Included in the "Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes".
In 1847 Holmes, a physician, was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, a position he retained for thirty-five years. He was also an author who had for years been contributing poems, songs, essays and sketches to various newspapers and periodicals. His literary career first blossomed, however, when the Atlantic Monthly was established...
In 1847 Holmes, a physician, was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, a position he retained for thirty-five years. He was also an author who had for years been contributing poems, songs, essays and sketches to various newspapers and periodicals. His literary career first blossomed, however, when the Atlantic Monthly was established in 1857 with his friend James Russell Lowell as editor. In its columns Holmes’s “Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table” began to appear, starting in the first number and running in serial form throughout the entire first year of the journal’s existence. Rarely if ever have magazine articles attained such popularity. The keen psychological insights, the depth of human sympathy displayed in them, the genial humor and the sparkling wit, the spontaneity of the pathos and the lofty scorn of wrong and injustice, brought him immediate renown.
This success was followed in 1858 by publication of his “The Professor at the Breakfast-Table.” In this latter work, he extolled the virtues of wine, writing “Whatever may be the hygienic advantages or disadvantages of wine, and I for one, except for certain particular ends, believe in water, and, I blush to say it, in black tea, there is no doubt about its being the grand specific against dull dinners.”
He continued by saying, “I once wrote a song about wine, in which I spoke so warmly of it, that I was afraid some would think it was written inter pocula [in one’s cups, intoxicated]; whereas it was composed in the bosom of my family, under the most tranquillizing domestic influences.” He was referring to an original poem he had written in 1842, when unable to attend a temperance dinner at the Mercantile Library Association, he instead sent verses.
Autograph Letters and Poem Signed, Boston, to Isaac Bailey of the Mercantile Library Association of New York. The first letter is dated November 1, 1842: “I should have been most happy to accept the kind invitation of the Mercantile Library Association had my engagements permitted. I am compelled unwillingly to deny myself this pleasure. A circumstance which I have learned leads me to add a few words – perhaps I should say a few lines – which it naturally suggested. I have been told that your festival is to be graced with the presence of visitors [women] who have too often been forbidden to enter the flaming circle of convivial enjoyment. It is said, too, that from some supposed sympathy between the new guests and the unsophisticated productions of nature, the fruit of the vineyard is to come before you only in its native aspect. It is delightful to learn that woman, whose exquisite organization has given her from the earliest period of her history, so strong a passion for the products of the garden, should use her taste so much more profitably to the species than on some former occasions. Perhaps it is only fair that as she turned the ancient abode of happiness into a scene of temptation, she should turn our modern scene of temptation into a paradise. The sentiment I am disposed to offer you has taken the form of verse. I hope this may not render it unacceptable.” His “song” is written on page three of this letter. Though ostensively about wine, these verses are far more important for their praise of the new-found activism of women, who Holmes understood as no longer content to sit home and be passive, but instead demand to participate in the world beyond their doorsteps. A health to dear woman! She bids us untwine From the cup it encircles the fast clinging vine But her cheek o’er its crystal with pleasure will glow And mirror its bloom in the bright wave below. A health to sweet woman! The days are no more When she watched for her lord till the revel was o’er, And smoothed the white pillows, and blushed when he came As she pressed her cold lips on his forehead of flame. Alas for the loved one! Too spotless and fair The joys of his banquet to chasten and share; Her eye lost its light that his goblet might shine, And the rose of her cheek was dissolved in his wine. Joy smiles in the fountain – health flows in the rills As their ribands of silver unwind from the hills; They breathe not the mist of the bacchanal’s dream, But the lilies of innocence float on their stream. Then a health and a welcome to woman once more! She brings us a passport that laughs at our door; It is written on crimson – its letters are pearls – It is countersigned Nature – so, room for the girls!
The next day, November 2, 1842, Holmes wrote a follow-up letter to Bailey. In it, clearly aware that the poem might be published, he urged Bailey to make sure there were no errors in transcription. “I send you the enclosed to be dealt with as you shall see fit. If any use is made of the lines I have offered you, so that they should come to the public eye in any shape, I need only say that I have written them very legibly in order to avoid the chance of those errors to which verse-lines are so morbidly sensitive and from which I have suffered my full share. Will you have the kindness to consider this note as private and personal.” Holmes was right to raise the subject of publication. The work was in fact published in the January 1850 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, under the title “For a Temperance Dinner to Which Ladies Were Invited.” It is also included in The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes.
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