flight, Dumb, vacant, soulless – baubles of the night? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Or rolls a sphere in each expanding zone Crowned with a life as varied as our own?”

Holmes observed the December 6, 1882, transit of Venus from Boston Common. As recounted in his poem “The Flaneur,” what he saw through the telescope was “A black round spot, – and that is all.” This led Holmes to reflect:

And such a speck our earth would be If he who looks upon the stars Through the red atmosphere of Mars Could see our little creeping ball Across the disk of crimson crawl As I our sister planet see. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . And art thou, then, a world like ours, Flung from the orb that whirled our own A molten pebble from its zone? How must the burning sands absorb The fire-waves of the blazing orb, Thy chain so short, thy path so near Thy flame-defying creatures hear The maelstroms of the photosphere! And is thy bosom decked with flowers That steal their bloom from scalding showers? And has thou cities, domes and towers And life, and love that makes it dear, And death that fills thy tribes with fear?

Holmes further revealed his appreciation of astronomy by eulogizing several professional astronomers in verse. One of these was his Harvard classmate, astronomer-mathematician Benjamin Peirce, who died in 1880.

To him the wandering stars revealed The secrets in their cradle sealed: Through voids unknown to worlds unseen His clearer vision rose serene. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The wit how subtle, how profound That Nature’s tangled web unwound; That through the clouded matrix saw The crystal planes of shaping law.

In a more jocund mood, Holmes ribbed Peirce at a Harvard College class reunion as follows:

That boy with the grave mathematical look Made believe he had written a wonderful book And the ROYAL SOCIETY thought it was true: So they chose him right in; a good joke it was, too!

Another astronomer was lauded in an 1885 poem billed “A welcome to Dr. Benjamin Apthorp Gould on his return from South America after fifteen years devoted to cataloguing the stars of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Through the long nights I see thee ever waking, Thy footstool earth, thy roof the hemisphere, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The souls that voyaged the azure depths before thee Watch with thy tireless vigils, all unseen, – Tycho and Kepler bend benignant o’er thee, And with his toy-like tube the Florentine, – . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Flamsteed and Newton look with brows unclouded, Their strife forgotten with its faded scars.

You may suspect that Holmes was writing with tongue in cheek here. But such hyperbole was relished by Boston audiences in the 1880s.

One of Holmes’s longer poems was written to celebrate Harvard College’s 250th birthday (1882). Here Holmes argues that the study of the “mildewed pages of the past” is unprofitable. Science, too, has its limitations, he adds. Even astronomy.

New realms, new worlds, exulting Science claims, Still the dim future unexplored remains; Her trembling scales the far-off planet weigh, Her torturing prisms its elements betray, – We know what ores the fires of Sirius melt, What vaporous metals gild Orion’s belt, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Yet vain is Knowledge with her misty wand, To pierce the cloudy screen and read beyond.

In two further lines, Holmes appears to be erroneously foretelling the demise of astrology:

Once to the silent stars the fates were known, To us they tell no secrets but their own.

The skeptical Holmes used the lecture platform to blast pseudosciences such as astrology and alchemy. He also derided spiritualism, homeopathic medicine, and vegetarianism.

Holmes’s poem “In the Twilight” (1882) lists some of the wonders that had been developed in his lifetime – steamships, railroads, anesthetics, matches, and astrophotography (“Shoot me a portrait from the sun,-/ One look, and lo! the picture done!”).

Holmes died at his home in Boston at the age of 86. To the end, he wanted to know

What wonders time has yet to show, What unborn years shall bring; What ship the arctic pole shall reach, What lessons Science waits to teach, What sermons there are left to preach, What poems yet to sing.

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