American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

HOLMES, OLIVER WENDELL (1809-1894). Oliver Wendell Holmes, a writer and distinguished academic physician, spent his life around Boston. He was the social leader of a group of intellectual luminaries that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,* James Russell Lowell,* and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his day a well-known wit and after-dinner speaker, Holmes is now remembered for a handful of poems, some about the sea.

“Old Ironsides,” the poem that made him known, first appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1830. This elegy was his emotional protest against plans to tow the famous frigate U.S.S. Constitution to a scrap yard. Instead, says the poem, she ought to set out to sea in a storm, unmanned and under full sail. Republished in newspapers and broadsides* nationwide, the poem galvanized public opinion in favor of preserving the frigate. “The Chambered Nautilus,” arguably Holmes’ best poem, first appeared in the February 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he had named and helped to found. The ode describes a sea creature that expands its beautiful spiral shell to accommodate its physical growth; inspired by the example of this image, the poet then urges the human soul onward to achieve similar spiritual growth.

Other sea-related poems deserve attention. Among his serious poems, “La Maison D’or” (1890) compares life to a sea voyage, and “The Steamboat” (1840) celebrates technology. Among his light verse, “The Old Man of the Sea” (1858) pokes fun at tiresome tellers of sea stories; “A Sea Dialogue” (1864) contrasts a gabby passenger with a silent seaman; and “Ballad of the Oysterman” (1830) parodies tales of ill-fated lovers.

Critics find Holmes’ poetry excessively sentimental for modern taste, but his best verse has the power to charm through forthright feeling, sharp wit, and vivid imagery.

Stephen Curley