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

§ 11. Occasional Pieces

The even merit of its occasional verse is one of the obvious qualities of the eighteenth century which we find also in Holmes. Late in life he admitted that he had become rather too well known in connection with “occasions.” He was intensely loyal to Boston; and he felt that he had no right to refuse the summons to stand and deliver whenever the city received an honoured guest or when an honoured citizen died or went away or came back. As he explained in one of these occasional pieces,

  • I’m a florist in verse, and what would people say
  • If I came to a banquet without my bouquet?
  • Late in life Holmes admitted that “many a trifling performance has had more good honest work put into it than the minister’s sermon of that week had cost him”; he confessed to strenuous effort over his copy of verses, insisting that “if a vessel glides off the ways smoothly and easily at her launching, it does not mean that no great pains have been taken to secure the result”; and he proudly reminded his readers that “Pindar’s great odes were occasional poems … and yet they have come down among the most precious bequests of antiquity to modern times.” The noblest example of English prose in the nineteenth century, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, was also evoked by an occasion. Even if Holmes’s occasional verse has not the lofty elevation of Pindar’s odes or the pathetic simplicity of Lincoln’s little speech, it has almost always an exquisite propriety to the event itself, an unfailing happiness of epithet, a perfect adequacy to the moment of local importance. Its chief fault, if not its only defect, is that there is too much of it, even if its average is higher than might reasonably be expected.