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Criticism - MIRTH AND MEDICINE Post by :sydney Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :3691

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A review of Poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

IF any of our readers (and at times we fear it is the case with all) need amusement and the wholesome alterative of a hearty laugh, we commend them, not to Dr. Holmes the physician, but to Dr. Holmes the scholar, the wit, and the humorist; not to the scientific medical professor's barbarous Latin, but to his poetical prescriptions, given in choice old Saxon. We have tried them, and are ready to give the Doctor certificates of their efficacy.

Looking at the matter from the point of theory only, we should say that a physician could not be otherwise than melancholy. A merry doctor! Why, one might as well talk of a laughing death's-head,--the cachinnation of a monk's _memento mori_. This life of ours is sorrowful enough at its best estate; the brightest phase of it is "sicklied o'er with the pale cast" of the future or the past. But it is the special vocation of the doctor to look only upon the shadow; to turn away from the house of feasting and go down to that of mourning; to breathe day after day the atmosphere of wretchedness; to grow familiar with suffering; to look upon humanity disrobed of its pride and glory, robbed of all its fictitious ornaments, --weak, helpless, naked,--and undergoing the last fearful metempsychosis from its erect and godlike image, the living temple of an enshrined divinity, to the loathsome clod and the inanimate dust. Of what ghastly secrets of moral and physical disease is he the depositary! There is woe before him and behind him; he is hand and glove with misery by prescription,--the ex officio gauger of the ills that flesh is heir to. He has no home, unless it be at the bedside of the querulous, the splenetic, the sick, and the dying. He sits down to carve his turkey, and is summoned off to a post-mortem examination of another sort. All the diseases which Milton's imagination embodied in the lazar-house dog his footsteps and pluck at his doorbell. Hurrying from one place to another at their beck, he knows nothing of the quiet comfort of the "sleek-headed men who sleep o' nights." His wife, if he has one, has an undoubted right to advertise him as a deserter of "bed and board." His ideas of beauty, the imaginations of his brain, and the affections of his heart are regulated and modified by the irrepressible associations of his luckless profession. Woman as well as man is to him of the earth, earthy. He sees incipient disease where the uninitiated see only delicacy. A smile reminds him of his dental operations; a blushing cheek of his hectic patients; pensive melancholy is dyspepsia; sentimentalism, nervousness. Tell him of lovelorn hearts, of the "worm I' the bud," of the mental impalement upon Cupid's arrow, like that of a giaour upon the spear of a janizary, and he can only think of lack of exercise, of tightlacing, and slippers in winter. Sheridan seems to have understood all this, if we may judge from the lament of his Doctor, in St. Patrick's Day, over his deceased helpmate. "Poor dear Dolly," says he. "I shall never see her like again; such an arm for a bandage! veins that seemed to invite the lancet! Then her skin,--smooth and white as a gallipot; her mouth as round and not larger than that of a penny vial; and her teeth,--none of your sturdy fixtures,--ache as they would, it was only a small pull, and out they came. I believe I have drawn half a score of her dear pearls. (Weeps.) But what avails her beauty? She has gone, and left no little babe to hang like a label on papa's neck!"

So much for speculation and theory. In practice it is not so bad after all. The grave-digger in Hamlet has his jokes and grim jests. We have known many a jovial sexton; and we have heard clergymen laugh heartily at small provocation close on the heel of a cool calculation that the great majority of their fellow-creatures were certain of going straight to perdition. Why, then, should not even the doctor have his fun? Nay, is it not his duty to be merry, by main force if necessary? Solomon, who, from his great knowledge of herbs, must have been no mean practitioner for his day, tells us that "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine;" and universal experience has confirmed the truth of his maxim. Hence it is, doubtless, that we have so many anecdotes of facetious doctors, distributing their pills and jokes together, shaking at the same time the contents of their vials and the sides of their patients. It is merely professional, a trick of the practice, unquestionably, in most cases; but sometimes it is a "natural gift," like that of the "bonesetters," and "scrofula strokers," and "cancer curers," who carry on a sort of guerilla war with human maladies. Such we know to be the case with Dr. Holmes. He was born for the "laughter cure," as certainly as Priessnitz was for the "water cure," and has been quite as successful in his way, while his prescriptions are infinitely more agreeable.

The volume now before us gives, in addition to the poems and lyrics contained in the two previous editions, some hundred or more pages of the later productions of the author, in the sprightly vein, and marked by the brilliant fancy and felicitous diction for which the former were noteworthy. His longest and most elaborate poem, _Urania_, is perhaps the best specimen of his powers. Its general tone is playful and humorous; but there are passages of great tenderness and pathos. Witness the following, from a description of the city churchgoers. The whole compass of our literature has few passages to equal its melody and beauty.

"Down the chill street, which winds in gloomiest shade,
What marks betray yon solitary maid?
The cheek's red rose, that speaks of balmier air,
The Celtic blackness of her braided hair;
The gilded missal in her kerchief tied;
Poor Nora, exile from Killarney's side!
Sister in toil, though born of colder skies,
That left their azure in her downcast eyes,
See pallid Margaret, Labor's patient child,
Scarce weaned from home, a nursling of the wild,
Where white Katahdin o'er the horizon shines,
And broad Penobscot dashes through the pines;
Still, as she hastes, her careful fingers hold
The unfailing hymn-book in its cambric fold:
Six days at Drudgery's heavy wheel she stands,
The seventh sweet morning folds her weary hands.
Yes, child of suffering, thou mayst well be sure
He who ordained the Sabbath loved the poor."

This is but one of many passages, showing that the author is capable of moving the heart as well as of tickling the fancy. There is no straining for effect; simple, natural thoughts are expressed in simple and perfectly transparent language.

_Terpsichore_, read at an annual dinner of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, sparkles throughout with keen wit, quaint conceits, and satire so good-natured that the subjects of it can enjoy it as heartily as their neighbors. Witness this thrust at our German-English writers:--

"Essays so dark, Champollion might despair
To guess what mummy of a thought was there,
Where our poor English, striped with foreign phrase, Looks like a
zebra in a parson's chaise."

Or this at our transcendental friends:--

"Deluded infants! will they never know
Some doubts must darken o'er the world below
Though all the Platos of the nursery trail
Their clouds of glory at the go-cart's tail?"

The lines _On Lending a Punch-Bowl are highly characteristic. Nobody but Holmes could have conjured up so many rare fancies in connection with such a matter. Hear him:--

"This ancient silver bowl of mine, it tells of good old times,
Of joyous days, and jolly nights, and merry Christmas chimes;
They were a free and jovial race, but honest, brave, and true,
That dipped their ladle in the punch when this old bowl was new.

"A Spanish galleon brought the bar; so runs the ancient tale;
'T was hammered by an Antwerp smith, whose arm was like a flail;
And now and then between the strokes, for fear his strength should fail,
He wiped his brow, and quaffed a cup of good old Flemish ale.

"'T was purchased by an English squire to please his loving dame,
Who saw the cherubs, and conceived a longing for the same;
And oft as on the ancient stock another twig was found,
'T was filled with candle spiced and hot and handed smoking round.

"But, changing hands, it reached at length a Puritan divine,
Who used to follow Timothy, and take a little wine,
But hated punch and prelacy; and so it was, perhaps,
He went to Leyden, where he found conventicles and schnaps.

"And then, of course, you know what's next,--it left the Dutchman's shore
With those that in the Mayflower came,--a hundred souls and more,--
Along with all the furniture, to fill their new abodes,--
To judge by what is still on hand, at least a hundred loads.

"'T was on a dreary winter's eve, the night was closing dim,
When brave Miles Standish took the bowl, and filled it to the brim;
The little Captain stood and stirred the posset with his sword,
And all his sturdy men-at-arms were ranged about the board.

"He poured the fiery Hollands in,--the man that never feared,--
He took a long and solemn draught, and wiped his yellow beard;
And one by one the musketeers--the men that fought and prayed--
All drank as 't were their mother's milk, and not a man afraid.

"That night, affrighted from his nest, the screaming eagle flew,
He heard the Pequot's ringing whoop, the soldier's wild halloo;
And there the sachem learned the rule he taught to kith and kin,
'Run from the white man when you find he smells of Hollands gin!'"

In his _Nux Postcoenatica he gives us his reflections on being invited to a dinner-party, where he was expected to "set the table in a roar" by reading funny verses. He submits it to the judgment and common sense of the importunate bearer of the invitation, that this dinner-going, ballad- making, mirth-provoking habit is not likely to benefit his reputation as a medical professor.

"Besides, my prospects. Don't you know that people won't employ
A man that wrongs his manliness by laughing like a boy,
And suspect the azure blossom that unfolds upon a shoot,
As if Wisdom's oldpotato could not flourish at its root?

"It's a very fine reflection, when you're etching out a smile
On a copperplate of faces that would stretch into a mile.
That, what with sneers from enemies and cheapening shrugs from friends,
It will cost you all the earnings that a month of labor lends."

There are, as might be expected, some commonplace pieces in the volume,-- a few failures in the line of humor. The _Spectre Pig_, the _Dorchester Giant_, the _Height of the Ridiculous_, and one or two others might be omitted in the next edition without detriment. They would do well enough for an amateur humorist, but are scarcely worthy of one who stands at the head of the profession.

It was said of James Smith, of the Rejected Addresses, that "if he had not been a witty man, he would have been a great man." Hood's humor and drollery kept in the background the pathos and beauty of his sober productions; and Dr. Holmes, we suspect, might have ranked higher among a large class of readers than he now does had he never written his _Ballad of the Oysterman_, his _Comet_, and his _September Gale_. Such lyrics as _La Grisette_, the _Puritan's Vision_, and that unique compound of humor and pathos, _The Last Leaf_; show that he possesses the power of touching the deeper chords of the heart and of calling forth tears as well as smiles. Who does not feel the power of this simple picture of the old man in the last-mentioned poem?

"But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and wan,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
'They are gone.'

"The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb."

Dr. Holmes has been likened to Thomas Hood; but there is little in common between them save the power of combining fancy and sentiment with grotesque drollery and humor. Hood, under all his whims and oddities, conceals the vehement intensity of a reformer. The iron of the world's wrongs had entered into his soul; there is an undertone of sorrow in his lyrics; his sarcasm, directed against oppression and bigotry, at times betrays the earnestness of one whose own withers have been wrung. Holmes writes simply for the amusement of himself and his readers; he deals only with the vanity, the foibles, and the minor faults of mankind, good naturedly and almost sympathizingly suggesting excuses for the folly which he tosses about on the horns of his ridicule. In this respect he differs widely from his fellow-townsman, Russell Lowell, whose keen wit and scathing sarcasm, in the famous Biglow Papers, and the notes of Parson Wilbur, strike at the great evils of society and deal with the rank offences of church and state. Hosea Biglow, in his way, is as earnest a preacher as Habakkuk Mucklewrath or Obadiah Bind-their-kings- in-chains-and-their-nobles-in-fetters-of-iron. His verse smacks of the old Puritan flavor. Holmes has a gentler mission. His careless, genial humor reminds us of James Smith in his _Rejected Addresses and of Horace in _London_. Long may he live to make broader the face of our care- ridden generation, and to realize for himself the truth of the wise man's declaration that a "merry heart is a continual feast."

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