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AMONG the strange events of these strange days of ours, when ravolutions and counter-revolutions, constitutions changed one week and rechanged the next, seem to crowd into a fortnight the work of a century, annihilating time, just as railways and electric telegraphs annihilate space,-in these days of curious novelty, nothing has taken me more pleasantly by surprise than the school of true and original poetry that has sprung up among our blood relations (I had well nigh called them our fellow-countrymen) across the Atlantic ; they who speak the same tongue and inherit the same literature. And of all this flight of genuine poets, I hardly know any one so original as Dr. Holmes. For him we can find no living prototype; to track his footsteps, we must travel back as far as Pope or Dryden ; and to my mind it would be well if some of our own bards would take the same journey -provided always, it produced the same result. Lofty, poignant, graceful, grand, high of thought, and clear of word, we could fancy ourselves reading some pungent page of “ Absalom and Achitophel,” or of the “ Moral Epistles,” if it were not for the pervading nationality, which, excepting Whittier, American poets have generally wanted, and for that true reflection of the manners and the follies of the age, without which satire would fail alike of its purpose and its name.
The work of which I am about to offer a sample, all too brief, is a little book much too brief itself; a little book of less than forty pages, described in the title-page as “ Astræa—a Poem, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale College, August, 1850, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and printed at the request of the Society.”
The introduction tells most gracefully, in verse that rather, perhaps, implies than relates, the cause of the author's visit to the college, dear to him as the place of his father's education :
What secret charm long whispering in mine ear,
Allures, attracts, compels, and chains me here,
Where murmuring echoes call me to
Their secret haunts to sweeter lips than mine ;
Where silent pathways pierce the solemn shade
In whose still depths my feet have never strayed ;
Here, in the home where grateful children meet,
And I, half alien, take the stranger's seat,
Doubting, yet hoping that the gift I bear
May keep its bloom in this unwonted air ?
Hush, idle fancy, with thy needless art,
Speak from thy fountains, O my throbbing heart !
Say shall I trust these trembling lips to tell
The fireside tale that memory knows so well ?
How in the days of Freedom's dread campaign,
A home-bred school-boy left his village plain,
Slow faring southward, till his wearied feet
Pressed the worn threshold of this fair retreat;
How with his comely face and gracious mien,
He joined the concourse of the classic green,
Nameless, unfriended, yet by Nature blest
With the rich tokens that she loves the best;
The flowing locks, his youth's redundant crown,
Smoothed o'er a brow unfurrowed by a frown;
The untaught smile, that speaks so passing plain,
A world all hope, a past without a stain;
The clear-hued cheek, whose burning current glows
Crimson in action, carmine in repose;
Gifts such as purchase, with unminted gold,
Smiles from the young and blessings from the old.
Is not the portrait of the boy beautiful ? The poem goes on:
Say shall my hand with pious love restore,
The faint far pictures time beholds no more?
How the grave senior, he whose later fame
Stamps on our laws his own undying name,
Saw from on high with half paternal joy
Some spark of promise in the studious boy,
And bade him enter, with paternal tone,
The stately precincts which he called his own.
How kindness ripened, till the youth might dare,
Take the low seat beside his sacred chair,
While the gray scholar bending o'er the young,
Spelled the square types of Abraham's ancient tongue,
Or with mild rapture stooped devoutly o'er
His small coarse leaf alive with curious lore;
Tales of grim judges, at whose awful beck,
Flashed the broad blade across a royal neck;
Or learned dreams of Israel's long-lost child,
Found in the wanderer of the western wild.
Dear to his age were memories such as these,
Leaves of his June in life's autumnal breeze;
Such were the tales that won my boyish ear,
Told in low tones that evening loves to hear.
Thus in the scene I pass so lightly o’er,
Trod for a moment, then beheld no more,
Strange shapes and dim, unseen by other eyes,
Through the dark portals of the past arise ;
I see no more the fair embracing throng,
I hear no echo to my saddened song,
No more I heed the kind or envious gaze,
The voice of blame, the rustling thrill of praise:
Alone, alone, the awful past I tread,
White with the marbles of the slumbering dead;
One shadowy form my dreaming eyes behold,
That leads my footsteps as it led of old,
One floating voice, amid the silence heard,
Breathes in my ear love's long unspoken word ;-
These are the scenes thy youthful eyes have known,
My heart's warm pulses claim them as its own;
The sapling compassed in thy fingers' clasp,
My arms scarce circle in their twice-told grasp,
Yet in each leaf of yon o'ershadowing tree,
I read a legend that was traced by thee.
Year after year the living wave has beat
These smooth-worn channels with its trampling feet,
Yet in each line that scores the grassy sod,
I see the pathway where thy feet have trod;
Though from the scene that hears my faltering lay,
The few that loved thee long have passed away,
Thy sacred presence all the landscape fills,
Its groves and plains, and adamantine hills !
Ye who have known the sudden tears that flow,
Sad tears, yet sweet, the dews of twilight woe,-
When led by chance, your wandering eye has crossed
Some poor memorial of the loved and lost,
Bear with my weakness as I look around
On the dear relics of this holy ground,
These bowery cloisters, shadowed and serene,
My dreams have pictured ere mine eyes have seen.
And, oh, forgive me, if the flower I brought,
Droops in my hand beside this burning thought;
The hopes and fears that marked this destined hour,
The chill of doubt, the startled throb of power,
The flush of pride, the trembling glow of shame,
All fade away, and leave my Father's name!
The grace and pathos of this introduction must be felt by every
It has all the sweetness of Goldsmith, with more force and less obviousness of thought.
The poem opens with a description of an American spring, equally true to general nature and to the locality where it is written. The truth is so evident in the one case, that we take it for granted in the other. The couplet on the crocus for instance, a couplet so far as I know unmatched in flower painting, gives us most exquisitely expressed an image that meets our eye
The “shy turtles ranging their platoons,"we never have seen, and probably never shall see, and yet the accuracy of the picture is as clear to us as that of the rnost familiar flower of our border.
Winter is past; the heart of Nature warms
Beneath the wrecks of unresisted storms;
Doubtful at first, suspected more than seen,
The Southern slopes are fringed with tender green;
On sheltered banks, beneath the dripping eaves,
Spring's earliest nurslings spread their glowing leaves,
Bright with the hues from wider pictures won,
While azure, golden,-drift, or sky or sun:
The snowdrop, bearing on her patient breast
The frozen trophy torn from winter's crest;
The violet, gazing on the arch of blue
Till her own iris wears its deepened hue;
The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mold
Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold.
Swelled with new life, the darkening elm on high
Prints her thick buds against the spotted sky;
On all her boughs the stately chestnut cleaves
The gummy shroud that wraps her embryo leaves;
The housefly stealing from his narrow grave,
Drugged with the opiate that November gave,
Beats with faint wing against the snowy pane
Or crawls tenacious o'er its lucid plain ;
From shaded chinks of lichen-crusted walls
In languid curves the gliding serpent crawls;
The bog's green harper, thawing from his sleep
Twangs a hoarse note and tries a shortened leap;
On floating rails that face the softening noons
The still shy turtles range their dark platoons,
Or toiling, aimless, o'er the mellowing fields,
Trail through the grass their tesselated shields.
At last young April, ever frail and fair,
Wooed by her playmate with the golden hair,
Chased to the margin of receding floods,
O’er the soft meadows starred with opening buds
In tears and blushes sighs herself away
And hides her cheek beneath the flowers of May.
Then the proud tulip lights her beacon blaze,
Her clustering curls the hyacinth displays,
O’er her tall blades the crested fleur-de-lis
Like blue-eyed Pallas towers erect and free,
With yellower flames the lengthened sunshine glows
And love lays bare the passion-breathing rose;
Queen of the lake, along its reedy verge
The rival lily hastens to emerge,
Her snowy shoulders glistening as she strips,
Till morn is sultan of her parted lips.
Then bursts the song from every leafy glade
The yielding season's bridal serenade;
Then flash the wings returning summer calls
Through the deep arches of her forest halls ;
The blue-bird breathing from his azure plumes,
The fragrance borrowed where the myrtle blooms;
The thrush, poor wanderer, dropping meekly down,
Clad in his remnant of autumnal brown;
The oriole, drifting like a flake of fire,
Rent by the whirlwind from a blazing spire.
The robin jerking his spasmodic throat
Repeats, staccato, his peremptory note;
The crack-brained bobolink courts his crazy mate
Poised on a bulrush tipsy with his weight.
Nay, in his cage the lone canary sings,
Feels the soft air and spreads his idle wings :-
Why dream I here within these caging walls,
Deaf to her voice while blooming Nature calls,
While from Heaven's face the long-drawn shadows roll,
And all its sunshine floods my opening soul !
After this we are introduced to a winter room, delineated with equal taste and fidelity ;—the very home of lettered comfort :
Yet in the darksome crypt I left so late,
Whose only altar is its rusted grate,