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Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
A Modest Request
COMPLIED WITH AFTER THE DINNER AT PRESIDENT EVERETT'S INAUGURATION SCENE,—a back parlor in a certain square, Or court, or lane,—in short, no matter where; Time,—early morning, dear to simple souls Who love its sunshine and its fresh-baked rolls; Persons,—take pity on this telltale blush, That, like the AEthiop, whispers, "Hush, oh hush!"
Delightful scene! where smiling comfort broods, Nor business frets, nor anxious care intrudes; O si sic omnia I were it ever so! But what is stable in this world below? Medio e fonte,—Virtue has her faults,— The clearest fountains taste of Epsom salts; We snatch the cup and lift to drain it dry,— Its central dimple holds a drowning fly Strong is the pine by Maine's ambrosial streams, But stronger augers pierce its thickest beams; No iron gate, no spiked and panelled door, Can keep out death, the postman, or the bore. Oh for a world where peace and silence reign, And blunted dulness verebrates in vain! —The door-bell jingles,—enter Richard Fox, And takes this letter from his leathern box. "Dear Sir,— In writing on a former day, One little matter I forgot to say; I now inform you in a single line, On Thursday next our purpose is to dine. The act of feeding, as you understand, Is but a fraction of the work in hand; Its nobler half is that ethereal meat The papers call 'the intellectual treat;' Songs, speeches, toasts, around the festive board Drowned in the juice the College pumps afford; For only water flanks our knives and forks, So, sink or float, we swim without the corks. Yours is the art, by native genius taught, To clothe in eloquence the naked thought; Yours is the skill its music to prolong Through the sweet effluence of mellifluous song; Yours the quaint trick to cram the pithy line That cracks so crisply over bubbling wine; And since success your various gifts attends, We—that is, I and all your numerous friends— Expect from you—your single self a host— A speech, a song, excuse me, and a toast; Nay, not to haggle on so small a claim, A few of each, or several of the same. (Signed), Yours, most truly, ________" No! my sight must fail,— If that ain't Judas on the largest scale! Well, this is modest;—nothing else than that? My coat? my boots? my pantaloons? my hat? My stick? my gloves? as well as all my wits, Learning and linen,—everything that fits! Jack, said my lady, is it grog you'll try, Or punch, or toddy, if perhaps you're dry? Ah, said the sailor, though I can't refuse, You know, my lady, 't ain't for me to choose; I'll take the grog to finish off my lunch, And drink the toddy while you mix the punch. . . . . . . . . THE SPEECH. (The speaker, rising to be seen, Looks very red, because so very green.) I rise—I rise—with unaffected fear, (Louder!—speak louder!—who the deuce can hear?) I rise—I said—with undisguised dismay —Such are my feelings as I rise, I say Quite unprepared to face this learned throng, Already gorged with eloquence and song; Around my view are ranged on either hand The genius, wisdom, virtue of the land; "Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed" Close at my elbow stir their lemonade; Would you like Homer learn to write and speak, That bench is groaning with its weight of Greek; Behold the naturalist who in his teens Found six new species in a dish of greens; And lo, the master in a statelier walk, Whose annual ciphering takes a ton of chalk; And there the linguist, who by common roots Thro' all their nurseries tracks old Noah's shoots,— How Shem's proud children reared the Assyrian piles, While Ham's were scattered through the Sandwich Isles! —Fired at the thought of all the present shows, My kindling fancy down the future flows: I see the glory of the coming days O'er Time's horizon shoot its streaming rays; Near and more near the radiant morning draws In living lustre (rapturous applause); From east to west the blazing heralds run, Loosed from the chariot of the ascending sun, Through the long vista of uncounted years In cloudless splendor (three tremendous cheers). My eye prophetic, as the depths unfold, Sees a new advent of the age of gold; While o'er the scene new generations press, New heroes rise the coming time to bless,— Not such as Homer's, who, we read in Pope, Dined without forks and never heard of soap,— Not such as May to Marlborough Chapel brings, Lean, hungry, savage, anti-everythings, Copies of Luther in the pasteboard style,— But genuine articles, the true Carlyle; While far on high the blazing orb shall shed Its central light on Harvard's holy head, And learning's ensigns ever float unfurled Here in the focus of the new-born world The speaker stops, and, trampling down the pause, Roars through the hall the thunder of applause, One stormy gust of long-suspended Ahs! One whirlwind chaos of insane hurrahs! . . . . . . . . THE SONG. But this demands a briefer line,— A shorter muse, and not the old long Nine; Long metre answers for a common song, Though common metre does not answer long. She came beneath the forest dome To seek its peaceful shade, An exile from her ancient home, A poor, forsaken maid; No banner, flaunting high above, No blazoned cross, she bore; One holy book of light and love Was all her worldly store. The dark brown shadows passed away, And wider spread the green, And where the savage used to stray The rising mart was seen; So, when the laden winds had brought Their showers of golden rain, Her lap some precious gleanings caught, Like Ruth's amid the grain. But wrath soon gathered uncontrolled Among the baser churls, To see her ankles red with gold, Her forehead white with pearls. "Who gave to thee the glittering bands That lace thine azure veins? Who bade thee lift those snow-white hands We bound in gilded chains?" "These are the gems my children gave," The stately dame replied; "The wise, the gentle, and the brave, I nurtured at my side. If envy still your bosom stings, Take back their rims of gold; My sons will melt their wedding-rings, And give a hundred-fold!" . . . . . . . . THE TOAST. Oh tell me, ye who thoughtless ask Exhausted nature for a threefold task, In wit or pathos if one share remains, A safe investment for an ounce of brains! Hard is the job to launch the desperate pun, A pun-job dangerous as the Indian one. Turned by the current of some stronger wit Back from the object that you mean to hit, Like the strange missile which the Australian throws, Your verbal boomerang slaps you on the nose. One vague inflection spoils the whole with doubt, One trivial letter ruins all, left out; A knot can choke a felon into clay, A not will save him, spelt without the k; The smallest word has some unguarded spot, And danger lurks in i without a dot. Thus great Achilles, who had shown his zeal In healing wounds, died of a wounded heel; Unhappy chief, who, when in childhood doused, Had saved his bacon had his feet been soused Accursed heel that killed a hero stout Oh, had your mother known that you were out, Death had not entered at the trifling part That still defies the small chirurgeon's art With corns and bunions,—not the glorious John, Who wrote the book we all have pondered on, But other bunions, bound in fleecy hose, To "Pilgrim's Progress" unrelenting foes! . . . . . . . . A HEALTH, unmingled with the reveller's wine, To him whose title is indeed divine; Truth's sleepless watchman on her midnight tower, Whose lamp burns brightest when the tempests lower. Oh, who can tell with what a leaden flight Drag the long watches of his weary night, While at his feet the hoarse and blinding gale Strews the torn wreck and bursts the fragile sail, When stars have faded, when the wave is dark, When rocks and sands embrace the foundering bark! But still he pleads with unavailing cry, Behold the light, O wanderer, look or die! A health, fair Themis! Would the enchanted vine Wreathed its green tendrils round this cup of thine! If Learning's radiance fill thy modern court, Its glorious sunshine streams through Blackstone's port. Lawyers are thirsty, and their clients too, Witness at least, if memory serve me true, Those old tribunals, famed for dusty suits, Where men sought justice ere they brushed their boots; And what can match, to solve a learned doubt, The warmth within that comes from "cold with-out"? Health to the art whose glory is to give The crowning boon that makes it life to live. Ask not her home;—the rock where nature flings Her arctic lichen, last of living things; The gardens, fragrant with the orient's balm, From the low jasmine to the star-like palm, Hail her as mistress o'er the distant waves, And yield their tribute to her wandering slaves. Wherever, moistening the ungrateful soil, The tear of suffering tracks the path of toil, There, in the anguish of his fevered hours, Her gracious finger points to healing flowers; Where the lost felon steals away to die, Her soft hand waves before his closing eye; Where hunted misery finds his darkest lair, The midnight taper shows her kneeling there! VIRTUE,—the guide that men and nations own; And LAW,—the bulwark that protects her throne; And HEALTH,—to all its happiest charm that lends; These and their servants, man's untiring friends Pour the bright lymph that Heaven itself lets fall, In one fair bumper let us toast them all!
Oliver Wendell Holmes
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