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Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes
YET in the darksome crypt I left so late, Whose only altar is its rusted grate,— Sepulchral, rayless, joyless as it seems, Shamed by the glare of May's refulgent beams,— While the dim seasons dragged their shrouded train, Its paler splendors were not quite in vain. From these dull bars the cheerful firelight's glow Streamed through the casement o'er the spectral snow; Here, while the night-wind wreaked its frantic will On the loose ocean and the rock-bound hill, Rent the cracked topsail from its quivering yard, And rived the oak a thousand storms had scarred, Fenced by these walls the peaceful taper shone, Nor felt a breath to slant its trembling cone. Not all unblest the mild interior scene When the red curtain spread its falling screen; O'er some light task the lonely hours were past, And the long evening only flew too fast; Or the wide chair its leathern arms would lend In genial welcome to some easy friend, Stretched on its bosom with relaxing nerves, Slow moulding, plastic, to its hollow curves; Perchance indulging, if of generous creed, In brave Sir Walter's dream-compelling weed. Or, happier still, the evening hour would bring To the round table its expected ring, And while the punch-bowl's sounding depths were stirred,— Its silver cherubs smiling as they heard,— Our hearts would open, as at evening's hour The close-sealed primrose frees its hidden flower. Such the warm life this dim retreat has known, Not quite deserted when its guests were flown; Nay, filled with friends, an unobtrusive set, Guiltless of calls and cards and etiquette, Ready to answer, never known to ask, Claiming no service, prompt for every task. On those dark shelves no housewife hand profanes, O'er his mute files the monarch folio reigns; A mingled race, the wreck of chance and time, That talk all tongues and breathe of every clime, Each knows his place, and each may claim his part In some quaint corner of his master's heart. This old Decretal, won from Moss's hoards, Thick-leaved, brass-cornered, ribbed with oaken boards, Stands the gray patriarch of the graver rows, Its fourth ripe century narrowing to its close; Not daily conned, but glorious still to view, With glistening letters wrought in red and blue. There towers Stagira's all-embracing sage, The Aldine anchor on his opening page; There sleep the births of Plato's heavenly mind, In yon dark tomb by jealous clasps confused, "Olim e libris" (dare I call it mine?) Of Yale's grave Head and Killingworth's divine! In those square sheets the songs of Maro fill The silvery types of smooth-leaved Baskerville; High over all, in close, compact array, Their classic wealth the Elzevirs display. In lower regions of the sacred space Range the dense volumes of a humbler race; There grim chirurgeons all their mysteries teach, In spectral pictures, or in crabbed speech; Harvey and Haller, fresh from Nature's page, Shoulder the dreamers of an earlier age, Lully and Geber, and the learned crew That loved to talk of all they could not do. Why count the rest,—those names of later days That many love, and all agree to praise,— Or point the titles, where a glance may read The dangerous lines of party or of creed? Too well, perchance, the chosen list would show What few may care and none can claim to know. Each has his features, whose exterior seal A brush may copy, or a sunbeam steal; Go to his study,—on the nearest shelf Stands the mosaic portrait of himself. What though for months the tranquil dust descends, Whitening the heads of these mine ancient friends, While the damp offspring of the modern press Flaunts on my table with its pictured dress; Not less I love each dull familiar face, Nor less should miss it from the appointed place; I snatch the book, along whose burning leaves His scarlet web our wild romancer weaves, Yet, while proud Hester's fiery pangs I share, My old MAGNALIA must be standing there!
Oliver Wendell Holmes
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