Born: Au­gust 29, 1809, Cam­bridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts.

Died: Oc­to­ber 7, 1894, Bos­ton, Mas­sa­chu­setts.

Buried: Mount Au­burn Ce­me­te­ry, Cam­bridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts.



Oliver was the son of Con­gre­ga­tion­al min­is­ter Ab­iel Holmes, eighth pas­tor of the First Church, Cam­bridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts.

He taught ana­to­my and phy­si­olo­gy at Har­vard Me­di­cal School, where he ev­en­tu­al­ly be­came dean.

However, he is per­haps best re­mem­bered as an au­thor, and as fa­ther of Am­eri­can Su­preme Court Jus­tice Ol­iv­er Wen­dell Holmes, Jr.

In ad­di­tion, with James Lo­well, he helped found The At­lan­tic Month­ly ma­ga­zine in 1857.



A Mother’s Secret

How sweet the sacred legend—if unblamed
In my slight verse such holy things are named—
Of Mary’s secret hours of hidden joy,
Silent, but pondering on her wondrous boy!
Ave, Maria! Pardon, if I wrong
Those heavenly words that shame my earthly song!

The choral host had closed the angels’ strain
Sung to the listening watch on Bethlehem’s plain,
And now the shepherds, hastening on their way,
Sought the still hamlet where the Infant lay.
They passed the fields that gleaning Ruth toiled o’er—
They saw afar the ruined threshing-floor
Where Moab’s daughter, homeless and forlorn,
Found Boaz slumbering by his heaps of corn;
And some remembered how the holy scribe,
Skilled in the lore of every jealous tribe,
Traced the warm blood of Jesse’s royal son
To that fair alien, bravely wooed and won.
So fared they on to seek the promised sign
That marked the anointed heir of David’s line.

At last, by forms of earthly semblance led,
They found the crowded inn, the oxen’s shed.
No pomp was there, no glory shone around
On the coarse straw that strewed the reeking ground;
One dim retreat a flickering torch betrayed—
In that poor cell the Lord of Life was laid!

The wondering shepherds told their breathless tale
Of the bright choir that woke the sleeping vale;
Told how the skies with sudden glory flamed,
Told how the shining multitude proclaimed
Joy, joy to earth! Behold the hallowed morn!
In David’s city Christ the Lord is born!
Glory to God! let angels shout on high,
Good will to men! the listening earth reply!

They spoke with hurried words and accents wild;
Calm in His cradle slept the heavenly Child.
No trembling word the mother’s joy revealed—
One sigh of rapture, and her lips were sealed;
Unmoved she saw the rustic train depart,
But kept their words to ponder in her heart.

Twelve years had passed; the Boy was fair and tall,
Growing in wisdom, finding grace with all.
The maids of Nazareth, as they trooped to fill
Their balanced urns beside the mountain rill—
The gathered matrons, as they sat and spun—
Spoke in soft words of Joseph’s quiet son.
No voice had reached the Galilean vale
Of star-led kings, or awe-struck shepherd’s tale;
In the meek, studious Child they only saw
The future rabbi, learned in Israel’s law.

So grew the Boy, and now the feast was near
When at the Holy Place the tribes appear.
Scarce had the home-bred Child of Nazareth seen
Beyond the hills that girt the village green,
Save when at midnight, o’er the starlit sands,
Snatched from the steel of Herod’s murdering bands,
A babe, close folded to His mother’s breast,
Through Edom’s wilds He sought the sheltering West.

Then Joseph spake: Thy boy hath largely grown;
Weave Him fine raiment, fitting to be shown;
Fair robes beseem the pilgrim, as the priest:
Goes He not with us to the holy feast?

And Mary culled the flaxen fibers white;
Till eve she spun; she spun till morning light.
The thread was twined; its parting meshes through
From hand to hand her restless shuttle flew,
Till the full web was wound upon the beam;
Love’s curious toil—a vest without a seam!

They reach the Holy Place, fulfill the days
To solemn feasting given, and grateful praise.
At last they turn, and far Moriah’s height
Melts in the southern sky and fades from sight.
All day the dusky caravan has flowed
In devious trails along the winding road;
(For many a step their homeward path attends,
And all the sons of Abraham are as friends.)
Evening has come—the hour of rest and joy—
Hush! Hush! That whisper—Where is Mary’s boy?
O weary hour O aching days that passed
Filled with strange fears each wilder than the last—
The soldier’s lance, the fierce centurion’s sword,
The crushing wheels that whirl some Roman lord,
The midnight crypt that sucks the captive’s breath,
The blistering sun on Hinnom’s vale of death!

Thrice on His cheek had rained the morning light;
Thrice on His lips the mildewed kiss of night,
Crouched by a sheltering column’s shining plinth,
Or stretched beneath the odorous terebinth.

At last, in desperate mood, they sought once more
The Temple’s porches, searched in vain before;
They found Him seated with the ancient men—
The grim old rufflers of the tongue and pen—
Their bald heads glistening as they clustered near,
Their gray beards slanting as they turned to hear,
Lost in half-envious wonder and surprise
That lips so fresh should utter words so wise.

And Mary said—as one who, tried too long,
Tells all her grief and half her sense of wrong—
What is this thoughtless thing which Thou hast done?
Lo, we have sought Thee sorrowing, O my son!

Few words He spake, and scarce of filial tone,
Strange words, their sense a mystery yet unknown;
Then turned with them and left the holy hill,
To all their mild commands obedient still.

The tale was told to Nazareth’s sober men,
And Nazareth’s matrons told it oft again,
The maids retold it at the fountain’s side,
The youthful shepherds doubted or denied;
It passed around among the listening friends,
With all that fancy adds and fiction lends,
Till newer marvels dimmed the young renown
Of Joseph’s son, who talked the Rabbis down.

But Mary, faithful to its lightest word,
Kept in her heart the sayings she had heard,
Till the dread morning rent the Temple’s veil,
And shuddering earth confirmed the wondrous tale.

Youth fades; love droops; the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Songs in Many Keys, 1861

The Secret of the Stars

Is man’s the only throbbing heart that hides
The silent spring that feeds its whispering tides?
Speak from thy caverns, mystery-breeding Earth,
Tell the half-hinted story of thy birth,
And calm the noisy champions who have thrown
The book of types against the book of stone!

Have ye not secrets, ye refulgent spheres,
No sleepless listener of the starlight hears?
In vain the sweeping equatorial pries
Through every world-sown corner of the skies,
To the far orb that so remotely strays
Our midnight darkness is its noonday blaze;
In vain the climbing soul of creeping man
Metes out the heavenly concave with a span,
Tracks into space the long-lost meteor’s trail,
And weighs an unseen planet in the scale;
Still o’er their doubts the wan-eyed watchers sigh,
And science lifts her still unanswered cry:
Are all these worlds, that speed their circling flight,
Dumb, vacant, soulless—baubles of the night?
Warmed with God’s smile and wafted by His breath,
To weave in ceaseless round the dance of death?
Or rolls a sphere in each expanding zone,
Crowned with a life as varied as our own?

Maker of earth and stars! If Thou hast taught
By what Thy voice hath spoke, Thy hand hath wrought,
By all that science proves, or guesses true,
More than Thy poet dreamed, Thy prophet knew—
The heavens still bow in darkness at Thy feet,
And shadows veil Thy cloud-pavilioned seat!

Not for ourselves we ask Thee to reveal
One awful word beneath the future’s seal;
What Thou shalt tell us, grant us strength to bear;
What Thou withholdest is Thy single care.
Not for ourselves; the present clings too fast,
Moored to the mighty anchors of the past;
But when, with angry snap, some cable parts,
The sound re-echoing in our startled hearts—
When, through the wall that clasps the harbor round,
And shuts the raving ocean from its bound,
Shattered and rent by sacrilegious hands,
The first mad billow leaps upon the sands—
Then to the future’s awful page we turn,
And what we question hardly dare to learn.

Still let us hope! for while we seem to tread
The time-worn pathway of the nations dead,
Though Sparta laughs at all our warlike deeds,
And buried Athens claims our stolen creeds,
Though Rome, a specter on her broken throne,
Beholds our eagle and recalls her own,
Though England fling her pennons on the breeze
And reign before us mistress of the seas—
While calm-eyed history tracks us circling round
Fate’s iron pillar where they all were bound,
She sees new beacons crowned with brighter flame
Than the old watch-fires, like, but not the same!
Still in our path a larger curve she finds,
The spiral widening as the chain unwinds!
No shameless haste shall spot with bandit-crime
Our destined empire snatched before its time.
Wait—wait, undoubting, for the winds have caught
From our bold speech the heritage of thought;
No marble form that sculptured truth can wear
Vies with the image shaped in viewless air;
And thought unfettered grows through speech to deeds,
As the broad forest marches in its seeds.
What though we perish ere the day is won?
Enough to see its glorious work begun!
The thistle falls before a trampling clown,
But who can chain the flying thistle-down?
Wait while the fiery seeds of freedom fly,
The prairie blazes when the grass is dry!

What arms might ravish, leave to peaceful arts,
Wisdom and love shall win the roughest hearts;
So shall the angel who has closed for man
The blissful garden since his woes began
Swing wide the golden portals of the West,
And Eden’s secret stand at length confessed!

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Songs in Many Keys, 1861