The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXIII. Writers of Familiar Verse

§ 10. Serious Verse

The qualities which give charm to Holmes’s prose are those which please us also in his verse. He has left a dozen or a score of lyrics secure in the anthologies of the future. But he wrote too easily and he wrote too much to maintain a high average in the three hundred double-columned pages in which his complete poems are collected. No poet or prose man can take down to posterity a baggage wagon of his works, and he is lucky if he can save enough to fill a saddle-bag. Holmes’s reputation as a poet will rise when his verses are winnowed and garnered into a thin volume of a scant hundred pages wherein Old Ironsides and The Last Leaf, The Chambered Nautilus and Homesick in Heaven, The Wonderful “One-Hoss Shay” and The Broomstick Train, Grandmother’s Story of Bunker-Hill Battle, and a handful more are unincumbered by the hundreds of occasional verses which were each of them good enough for its special occasion and yet not good enough to demand remembrance after the event.

There are a few of Holmes’s loftier poems in which we feel that the inspiration is equal to the aspiration; but there are only a few of them, with The Chambered Nautilus at the head, accompanied by Homesick in Heaven,—not overpraised by Howells when he called it one of the “most profoundly pathetic of the language.” And Stedman was right also when he suggested that Holmes’s serious poetry had scarcely been the serious work of his life. Even at its best this serious poetry is the result of his intelligence rather than of his imagination. It lacks depth of feeling and largeness of vision. It has a French felicity of fancy, a French dexterity of craftsmanship, a French point and polish; and also a French inadequacy of emotion. “Assuredly we love poetry in France,” said Anatole France when he was discussing the verse of Sainte-Beuve; “but we love it in our own fashion; we insist that it shall be eloquent, and we willingly excuse it from being poetic.” Old Ironsides, fiery as its lines ring out, is eloquent rather than truly poetic.

Here again Holmes declares himself as a survival from the eighteenth century, when English literature conformed to French principles. His favourite reading as a child was Pope’s Homer, the couplets of which “stimulated his imagination in spite of their formal symmetry.” And even their formal symmetry was not displeasing to his natural taste:

  • And so the hand that takes the lyre for you
  • Plays the old tune on strings that once were new.
  • Nor let the rhymester of the hour deride
  • The straight-backed measure with its stately stride;
  • It gave the mighty voice of Dryden scope;
  • It sheathed the steel-bright epigrams of Pope;
  • In Goldsmith’s verse it learned a sweeter strain,
  • Byron and Campbell wore its clanking chain;
  • I smile to listen while the critic’s scorn
  • Flouts the proud purple kings have nobly worn.