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

§ 12. Lighter Lyrics

In a letter to Lowell, Holmes declared, speaking of Bostonians in particular and yet perhaps also of Americans in general, that “we Boston people are so bright and wide-awake … that we have been in danger of thinking our local scale was the absolute one of excellence—forgetting that 212 Fahrenheit is but 100 centigrade.” There is one department of poetry in which Holmes can withstand without any danger of shrinking the application of the centigrade scale; this is the department of vers de société, so called, although it is never merely society verse. Perhaps Cowper’s term best describes it, “familiar verse,” the lyric commingled of humour and pathos, brief and brilliant and buoyant, seemingly unaffected and unpremeditated, and yet—if we may judge by the infrequency of supreme success—undeniably difficult, despite its apparent ease. Dr. Johnson, who was himself quite incapable of it, too heavy-footed to achieve its lightness, too polysyllabic to attain its vernacular terseness, was yet shrewd enough to see that it is

  • less difficult to write a volume of lines, swelled with epithets, brightened with figures, and stiffened by transpositions, than to produce a few couplets, grand only by naked elegance and simple purity, which require so much care and skill that I doubt whether any of our authors have yet been able for twenty lines together nicely to observe the true definition of easy poetry.
  • In this “easy poetry,” which is the metrical equivalent of the essay in its charm, in its grace and in its colloquial liberty, Holmes has few rivals in our language. It was with strict justice that Locker-Lampson, in the preface to the first edition of Lyra Elegantiarum (1867)—to this day the most satisfactory anthology of vers de société,—declared that Holmes was “perhaps the best living writer of this species of verse.” It may be recorded also that Locker-Lampson paid Holmes the even sincerer compliment of imitation, borrowing for two of his delightful lyrics not only the spirit but also the stanza Holmes had invented for The Last Leaf. With characteristic frankness the London lyrist once told an American admirer that this stanza might seem easy but it was difficult, so difficult that no one had handled it with complete success—except Holmes and himself.

    Locker-Lampson derived directly from Praed, whose verses have an electric and dazzling brilliance, whereas in Holmes the radiance is more subdued and less blinding. Of all the writers of familiar verse no one has ever surpassed Holmes in the delicate blending of pathos with humour, as exemplified most strikingly in The Last Leaf, in which fantasy plays hide and seek with sentiment. Scarcely less delightful in its eighteenth-century quaintness is the family portrait, Dorothy Q; and close to those two masterpieces are lesser lyrics like Contentment, Bill and Joe, and the lines On Lending a Punch Bowl and To an Insect:

  • I love to hear thine earnest voice,
  • Wherever thou art hid,
  • Thou testy little dogmatist,
  • Thou pretty Katydid!
  • Thou mindest me of gentlefolks,—
  • Old gentlefolks are they,—
  • Thou say’st an undisputed thing
  • In such a solemn way.
  • These are only a few of the best of his lighter lyrics, now sprightly and sparkling, and now softer and more appealing, often evoking the swift smile, although never demanding the loud laugh, and sometimes starting the tear on its way to the eyelid; and in them Holmes proved that Stedman was only just when he declared that familiar verse may be “picturesque, even dramatic,” and that it may “rise to a high degree of humor and of sage and tender thought.”