HOLMES, OLIVER WENDELL (1809–1894). Oliver Wendell Holmes,
a writer and distinguished academic physician, spent his life around Boston.
He was the social leader of a group of intellectual luminaries that included
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,* James Russell Lowell,* and Ralph Waldo
Emerson. In his day a well-known wit and after-dinner speaker, Holmes is
now remembered for a handful of poems, some about the sea.
“Old Ironsides,” the poem that made him known, first appeared in a
Boston newspaper in 1830. This elegy was his emotional protest against
plans to tow the famous frigate U.S.S. Constitution to a scrap yard. Instead,
says the poem, she ought to set out to sea in a storm, unmanned and under
full sail. Republished in newspapers and broadsides* nationwide, the poem
galvanized public opinion in favor of preserving the frigate. “The Chambered Nautilus,” arguably Holmes’ best poem, first appeared in the February
1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he had named and
helped to found. The ode describes a sea creature that expands its beautiful
spiral shell to accommodate its physical growth; inspired by the example of
this image, the poet then urges the human soul onward to achieve similar
spiritual growth.
Other sea-related poems deserve attention. Among his serious poems, “La
Maison D’or” (1890) compares life to a sea voyage, and “The Steamboat”
(1840) celebrates technology. Among his light verse, “The Old Man of the
Sea” (1858) pokes fun at tiresome tellers of sea stories; “A Sea Dialogue” (1864) contrasts a gabby passenger with a silent seaman; and “Ballad of the
Oysterman” (1830) parodies tales of ill-fated lovers.
Critics find Holmes’ poetry excessively sentimental for modern taste, but
his best verse has the power to charm through forthright feeling, sharp wit,
and vivid imagery.