The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

Pages 1 - 40

 

Alex Chung, Sean Orlowicz

 

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When I was interrupted. As a medical student at Harvard, shortly before leaving in 1833 for medical studies in Paris in 1833, Holmes had contributed two parts of a series entitled Autocrat of the Breakfast Table to the New England Magazine. Now, in the first number of The Atlantic Monthly (November, 1857) he resumes.


"We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we think in letters instead of figures." I.e., the equations referred to one line above. People who think on the level of variables (a+b=c), are able to arrive at conclusions in a greater number of situations.


Operatives. "a person engaged in trade; a factory worker or artisan." (OED)


Empirics. "One who, either in medicine or in other branches of science, relies solely upon observation and experiment." (OED)


Egotist. "One who thinks or talks too much of himself; a selfish person." (OED)


Leibnitz. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), born in Leipzig, Saxony. Mathematician and philosopher who developed infinitesimal calculus independently of Isaac Newton. Known, along with his theory of monads, for contributions to formal logic and rationalism.


A mighty good thing about mathematics. The Leibniz notation. The Autocrat is referring to Leibniz's mathematical notation which when simplified, demonstrates that what works on a finite scale must also work on the infinite scale.


Dr. Thomas Reid. Thomas Reid (1710-1796) , major figure in the Scottish school of Common Sense philosophy. Against David Hume's argument that knowledge of the world depended entirely on sense impressions as reproduced in the mind, Reid argued that an innate power of mind -- a sense underlying perception of an immense variety of different external objects -- was necessary to account for the way consciousness experiences the world. Following Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Adam Smith, Reid also argued that an innate moral sense was necessary to account for the different way particular actions are perceived by individuals, as when one person perceives flogging a prisoner as physical cruelty while another perceives it as justifiable punishment for anti-social behavior. Reid exerted an important influence on the teaching of Moral Philosophy at Harvard when Holmes was a student there.


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Society of Mutual Admiration. The implicit reference is to the Saturday Club, a dinner club organized for informal literary conversation in 1855. Meeting on the third Saturday of the month at the Parker House in Boston, it included in its membership such major literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Richard Henry Dana, John Lothrop Motley, and others such as the famous mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce and the Swiss-born scientist Louis Agassiz. Its later members included such luminaries as William Dean Howells and Henry James. The Autocrat is here responding to the loudly-proclaimed opinion of some Bostonians that the Saturday Club was nothing more than a mutual admiration society.


Thackeray. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), an English novelist and caricaturist who became famous as a writer for his Book of Snobs, a denunciation of pretentiousness in British society. His novel Vanity Fair established his rank among contemporary Victorian writers of fiction. He subsequently earned fame as a lecturer, and visited the U.S. twice, in 1853-53 and 1855-56. He became a close friend of James T. Field, editor of The Atlantic Monthly and partner in Ticknor & Fields, one of the few American publishers who, in the absence of international copyright agreements, voluntarily paid royalties to British authors whose work it published.

"Letters four do form his name." The line the Autocrat cites is from Coleridge's War Elegy (1797), a bitter denunciation of prime minister William Pitt. Readers of Coleridge's poem were expected to recognize that "letters four" referred to Pitt, who otherwise went unmentioned. But the Autocrat adapts the line to refer to Thackeray's Book of Snobs -- with "snob" replacing "Pitt" as the implicit reference -- which had been devoted to, as Thackeray himself once says, "the mean admiration of mean things." The idea is that those in Boston and elsewhere who denigrate The Saturday Club as a mutual admiration society are transparently motivated mainly by envy. (The snob, says the Autocrat, resents such associations mainly because he considers it "an outrage that he is not asked to join them.")


M. Louis. Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis (1787-1872) born in Ay, Champagne. He would receive his education in Reims and eventually, Paris. Louis' son died of tuberculosis in 1854. A tireless researcher, he pioneered the "numerical method" of studying diseases, virtually inventing single-handedly the modern field of clinical statistics. Louis' influence on Americans studying medicine in Paris, and in particular on medical students from Boston, was profound. Holmes would return from Paris to write his famous essay on puerperal fever, showing by Louis' numerical method that the deaths of great numbers of women were being caused by infectious agents carried by the physicians who had attended them in childbirth. He was violently attacked in medical journals by several famous professors of obstetrics, but his argument was eventually taken to be conclusive.

MM. Barth, Grisotte- foreign medical students who, like Holmes, Henry Bowditch, James Jackson, Jr., and other Bostonians, belonged to the Société d'Observation Medical whose medical studies were primarily guided by P.C.A Louis.

Dr. Bowditch. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (1808-1892) was the son of Nathaniel Bowditch of Salem, Massachusetts, mathematician and author of The New American Practical Navigator (1802), which would run through more than 60 editions. His son Henry, one of the Boston students who studied with P.C.A. Louis, would later write a memoir of his medical studies entitled Brief Memories of Louis. He was an early and radical abolitionist, active in the underground railroad and demonstrations against the Fugitive Slave Bill.

Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was born in Boston, the son of a prominent Unitarian Minister. Emerson attended Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School, but, having taken orders, resigned his pastorate because he felt he could no longer conscientiously preach Unitarian doctrine. On a trip to Europe in 1832-33 he met Wordsworth, Carlyle, Coleridge, major figures in English Romantism and, in the case of Carlyle and Coleridge, influential interpreters of German idealist philosophy. On his return to Boston he began a successful career of Lydeum lecturing, and his first book, Nature (1836) immediately established him as the leading figure in American Transcendentalism, the most important literary and intellectual movement in early nineteenth-century America. The early Saturday Club was in a manner of speaking formed around Emerson -- "Dined with Emerson at Lowell's," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his journal in February, 1850. "We planned a new club to dine together once a month" -- and, though doing so involved a trip in from Concord to the Parker House in Boston, seldom missed a meeting. After his death, Holmes wrote a short biography -- Ralph Waldo Emerson -- of his longtime friend.

Longfellow. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), born in Portland, Maine and attended Bowdoin College, where he was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He spent the years from 1826 to 1829 in Europe, studying in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. On the strength of his extraordinary linguistic talents, he was recommended by George Ticknor for the Professorship of Romance Languages at Harvard, where, after one more European sojourn, he would teach for 18 years. During this period he was gaining enormous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic with poems such as Evangeline and Hiawatha, which drew on American experience while displaying the poetic mastery of such English contemporaries as Tennyson. In 1854 he resigned his Harvard professorsip -- it was, he said, "a great hand laid on the strings of my lyre, stopping their vibrations" -- and devoted himself to poetry. Evidence of his popularity is that The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) sold more than 15,000 copies on the first day of publication in both Boston and London. Craigie House, his home in Cambridge, was also the center of the Dante Club, a group of Boston and Cambridge literati who met to hear and discuss the latest stanzas of his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. He was an original and longtime member of the Saturday Club.

Agassiz. Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), Swiss paleontologist and natural historian. After receiving doctorates in medicine and philosophy, Agassiz would move to Paris where he began his careers in zoology and geology. In 1848 he became the professor of Natural History in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, and began the collections that became the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. His wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822-1907) was a founder and president of Radcliffe College.In his Literary Friends and Acquaintance, W.D. Howells wrote about Agassiz that he was "Swiss and Latin, and not Teutonic, but he was of the Continental European civilization, and was widely different from the other Cambridge men in everything but love of the place." Agassiz was a greatly beloved member of the Saturday Club, known especially for his ebullient wit and great good humor.

Peirce. Benjamin Peirce (1809-1880), born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of a father who had finished first in his own class at Harvard and became librarian of the College. After teaching for a time at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, where such later luminaries as John Lothrop Motley were pupils, Peirce became (1832) the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard. His fame was international. At the great Paris Exhibition, reported one contemporary, "there stood a mural tablet whereon were inscribed the names of the great mathematicians of the earth for more than two thousand years." Including such names as Euclid, Mercator, Napier, LaGrange, and Herschel, the list began with Archimedes and ended with Benjamin Peirce. His son, Charles Sanders Peirce, would become famous as a founder of American Pragmatism as a philosophical theory.

Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), major writer of the New England Renaissance. Born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts, he had an ancestor was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, leading Hawthorne to alter the spelling of his last name to avoid the connection. After attending Bowdoin College as a classmate of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, briefly became and inspector at the Boston Custom House, after which he joined the Brook Farm Community, a utopian experiment in living according to Transcendentalist principles. Eventually joining R.W. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as a resident of Concord, Hawthorne settled in the Old Manse to devote himself entirely to writing. Hawthorne became well known as an author. His best-known works include The Scarlet Letter, The Marble Faun, and The House of Seven Gables. He became a member of the Saturday Club in 1859.

Motley. John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877), American historian and diplomat. Son of a prominent Boston merchant, Motley attended the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he studied German along with Latin, Greek, and French. He entered Harvard at the age of 13. After college, he traveled to Europe to study for two years at the University of Gottingen -- then famous as the center of "Herderian humanism" in German higher education -- before returning to Boston to marry Mary Benjamin. His earliest ventures in historical writing included a long essay on Peter the Great and an essay on "The Polity of the Puritans" in the North American Review . In 1847 he began work on The Rise of the Dutch Republic, a history of the revolt of the United Netherlands against the Spain of Philip II. Based on extensive research in the Dutch national archives, the work was published in three volumes in 1856, becoming a best-seller in both England and the United States, and making Motley a literary celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. Residing in London at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Motley contributed to the London Times a sharply-argued and impassioned defense of the Union cause -- immediately issued in pamphlet form as Causes of the American Civil War -- that was seen as having prevented, almost single-handedly, British diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy as an independent nation. Partly in recognition of his contribution, Motley was appointed American minister to Austria by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.His subsequent appointment as minister to Great Britain was sponsored in part by Charles Sumner. Motley would be recalled in 1870 by President U.S. Grant in retaliation for Sumner's opposition to Grant's proposed annexation of Santo Domingo. A year behind Holmes at Harvard and a fellow member of the Saturday Club, Motley would remain one of Holmes's closest friends until his death in 1777. Holmes's biography, John Lothrop Motley (1878), gives a clear and compelling account of Motley's role as a sacrificial victim in the quarrel between Grant and Sumner over Santo Domingo.

Sumner- Charles Sumner (1811-1874), an American statesman born in Boston. Sumner attended Harvard Law School. Sumner's parents were opposed to slavery, strongly influencing his later career as a spokesman for abolition. A powerful orator, Sumner won national recognition for his "Crime Against Kansas" speech. Attacked and savagely beaten at his Senate desk by Southerbn Congressman Preston Brooks -- Sumner, a large man, was prevented by his desk from standing erect when Brooks attacked him, and forced to sustain a vicious series of blows -- he instantly became a hero and martyr in the abolitionist North. Though never entirely recovering his health, Sumner went on to become a powerful figure in the Senate, leader of the Radical Republicans and spokesman for immediate emancipation for the slaves. Though his duties in Washingon prevented him from attending a good many Saturday Club meetings, he was a valued and much-appreciated member.

"Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?" Said by Falstaff to Mistress Quickly in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth, Part 1, Act III, Scene 3.

Bohemian- "one who either cuts himself off, or is by his habits cut off, from society for which he is otherwise fitted; especially an artist, literary man, or actor, who leads a free, vagabond, or irregular life, not being particular as to the society he frequents, and despising conventionalities generally." (OED)
In Literary Friends and Acquaintance, William Dean Howells often describes New York literary and artistic circles, by contrast with Boston, as "bohemian."


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debarred. "To set a bar or prohibition against (an action, etc.); to prohibit, prevent, forbid, stop." (OED)


constitutional . "Belonging to the very constitution or composition of anything; forming an essential part or element; essential." (OED)


as the rinsings of an unwashed wine-glass spoil a draught of fair water. Draught here has its older meaning of "the swallow of a liquid." The idea is that, just as the residue of wine in an unwashed glass gives an unpleasant flavor to clear water, "a weak flavor of genius" is neither real wit (wine) or dullness (water), but something annoyingly in between.


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familiarity breeds contempt. As a proverbial saying, this is usually taken to mean that intimate knowledge of another person gradually undermines any awe or admiration one might have felt. The Autocrat here argues, however, that the proverb holds only for those of limited talent or intelligence, who, in gradually coming to feel contempt for those who resemble them, are right to do so.


broken-winded novels. A metaphor from horse-racing, alluding to a racehorse who, having started strongly, suddenly gives out at an early point in the race. The Autocrat has in mind stories that start strongly, but then decline into a mere series of random or inconsequential episodes.


Mutuals. Members of Societies of Mutual Admiration, people that admire each other's works.


spavined verses. A horse-racing metaphor. A spavined horse is lame and therefore incapable of walking normally. Poems are written in metrical "feet" --regular metrical patterns-- such that spavined verses would contain irregular stress patterns or superfluous syllables.


Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher. The Autocrat's point depends on the fact that these Elizabethan playwrights -- Shakespeare (1564-1616), Ben Jonson (1572-1637), Francis Beaumont (1584-1616), and John Fletcher (1579-1625) -- belonged to the same London literary and theatrical milieu, encouraged each other in their work, and had a justifiably high opinion of each other's talent. The spirit of the group is well expressed in Jonson's elegy To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare. The idea that mutual admiration sustained their cultural contribution gives meaning to the Autocrat's rhetorical question: "What would literature or art be without such associations?"


Addison and Steele- Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729) were cofounders of the weekly periodical The Spectator (1711-1712), prior to which they had worked together on The Tatler, an earlier venture in periodical publication


The Spectator. As a periodical publication, The Spectator marked an epoch in both the history of popular reading and the attitudes of an emergent urban society in early eighteenth-century London. Mildly satirical in their treatment of contemporary habits of dress, speech, and behavior, Addison and Steele set out, in the words of Samuel Johnson, "to teach the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation" (Johnson, "Life of Addison"). At the same time, The Spectator aimed to stimulate in a newly literate general public an interest in intellectually serious matters, of which Addison's series of essays on the imagination and the poetry of John Milton stand as permanent monuments. The importance of The Spectator in the direct literary ancestry of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table is caught in Addison's declaration of purpose in Spectator 10: "I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools, and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and in coffee-houses." The Autocrat's specific point that "mutual admiration societies" have played an major role in the development of civilization also involves the fact that The Spectator proceeded not simply from the partnership of Addison and Steele but their association with such contempories as Alexander Pope, Eustace Budgell, Ambrose Philips, and others.

Johnson. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the major writer in the later eighteenth-century England, normally called the "Age of Johnson" in recognition of his importance. A bookseller's son born in Lichfield, Staffordshire,Johnson spent a year at Pembroke College, Oxford, before a lack of funds compelled him to remove to London to seek his fortune as an author. Beginning as a Grub Street ("hack") writer, he became famous overnight with the publication of his Dictionary of the English Language` (1747), the prototype of all subsquent English dictionaries. Subsequently known as a great moralist -- his Idler, Rambler, and Adventurer remain classics of moral writing -- he would also go on to write The Lives of the Poets, a foundational work of English literary biography. Holmes read Johnson -- and Boswell's Life of Johnson (see below) -- repeatedly throughout his life, and Johnson's influence is everywhere to be felt in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. The Literary Club that gathered around Johnson in London was, in Holmes's view, the great prototype of the Saturday Club in mid-nineteenth-century Boston.


Goldsmith. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1744), born near Longford, Ireland. Goldsmith was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. In a way the most versatile writer of the Age of Johnson --his works include The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel, She Stoops to Conquer, a dramatic comedy that is still performed, The Deserted Village, a poem that had an immense influence on the American side of the Atlantic, The Citizen of the World, a periodical series that, like Montesquieu's Lettres Persans, used the perspective of imaginary non-European visitors to criticize European cultural habits and assumptions -- and one of the original members of Johnson's Literary Club. In his strong influence on such writers as Joseph Dennie and Washington Irving, Goldsmith may be regarded one of the primary influences on an emergent American literature.


Burke. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), born in Dublin, Ireland. Burke was educated at Trinity College in Dublin. Another member of the Literary Club, he was celebrated both for Parliamentary eloquence and, in his later writings about the French Revolution, an original political theorist. His great speech On Conciliation with the Colonies took the side of the American colonists against the British Ministry. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) he put forth an ideal of organic society in which legitimate change can only occur within a context of custom and tradition, thus avoiding the violence, mob rule, and random bloodshed that he thought must be an inevitable consequence of events then taking place in France. After Robespierre and the Reign of Terror (1793-94), and later after the radical egalitarianism of the early Revolution gave way to the tyranny of Napoleon -- which the Reflections on the Revolution in France had also predicted, arguing that in a state of political anarchy "some popular general" would emerge to rule the nation -- Burke was widely given credit in Europe for a political clairvoyance that validated his theory of organic change.


Reynolds. Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), English portrait painter. Born in Plympton, Devon. Reynolds exhibited an interest in art from a young age, and in 1740 was apprenticed to Thomas Hudson. By midcentury he had become the most celebrated painter in England. He was among the founders and served as the first president of the Royal Academy, where he would deliver his Discourses on art to students between 1769 and 1790. He was also, along with Samuel Johnson, one of the founders of the Literary Club. Two of the most famous portraits of Johnson are by Reynolds.


Beauclerk.Topham Beauclerk (1739-1780) was a younger friend of Samuel Johnson known for his wide reading and sparkling wit. He attended Oxford University. He appears as an important figure in James Boswell's Life of Johnson., where he is most often seen and heard as a member of the Literayr Club.


Boswell. James Boswell (1740-1795), a Scottish lawyer and author whose Life of Samuel Johnson is widely regarded as the greatest biography in any language. Born in Edinburgh, Boswell attended the University of Edinburgh before going to the University of Glasgow to study under Adam Smith. He achieved European celebrity in 1768 with his Journal of a Tour to Corsica, portraying the Corsican general Pascal Paoli and giving a first-hand account of the Corsican struggle for independence from the Republic of Genoa. Boswell's private journal, kept throughout his life, was thought to have been destroyed, but was recovered in the twentieth century and serially published under the editorship of the Boswell Project at Yale. The London Journal, recounting Boswell's flight to London in 1760 to escape his father and a preordained legal career, was the first volume to be published. In London he made the acquaintance of Samuel Johnson. His Life of Johnson, drawn from his journals and filled with scenes showing Johnson at home and in public, provides an inimitable portrayal of Johnson as a brilliant conversationalist, a towering figure surrounded by such remarkable souls as Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burke, and a myriad others, and a deeply complex human being. Holmes remarks in the preface to one of his later works that he reread the Life of Johnson every year, and it is in homage to its influence that he chose to give to The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table the humorous subtitle "Every man his own Boswell."


The Irvings, Paulding, Verplanck, Bryant, Sands. Members of the so-called Knickerbocker Group -- William Irving (1766-1821), Washington Irving (1783-1859), James Kirk Paulding (1778-1860). Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786-1870), William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), and Robert Charles Sands (1799-1832)-- whose magazine Salmagundi launched a New York literary revival in the early years of the nineteenth century. Taken from Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History of New York, a satirical h istory directed at the politics and administration of Thomas Jefferson, the name came to represent their collective effort to carry the spirit of Addison and Steele, as well as the whimsical humor of Oliver Goldsmith, into American writing. William Irving was a U.S.Representative from New York. His brother Washington Irving would become the first American writer to earn a reputation equal to his English contemporaries, especially with stories, such as "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," given an American setting. Paulding, self-educated and a good friend of Washington Irving, wrote for Salmagundi and would go on to become Secretary of the Navy. Verplanck, who graduated from Columbia College before studying law, was a contributor to the North American Review and served in the U.S. Congress. Bryant attended Williams College, went on to practice law, and subsequently became editor of the New York Evening Post. His poem Thanatopsis (1817) was taken as evidence that America was developing genuine poetic talent. Sands graduated from Columbia University and became co-editor, with Bryant, of the New York Review and Athenaeum Magazine.


noblest of institutions- Societies of Mutual Admiration.


knot-hole as medium for popgun. A popgun was a toy gun that shot a pellet or cork by suddenly compressing the air behind it. The metaphor is that of a mischievous youth who uses a knot-hole in a wall or fence to spy his target, then uses the same knot-hole to fire his popgun. The Autocrat is thinking specifically of those who assume a specious familiarity with well-known authors by reading their works -- in, for instance, the Atlantic or North American Review -- and then use that same familiarity to make deprecatory remarks about them to others.


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M.S.M.A–Member of Society of Mutual Admiration


all generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called "facts." The Autocrat is not denigrating empirical evidence -- Holmes himself, in his medical writings, was a scrupulous observer of such evidence -- but the sort of literalism that meets any attempt to rise to general or abstract principles with random "facts" and more "facts."


[The reader will, of course, understand the precise amount of seasoning which must be added to it before he adopts it as one of the axioms of his life]. Note the Autocrat's use of brackets. Here is introduced an important typograpical convention observed throughout The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. When speaks "in brackets," as here, the Autocrat will always be speaking not to the company gathered around the boarding-house breakfast table -- the Divinity Student, the Schoolmistress, young John, etc -- but to an invisible audience hearing him in the pages of the Atlantic. The manner in which the Autocrat alternates between these two registers has a great deal to do with the way his discourse projects a wider audience beyond the setting of the breakfast table.


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have a nerve tapped. The Autocrat is speaking here as someone with medical training. Bleeding a patient -- what he means by "losing a pint of blood from your veins" -- was a common practice meant, in an older humoral theory of medicine, to relieve "plethora." In conversation, this would correspond to talking to a merely boring companion. Tapping, on the other hand, was a procedure used to drain excess liquid from an abcess. (OED: "To pierce the body wall of a person to draw off accumulated liquid.") If a nerve was struck by misake, the patient suffered agonizing pain and prolonged injury. In conversation, this corresponds to "talkers who have what may be called jerky minds," whose "zigzags rack you to death."


The Pactolian.
[CONJ] The Autocrat's usual name for a magazine that pays him for his poetry. The river Pactolus in ancient Livia was famous for its golden sands, leading to Pactolian as having the figurative meaning "golden; (of payment, funds, etc.) lavish, copius" (OED) Since Holmes's poetry after 1857 was normally published in the Atlantic, a number of possibilities -- e.g. Sargent's New Monthly Magazine -- are candidates for the original of "The Pactolian" as repeatedly mentioned in the Autocrat.

Latch-key. "Originally: a key used to draw back the night-latch of a door. With reference to the use of a latch-key by a younger member of a household or a lodger." (OED)


Zimmerman. Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann (1728-1795), a Swiss philosopher, writer, and physician. Zimmermann was born in Brugg and studied medicine at the University of Gottingen. His Treatise on Solitude enjoyed an immense popularity at the beginning of the nineteeth century. The Autocrat's joke turns on "one man" and "Zimmermann": i.e., as someone who favored complete isolation, Zimmermann could be counted on never to disturb him.


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Cobra-di-capello. "The Hooded or Spectacle Snake ( Naja tripudians), a very venomous serpent found in India and adjacent countries, remarkable for its power of dilating the neck and sides of the head when irritated." (OED)


paroxysm. "An episode of increased acuteness or severity of a disease, esp. one recurring periodically in the course of the disease." (OED)


apoplexy. What we should now call a stroke: "a malady, very sudden in its attack, which arrests more or less completely the powers of sense and motion." (OED)


hydraulic arrangements. I.e., the blood vessels and arteries. The Autocrat's metaphor compares the body to a machine, and the blood vessels and arteries to pipes and plumbing.

hydraulics. "Pertaining or relating to water (or other liquid) as conveyed through pipes or channels, esp. by mechanical means." (OED)


William Pinkney. William Pinkney (1764-1822), born in Annapolis, Maryland, practiced law before serving as a congressman. He would go on to become the seventh U.S. Attorney General, and eventually a diplomat to Russia. He served as a U.S. senator until his death.


marrowy books. Marrow is the highly nutritious tissue within a bone -- "The soft, fatty material contained in the cavities of bones, specifically as an article of food." (OED) -- making "marrowy books" those rich in original thinking or substantial knowledge.


excellent piece of advice. "Know thyself." An ancient Greek aphorism -- gnothi seauton -- said by the Greek travel writer Pausanias to have been inscribed in marble in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Latinized as Nosce Teipsum, it became a central maxim of the moral essays of Samuel Johnson. The aphorism has been variously attributed to numerous philosophers, including Heraclitus, Pythagorus, Socrates, and Solon of Athens. The Autocrat's point is that such a sentiment, so obviously giving expression to a universal truth, cannot intelligibly be said to be the "property" of any one writer or thinker.


protracted. ‘Lengthened, extended, prolonged." (OED)


types and stereotypes. Printing terms. Types may be broken up after a page is printed and used to compose new words. Stereotypes are solid plates of type-metal that print the page as a single unit. The Autocrat is saying that he will very often draw on the same materials in his conversation, but will avoid repeating the same thoughts in the same way.


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a certain lecturer. As Holmes's subsequent footnote makes clear, the lecturer was Holmes himself.


littératrice- "A literary woman; an authoress." (OED)


the Huma
. In Persian legend, the Huma was a bird that was able to fly without ever alighting.


embellished. Beautified, adorned, illustrated. (OED)


odious. "Deserving of hatred; exciting hatred or repugnance; hateful; disagreeable; offensive; repulsive." (OED) Here used for comic effect: the Huma is "odious" because it unconsciously triggered the lecturer's repetition of the identical remark.


Babbage's calculating machine- A mechanical calculator called the difference engine, built by Charles Babbage. As an ancestor of the modern computer and hand calculator , the machine could do calculations unerringly, but, lacking human consciousness, was unable to reason mathematically. .


Mrs. Sigourney- Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865), an American poet born in Norwich, Connecticut. After being educated in Hartford and Norwich, Sigourney would go on to write poems, essays, and books. She was an advocate of women's education and wrote conduct books. Most of her works were published under the name Mrs. Sigourney.


Mr. Griswold's collection. Rufus Griswold (1815-1857)., an American anthologist, editor, poet, and critic. Griswold was the most assiduous and authoritative collector of American literature in his time.


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satire- "A thing, fact, or circumstance that has the effect of making some person or thing ridiculous." (OED)


corn-sheller- "a machine for removing the grains from the ear or cob of Indian corn." (OED)


intuitive- "Mental perception consisting in immediate apprehension, without the intervention of any reasoning process." (OED)


detached lever. The detached lever, invented in the seventeenth century, was a form of escapement -- a device that releases the teeth of a gear, changing it from a "locked" state to a "drive" state -- that permitted the manufacture of pocket watches that could match the precision of pendulum clocks.


the triumph of the ciphering hand-organ. That is, as a hand-organ or barrel-organ plays music mechanically when the operator turns the crank, a mechanical calculator yields automatic results. The implicit contrast is with a human organist able to improvise or interpret the music being plays. This continues the Autocrat's thought that "the calculating power alone should seem to be the least human of qualities, and to have the smallest amount of reason in it."


conceit. "An overweening opinion of oneself; overestimation of one's own qualities, personal vanity or pride; conceitedness." (OED)


the natural unguent of the sea-fowl's plumage. unguent = "An ointment or salve." (OED). That is, conceit makes it possible for ordinary souls to live in a state of innocent self-deception, as the unguent that coats the feathers of a sea bird keeps water from soaking them through, making its wings too heavy for flight.


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Nahant. A rocky peninsula jutting out into Massachusetts Bay roughly 14 miles from Boston. After daily steamboat service between Nahant and Boston was initiated in 1817, it rapidly became a summer retreat favored by members of the Saturday Club, including Longfellow, Agassiz, Holmes, Appleton, and others.


an arc in the movement of a large intellect. I.e., moving from one thought to another. The Autocrat is comparing how someone who is highly intelligent thinks to the mathematical notion of an arc. He expands the notion in saying that "little-minded people's thoughts move in such small circles that five minutes' conversation give you an arc long enough to determine their whole curve" -- i.e., those with larger intelligences jump from one thought to another and think of many things, while small-minded people are focused on few things.


the third vowel- "I". The Autocrat's joke depends on the normal order of vowels as given in dictionaries and grammatical handbooks: "A,E, I, O, U."


audacious
- "Daring, bold, confident, intrepid." (OED)


resplendent- "Shining, brilliant (lit. and fig.); splendid, sumptuous." (OED)


authorized Phryne to "peel" Phryne was a Greek courtesan of legendary beauty who lived in Athens in the 4th century BC. The most famous anecdote about her concerns her trial on a capital charge, in which she was defended by the orator Hypereides. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus, and had a marked effect on the court. When Hypereides saw that an unfavorable verdict might be returned, he removed Phryne's robe and bared her breasts, hoping that the judges would recognize in her beauty a "divine" attribute. Diogenes Periegetes wrote that the sight of her naked beauty instilled in the judges a superstitious fear, so that they could not bring themselves to condemn to death "a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite." They agreed to acquit her. In using "peel" to describe the scene, the Autocrat jocularly compares it to a modern strip-tease act.


non omnis moriar. Horace, Carmina, XXX, 1: "I shall not wholly die." This is Horace's bold claim of poetic immortality: Exegi monumentum aere perennis "[in my poetry] I have created a monument more enduring than brass."


I have taken all knowledge to be my province. Claim famously made by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), first Baron Verulam, counselor of Queen, and author of such works as The Advancement of Learning and, in English, the Essays. His Novum Organon, an extended argument for empirical knowledge as the only true basis of truth, is commonly said to have inspired the founding of the Royal Society later in the seventeenth century, and, through it, the modern age of scientific discovery. The Autocrat's point, in the cases both of Horace and Bacon, is that what he calls "audacious self-esteem" is sometimes the legitimate basis of great achievement.


want of ideas, want of words, want of manners- I.e., people who are rude and speak simplistically betray their own simplistic minds. Hence, you can tell what a person is like by the way that they speak, and what kinds of conversations they have.


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ultimata. Plural of ultimatum: "A final condition or stipulation; one's last word on a matter." (OED)

code of finalities for profitable talks. That is, a genuine interchange of mind depends on agreement on fundamental matters. At the time The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table appeared, the obvious example was slavery, which some considered a violation of human equality and others a natural or even fortunate condition for members of a primitive and inferior race. The Autocrat's point is that given radical disagreement on basic principles -- e.g., whether a Negro slave is "human" in the sense of possessing inalienable rights-- no further argument is possible.


Total Depravity
. The Calvinist doctrine that the sin of Adam condemned all succeeding generations of humankind to live in a state of sin, the only exceptions being members of an "elect" whom God's mercy had set aside for salvation. Holmes, the son of a respected Calvinist clergyman, came to detest the doctrines both of Total Depravity and Predestination. The pun he mentions -- depravity/"deep raving" -- barely conceals a contempt for what he considered a falsely "profound" mode of theological reasoning.

prima facie. In law, evidence sufficient to establish a fact, or to support a presumption of fact, unless rebutted.


geological convulsions
. In the nineteenth century, as geological evidence began to discredit the Biblical age of Creation -- 6006 B.C. according to Bishop Ussher, who derived the date from Biblical sources -- a number of theories, positing an immense stretch of geological time, competed to replace it. The term geological convulsions refers to one of these, usually called Vulcanism or Plutonism , the idea that volcanic eruptions were the main source of geological change.


cosine of Noah's ark. The pun "arc"/"arc" juxtaposes the newer theories with the account in Genesis.


the Deluge. Noah's flood, a major episode in the Biblical account of Creation.


deal huger. The pun "Deluge"/"deal huger" refers to another modern geological theory, usually called Neptunism, which attributed ancient layers of sedimentary rock -- now understood to be incompatible with any length of time resembling Bishop Ussher's 6006 B.C. -- to a primal state in which the the earth was wholly covered by water. The theory was that the gradual drifting down of solid particles -- as modern geology still accounts for formations like limestone as accumulations from shells -- accounted for sedimentary rocks.


modern inundation. - "The action of inundating; the fact of being inundated with water; an overflow of water; a flood." (OED). Through this entire section, the Autocrat is obliquely challenging the Biblical orthodoxy that Holmes saw as encouraging superstition and intolerance.


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aggravated character. A pun about punning. Aggravated in legal terminology signals that a charge carries heavier penalties due to the seriousness of the offense. But in a more innocent sense many people are aggravated -- "Exasperated, incensed, irritated, provoked." (OED) -- by puns.


justifiable homicide. The Autocrat is borrowing justifiable homicide from legal terminology -- "the killing of a man by unavoidable necessity, or for the prevention of an atrocious crime." (OED) -- to describe puns so atrocious that those committing them deserve to be killed.

Monthly Rag-Bag. The Autocrat's generic term for American magazines that survive by borrowing material from more reputable publications. A Rag Bag was in literal terms "a repository for a variety of (typically useless) items. Also: a miscellaneous or muddled collection of things."(OED)

subscription paper- "A paper on which subscriptions to a particular cause are recorded or invited." (OED)


mortification. In medical terminology, the term refers to the necrosis of tissue or organs, as when an arm or leg deprived of its blood supply dies of mortification." But the Autocrat's pun depends on the figurative meaning of mortification -- "The feeling of vexation or humiliation caused by some rebuff, slight, or awkward or embarrassing situation." (OED)


"Jest so" "Just so" spoken with a New England accent sounded like "jest so." The chief justice responds with a pun ("jest so") about punning.


deodand. Property forfeited to the Crown in a legal case.


wanton boys. The Autocrat returns to its more innocent context Lear's tragic complaint about the human situation: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods." Shakespeare, King Lear, [ref?]


coppers on the rail road tracks. A common sport was to put pennies on railway tracks to watch them get flattened by an oncoming locomotive.


the great moralist. Samuel Johnson. Johnson's dislike of puns is referred to several times in Boswell's Life of Johnson. But
[CONJ] the quote that follows, though written in a characteristically "Johnsonian" style, was almost certainly fabricated by Holmes as part of his disquisition on punning.


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sanctities- The quality of being sacred or hallowed; sacredness, claim to (religious) reverence; inviolability. (OED)


banquet of Saturn. In Greek myth the Titan Cronus -- in Latin the name was Romanised to Saturn) -- fearing that he would be overthrown by his children, ate each one upon their birth.

Lords Temporal. In the British Parliament, secular members of the House of Lords.


quibble- "To pun, to play on words." (OED)


Burly… Burleigh. The Lord in question was Michael Balfour, First Lord of Burleigh, a powerful member of Queen Elizabeth's court. The name was pronounced identically with burly, meaning heavy or stout.


Lord of Leicester. Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester. The Autocrat's pun -- "Leicester"/ "less stir" -- depends on the fact that the two were pronounced identically.

 

Lord Bacon… Og, the King of Bashan. Francis Bacon (see notes to page 10). In the Bible, Og was a king whose army was wiped out by the Israelites and killed. Since there were no survivors, Lord Bacon could not be his descendant.


Sir Philip Sidney… Casque full. In Fulke-Greville's life of the celebrated author, poet, and Elizabethan courtier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) is recorded the episode of his death in battle in the Netherlands. Mortally wounded and in desperate need of water, Sidney gave his helmet ("casque") to a servant to be filled from a nearby stream. When the servant returned, he ordered the water to be given to a common soldier less seriously wounded than himself, famously saying "Thy need is greater than mine'." The Autocrat's pun on "casque"/"cask" refers to the practice of storing liquids in wooden casks.


Othello. Protagonist of Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor of Venice, the tragic hero of which is a gallant general in the service of the Venetian state.

blackamoor. "A black African; †an Ethiopian (obs.); (also) any dark-skinned person." (OED)


Globe Theater
. The theater built by the Burbages on the Bankside in Southwark, famously associated with Shakespeare, who had a financial share in the theater and acted in productions there.

fatal habit. punning


Plato his saying… two legged animal. Diogenes Laertius reports Plato as having defined "man" as "a two legged animal without feathers." The Autocrat's phrasing -- "Plato his saying" -- makes gentle fun of the mistaken belief of Renaissance philologists that the apostrophe used in such contracted forms as John's, Peter's, Plato's represented an ellipsis of the possessive pronoun his.


Cadmus. In Greek mythology, a Phoenician prince who, having killed a dragon that had devoured his warriors, sowed the dragon's teeth in the earth, whereupon armed warriors sprang up to replace those he had lost. He was also credited in mythology with having introduced writing into Greece, no doubt reflecting the fact that the Greek alphabet was originally based on a Phoenecian script. The Autocrat's joke depends on the fact a simple rearrangement of letters -- e.g. "casque"/"cask" -- produces puns, which then spring up like the linguistic equivalent of the warriors in the myth.


equivocation. "The use of words or expressions that are susceptible of a double signification, with a view to mislead." (OED) A serious point. In logic, equivocation is one of the informal fallacies -- e.g., "It's all right to be ruthlessly ambitious. I belong to the human race, and in a race everyone wants to win" -- and thus may be taken to account for the objection of serious writers like Samuel Johnson to puns, which involve a slightly weaker form of double signification.


Tudors, Stuarts. The Tudor dynasty of England, lasting from 1485-1603. The Tudor monarchs included Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, with whom the dynasty ended. It would be followed by the Stuart dynasty, whose ongoing struggle with Parliament led to the Civil War and, ultimately, to the beheading ("regicide": "The action of killing of a king." (OED) of Charles I in 1649.

Macaulay-flowers of literature- Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was a British historian and politician. His books on British history are considered masterpieces. The pun here is a joke about Macaulay's name and his works. Macaulay-flowers, cauliflower.


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Spartan father… drunken helot. Sparta was an ancient Greek city-state, the capital of Laconia in the southeast of the Peloponnese. Spartan society was organized entirely on military lines, with every male citizen living in barracks until age 30, and taking meals in a public mess until age 60. They were legendary warriors, as when a tiny force of Spartans under Leonidas held off a huge invading Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Land in Sparta was cultivated by helots, or serfs, who lived in total subjection and were without legal or political rights. The Autocrat's point refers to the practice of permitting the helots, on one day a year, to feast and drink wine in unlimited unquantities. Most, understandably, got disgracefully and ludicrously drunk.

Pons Asinorum- Latin for "Bridge of Asses": Euclid's theorem of Isosceles Triangles. The theorem states that angles opposite the equal sides of an isosceles triangle are equal. Essentially, Pons Asinorum was the point in an introductory text that could be depended on to separate quick witted from the dull.


Napoleon never lived, Battle of Bunker Hill. That is, a clever reasoner can be counted on to twist facts in such a way that even the best-established assumptions begin to look untenable or merely hypothetical. An example known to Holmes, concerning Britain's victory over France in Canada during the Seven Years War, occurs in Boswell's Life of Johnson:

JOHNSON. "Come, let us try this a little further. I deny that Canada is taken, and I can support my denial by pretty good arguments. The French are a much more numerous people than we; and it is not likely that they would allow us to take it. 'But the ministry have assured us, in all the formality of the Gazette, that it is taken.' -- Very true. But the ministry have put us to an enormous expence by the war in America, and it is in their interest to persuade us that we have got something for our money. -- "But the fact is confirmed by thousands of men who were at the taking of it.' -- Ay, but those men have still more interest in deceiving us. They don't want you to think the French have beat them, but that they have beat the French. Now suppose you should go over and find that it is really taken, that would only satisfy yourself; for when you come home we will not believe you. We will say, you have been bribed. -- Yet, Sir, notwithstanding all these plausible objections, we have no doubt that Canada is really ours."

(Life, Hill-Powell edition, vol. I, p. 428)


carry the surveyor's chain.
A surveyor's chain was a measuring device that is 22 yards long with 100 links, used to determine boundaries for legal and political purposes. The Autocrat's point is that logicians, like surveyors, only possess devices for demarcating more precisely what is already known.


wrangles. To debate or dispute.

a pointer lifts his forefoot. Pointers, or dogs bred for use in hunting, are trained to adopt a characteristic posture -- forefoot up at an angle, nose pointed toward the quarry -- that tells the owner, as the Old Gentleman's posture tells the Autocrat, that it thinks it has scented game.

talked like a Transcendentalist. At the time the Autocrat appeared, Transcendentalism, a reaction against both Enlightenment religious scepticism and Puritan orthodoxy, was still a strong philosophical influence in Boston and New England. For its adherents, it was a romantic and mystical release, drawing on German idealist philosophy, from both religious doubt and the narrowness of scientific positivism. For those impatient with its claims to spiritual transcendence, like the Old Gentleman here, it was simply a metaphysical posturing without real meaning.

 


Page 15


drinking glasses of the ancient pattern. In medieval England and northern Europe, glasses specifically designed for ceremonial drinking ("revels") had rounded bottoms so that they could not be put down between sips or swallows of the liquor. The ceremony consisted in repeatedly emptying one's glass in a single draught.


the Italian game of mora
. Mora, or morra, is a game of ancient origin in which players guess ahead of time either the number of fingers that will be put out simultaneously -- usually on a count of "one, two, three" -- by two or more players or, in a version restricted to two players, whether that number will be odd or even.


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Eve, Cain. In the Book of Genesis, the episodes where Eve tempts Adam to eat the forbidden fruit and their son Cain kills his brother Abel.


an impromptu. "Something composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; an extemporaneous composition or performance; an improvisation." (OED)


Aet. 19+. "That is of or at the age of; aged (a particular number of years)." (OED)


Byron, Tupper, Sylvanus Cobb, Junior. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-1889), and Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. (1823-1887). Cobb was the first "popular" novelist in American letters, author of such forgotten works as The King's Talisman, The Patriot's Cruiser, and over 300 similar titles. Martin Tupper was the author, among other works, of Proverbial Philosophy (1838-42), a compendium of hopelessly commonplace maxims and reflections. In making these the favorite authors of the landlady's daughter, the Autocrat is implicitly commenting on the substandard taste of the American reading public. In her admiration of Byron, on the other hand -- though it is no doubt the extravagantly "Romantic" Byron of poems like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage that have attracted her -- she was joined by a great number of educated readers on both sides of the Atlantic.


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C'est le DERNIER pas qui coute. (French) "It's the LAST step that counts."

built, waiting to be launched. Metaphorically compares the Autocrat's unwelcome visitors to ships that sit massively and immovably in the shipyard until they can be completed and put into the water.


stern foremost. That is, the Autocrat has developed a way of holding visitors in conversation while backing them toward the door, so that when he shakes hands and bids them goodbye they have no choice but to leave.


contrived. "Ingeniously or artfully devised or planned." (OED)


wind-up- "Close, conclusion, finish, dénouement; final settlement; closing act or proceeding." (OED)


native element. The ocean, but here, metaphorically, the "out-doors" to which the Autocrat artfully returns his unwanted visitors.


Three gills and three quarters. A gill was equal to a quarter of a pint.


marble Hebe. Marble statues of Hebe, the Greek Goddess of youth. Statues unsually showed Hebe with a cup in one hand and a pitcher in the other, pouring liquid from the pitcher to the cup.


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sidecurl. A hairstyle in which the hair is curled to one side.


"feller." Lower-class pronunciation of "fellow."


young ladies of Otaheite. James Cook (1728-79), the famous sailor who circumnavigated the globe in the mid-eighteenth century, kept journals of his three voyages that, after his death, survive as classics of the literature of exploration. Otaheite was the contemporary spelling of "Tahiti," where Cook found native women who, as he recorded in his journal, "will one way or other wrap round them several pieces of Cloth, each 8 or 10 Yards long and 2 or 3 broad, so much that I have often wondered how they could bear it in so hot a climate. Again, on the other hand, many of the inferior sort during the heat of the Day, go almost naked, the women wearing nothing but the Petticoat aforementioned, and sometimes hardly that."


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crinoline arrangement
. "A stiff fabric made with a weft of horsehair and a warp of cotton or linen thread, formerly used for petticoats, and still for interlining, hat-making." (OED)


Bay-state shawl. Shawls made of medium grade American wool with plaid designs.


aborigines. Native Americans: the indigenous inhabitants of the American continent.


not like the Highlanders The Autocrat is saying that he wears his blanket shawl, though it has plaid designs, in the manner of the Indians of New England rather than of the inhabitants of the Highlanders, who traditionally wore plaid kilts.

gladius. A Roman short sword used by foot soldiers. Every member of a Roman legion carried a gladius, which, apart from its use in battle, could be used for digging, chopping, and cutting when setting up a military encampment.


American bowie-knife, A large knife designed by James "Jim" Bowie. The Bowie knife was predominantly used in combat as a short sword style of weapon, although it too served a variety of other functions, such as butchering and skinning animals. The Bowie knife was so popular that it became a symbol of the American frontiersman.


Montesquieu
- Charles-Louis de Secondat (1689-1755), a French political thinker born at Château de la Brède and educated at the Catholic College of Juilly. Montesquieu acquired a European reputation in 1734 for his Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur decadence, but became recognized as a major theorist with De l'esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Law), anonymously published in 1748. His work had an important influence on those who designed the U.S. Constitution. His Lettres persans (1721), an account of European society by imaginary visitors from Persia, inspired Goldsmith's Citizen of the World. Both works count among Holmes's literary influences.

the race that shortens its weapons lengthens its boundaries- I.e., a nation that produces soldiers that are willing to fight at close quarters -- as were, for instance, the Roman legionairies at the climax of an attack on the enemy. Holmes, an accomplished Latinist, was thinking of scenes like this one from Caesar's Commentaries: "Our troops attacked with such vigor when the signal was given, and the enemy also dashed forward so suddenly and swiftly, that there was no time to throw spears at them. So the men dropped their spears and fought hand to hand with their swords. By quickly adopting their usual phalanx formation the Germans were able to withstand the sword thrusts, but many of our soldiers actually threw themselves on the wall of shields confronting them, wrenched the shields out of the enemy's hands, and stabbed them from above (Commentaries on the Gallic War, I.51-2).


Polish lance. A type of lance over three meters in length, the characteristic weapon of the Polish cavalrymen known as lancers.


left Poland with nothing of her own. After the Napoleonic wars, Poland was ceded to Russia and desperately sought independence. The Polish struggle, like Garabaldi's struggle for the unification of Italy, was closely followed in America.


"Dropped from her nerveless grasp the shattered spear." A line from The Pleasures of Hope, by Thomas Campbell. The passage the Autocrat is recalling is this:

In vain, alas! in vain, ye gallant few!
From rank to rank your volleyed thunder flew;
Oh, bloodiest picture in the book of Time,
Sarmatia fell, unwept, without a crime;
Found not a generous friend, a pitying foe,
Strength in her arms, nor mercy in her woe!
Dropped from her nerveless grasp the shattered spear,
Closed her bright eye, and curbed her high career,--
Hope, for a season, bade the world farewell,
And Freedom shrieked--as Kosciusko fell!

Campbell (1777-1844), a Scottish poet , published The Pleasures of Hope in 1799, six months after Wordsworth and Coleridge had published their Lyrical Ballads. It earned an immediate and widespread popularity, not least because of the topicality of its treatment of the French Revolution, the partition of Poland, and negro slavery.


Sarmatia. The Polish nobility claimed descent from the Sarmatians, an Iranian people of classical antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD. Their territory, known as Sarmatia to Greco-Roman ethnographers, corresponded to the western part of greater Scythia, which lay largely in modern Ukraine and southern Russia.


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Cambridgeport. A neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the area now lying between Central Square and the Charles River, where Holmes as a boy attended a private academy known as the "Port School."


whittled into shape with his own jack-knife. That is, a "self-made man" -- then, as now, someone who has succeeded without the advantages of birth or education -- is like a crude hand-carved article in comparison to one turned out by an artisan or expert cabinet maker on a lathe or other specialized instrument. To whittle is "to make or shape by whittling; to carve." (OED)

French polished by society and travel. A contrast to the "whittled" article above. French polish is "A spirit-based solution of shellac, gum arabic, etc., which, with repeated applications, produces a deep gloss on a wooden surface" (OED), and was commonly used only on fine or expensive articles of furniture. But by "French polished" the Autocrat also of course means "improved by travel, fluent in languages other than English, and at ease in the higher reaches of society."

Majesty's Council for the Province. The representative of the King in matters concerning the governance of provinces which, like Massachusetts, owed its existence to a Crown grant.

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Smibert. John Smibert (1688 – 1751), a Scottish artist who moved to Boston in 1728, where he owned a shop that featured a gallery displaying his Old Masters on the second floor.

Copley. John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), a Boston painter celebrated for his commitment to realism in portraiture. His New England portraits are especially noteworthy for their representational honesty. In 1774 he moved to England, where he continued as a successfuly portraitist became, as well, a painter of historical subjects. His lack of sympathy for American independence would lead him to remain in England until his death, with the exception of one year spent in Italy to study the world of the old masters.


Mather Byles. Mather Byles (1706-1788), graduated from Harvard in 1725 and was a highly respected clergyman in Boston until the Revolutionary War, when his British sympathies deprived him of his earlier popularity as a preacher..


Balch the Hatter. Nathaniel Balch (1735 – 1808), a maker and seller of hats who also hosted members of the Boston social elite, including John Hancock, at his shop.


Sigourney.
[???] We have found no plausible Sigourney who fits the chronology established by the Autocrat's mentions of Mather Byles and Balch the Hatter.


pair of canvas-backs. A pun. The wild canvas-back duck, which at the time of the Autocrat was able to feed almost entirely on seeds, buds, roots, and the tubers of sago pondweed, had a distinctive flavor and was considered an expensive table delicacy. The "canvas backs" referred to by the "poor old gentleman" in the story, however, are the portraits of his ancestors -- in oil painted on canvas -- that are able to sustain his spirits even in his current poverty.


Yoricks who set the table in a roar:
Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 185-186, the graveyard scene in which Hamlet turns up the skull of the court jester who had been hischildhood playfellow: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." Yorick comes to mind becaues the Autocrat is thinking of New England figures who, despite their wit and humor, like Yorick left nothing behind "by which they will be remembered."


John Sullivan.
[CONJ] John Sullivan (1740 – 1795) was an American General in the Revolutionary War, a delegate in the Continental Congress, and later the Governor of New Hampshire.


Mr. Arthur Gilman. Arthur Gilman (1821 – 1882), an architect who designed many of Boston's neighborhoods and was a member of the American Institute of Architects.


James T. Fields. James Thomas Fields (1817 – 1881), publisher of The Atlantic Monthly and co-partner in the publishing firm Ticknor and Fields, was a major figure in literary Boston, and a major figure in transatlantic literary relations during Holmes's lifetime. As a member of the Saturday Club, he was known for his unfailing geniality and entertaining storytelling. As a publisher, he was among the few in America who, in the absence of any international copyright agreement, paid British authors for their work. As a memoirist, he is known for Yesterdays with Authors, giving accounts of his travels to England and his friendships with, among others, Wordsworth, Thackeray, and Dickens.

fell on sleep. King James Bible, Acts 13:36. The phrase occurs in the passage in which David dies, "after he had served his own generation by the will of God."


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a pair of Stuarts. Gilbert Charles Stuart (1755 – 1828), an America artist from Rhode Island who went to England to study painting under Benjamin West. Soon establishing a reputation for his half-length portraits, he returned to New York where he was commissioned to paint the official portrait of George Washington, of which he would produce many later versions, some, after Washington's death, from memory. His Washington portraits made him the favorite painter of wealthy Americans.


Tory blood. As a merchant in constant contact with his British counterparts, the "superb, full-blown, medieval gentleman" would have been especially prone to loyalist sentiments at the time of the American Revolution. In the period immediately before the Revolution, using an older political vocabulary -- the terms Whig and Tory date from the Exclusion Crisis of 1688 in England -- those favoring independence called themselves Whigs, leaving the name "Tory" for those who remained loyal to the Crown.


and good for twenty thousand dollars to the hospital. A persistent theme in the Autocrat concerns the strong strain of civic humanism that would persist in Boston culture through the end of the century, as contrasted with the raw economic individualism associated by Holmes and others with Jacksonian democracy. Thus, for instance, Samuel Eliot Morison in his reminiscences speaks of the "families who endowed Harvard and other universities, founded the Museum of Fine Arts, the Symphony Orchestra, and the Opera House, and took pride in supporting great charitable institutions such as the Perkins Institute for the Blind and the Massachusetts General Hospital. . . . When a family had accumulated a certain fortune, instead of trying to build it up still further, to become a Rockefeller or Carnegie and then perhaps discharge its debts to society by some great foundation, it would step out of business or finance and try to accomplish something in literature, education, medical research, the arts, or public service. . . . On has only to think of the Prescott, Parkman, Shattuck, Cabot, Holmes, Lowell , and Forbes families, and what they have accomplished for the beauty and betterment of life, to see what I mean. (One Boy's Boston, 1962)


in time of Empire, "bust a la Josephine. The high-waisted dress made an international fashion by Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), the first wife of Napoleon, who divorced her in 1810 when she failed to provide him with heirs. The effect of the high waist is to emphasize the bust, which in Josephine's case was often left half-exposed.


miniatures by Malbone. Edward Greene Malbone (1777 – 1807), a highly-regarded miniature portrait artist who traveled from city to city along the east coast.


when the students took rank on the catalogue from their parent's condition. The meaning of "condition" here translates into something like "wealth and social standing." The practice the Autocrat describes originated in an older Puritan practice, vividly illustrated in Winthrop's Journal, of estimating worldly prosperity as a sign of God's favor, a direct consequence of Calvin's theory of predestination.

"Hic liber est meus." Schoolboy Latin for "This is my book."


Hogarth's original plates. William Hogarth (1697-1764) was an English painter, pictorial satirist, and moralist. Such sequences as The Rake's Progress enjoyed enormous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, not least because engravings of Hogarth's original drawings perfectly communicated their satiric immediacy, while engravings of oil paintings could give only an approximate and imperfect idea of their originals.


Pope, original edition. Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), the greatest poet of Augustan England. His translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into perfectly controlled rhymed pentameter was found in the library of every educated family in America as well as in England. Pope's Horatian epistles and satires played a major part in the struggle against Sir Robert Walpole and the "corruption" of English society by money or market values. Holmes knew a great deal of Pope''s satiric poetry by heart. Its echoes may be heard throughout the Autocrat and other writings.


Barrow. Isaac Barrow (1630 – 1677), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, theologian and preacher. Coleridge declared that Barrow's sermons were among the classics of English prose.


Tillotson. John Tillotson (1630-1694) , Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694. Tillotson was a part of the Latitudinarian group that loosely interpreted Anglican theology, with the goal of bringing peace to the Church in the wake of the rampant anti-Puritanism that had emerged as a reaction against Cromwell's rule during the Interregnum.


octodecimo. A book with pages measuring 4 x 6.5 inches, made by printing a large sheet of paper into eighteenths, creating gatherings composed of 18 leaves and 36 pages.

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Do you suppose our dear didascalos over there ever read Poli Synopsis, or consulted Castelli Lexicon, while he was growing up to their stature? Our dear didascalos (Greek: "teacher") is, as Holmes's note says, James Russell Lowell. The Poli Synopsis -- Synopsis Criticorum Aliorumque S. Scripturae Interpretum, in five volumes, by Matthew Poole ("Mattaei Poli"), published in London in 1669-1676 -- and Castelli Lexicon -- Bartholomaei Castelli Lexicon medicum graeco-latinum -- were folio volumes measuring sixteen inches in height, meaning that Lowell as a small child would have been aware of them on the shelves of his family's library even before he had attained that height.


"Drugs…in the Arabian story.
[???]


Russia leather – Russian leather was the highest quality leather made at the time (and probably ever), and was especially prized for its distinct aroma. The process was kept secret by the Russians and never released. As production was shut down during the Russian Revolution in 1917, the process remains a secret.


Professor James Russell Lowell. James Russel Lowell (1819-1891) was born in Cambridge, attending Harvard nine years after Holmes. He succeeded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Smith Professor of French and Spanish Literature at Harvard in 1855, and was the original editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As such, he played a major role in persuading Holmes to write for the new publication, and the appearance of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table in its first issue was owing to his powers of persuasion. In 1864 he joined Charles Eliot Norton as co-editor of the influential North American Review. He is remembered today for his Biglow Papers, poltically charged but humorous poems in Yankee dialect, the first series (1848) written in opposition to the Mexican War, the second in support of the Union cause during the Civil War. He became U.S. Minister to England in 1880. As a member of the Saturday Club, he was renowned, along with Holmes, as one of its two most brilliant conversationalists. Previous to the Civil War, his fierce Abolitionist principles did much to catalyze anti-slavery opinion among its members.

 


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the late comet.
Biela's Comet, a periodic comet first recorded in 1772. At the time it was the only known comet to intersect Earth's orbit, creating great interest and some disquiet among the general public in the early 19th century. Holmes greeted its reappearance in 1932 with a poem entitled "The Comet" in the New England Magazine.


a great deal of coal to use up. Anthracite coal -- so-called "hard" coal, clean and smokeless -- had begun to replace wood as a fuel in eastern cities at about the time the Autocrat appeared in The Atlantic. Anthracite from the Pennsylvania Coal Region was close to the large eastern cities, and more deposits had been discovered in West Virginia. The Autocrat's jocular point is that, since the coal must have been intended by Providence for use, the millenium cannot be as close as people are saying.


millennium. The reappearance of Christ on earth, marking the end of the world and the Final Judgment of humankind. During this period. The Autocrat is here gently mocking the huge variety of millennial religious movements that swept the country in this period. See Miller's saints in notes to page 25 below.


real grape and coffee bean. The practice of adulterating wine and mixing substances like chicory with coffee to increase profits was common during the Autocrat's period. In the poem, the theological context of the Last Judgment sustains the satire: "when people stop indulging in petty practices of fraud and deceit on an everyday day basis, then -- but not before -- you may assume the Millenium is near."


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guarded well the whalebone tip. The ribs of nineteenth-century umbrellas were made of whalebone (baleen). With use, the fabric at the end weakened and was likely to tear.

Cuba's weed. Tobacco. Cuban cigars were then, as later, the variety most prized by smokers. The poem makes fun of those that, produced hastily to maximize profit, were impossible to draw when one tried to smoke them.

dimples. Punt, kick-up, or dent at the bottom of a bottle. The larger the "dimple," the less wine the bottle held, thus increasing the profit of the vinter.

publishers no longer steal. Prior to the Copyright Act of 1831, American publishers routinely reprinted British works without paying royalties. Charles Dickens, especially, was bitter about what he considered the rampant "theft" of royalties due him as author of immensely popular novels. As noted above, only James T. Fields among American publishers voluntarily paid British writers for works published by his house, Ticknor and Fields. This was a special matter of pride to Holmes and other members of the Saturday Club, to which Fields belonged.

the Hoosac tunnel. A 4.75-mile long railroad tunnel through the Hoosac Range -- an extension of Vermont's Green Mountains -- in western Massachusetts. Construction was began in 1848 and finished in 1875 after a number of setbacks.

Cumming – Alfred Cumming (1802 – 1873), appointed governor of the Utah territory in 1858 to replace Brigham Young following the Utah War.

Miller's saints. William Miller (1782-1840) was a farmer and Baptist preacher living in what came to be known, as having given birth to so many sects of "fire-and-brimstone" religious revivalism, as the Burnt-Over district. After years of close study of the prophecies of Daniel, Miller concluded that the date of Christ's Second Coming would occur in the course of the year 1844. As the date approached, the "Millerites" who accepted his conclusion became a national movement, helped by the rising spread of periodical literature in the period. (By the mid-1840s, some 48 periodicals devoted to Miller's prophecy were in circulation.) Miller eventually narrowed its scope to predict the exact day of Christ's return to earth: October 22, 1844. When this day passed without anything remarkable occurring, some attempted to work out interpretions consistent with what was called the Great Disappointment, while others joined evangelical denominations that did not put faith in specific prophecies.

Raspail, pére. – Francois-Vincent Raspail (1794 – 1878) was a French chemist, naturalist, physiologist, and a leading liberal politician. Imprisoned for his opinions during the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-1848), at the beginning of which period Holmes was studying medicine in Paris, he would later be exiled by Louis Napoleon at the outset of the Second Empire. Holmes knew him both as a political figure and a brilliant scientist, especially as one of the early founders of cell theory and advocate for research using the newly-developed compound microscope. Holmes denominates him Raspail, pére -- Fr: "father" -- because his sons Benjamin, Camille, Emile, and Xavier were also well-known poltical figures in the Third Republic.

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John Lothrop Motley. See notes to page 2 above. At the point Holmes read this poem at a farewell dinner at the Saturday Club, Motley was at the height of his fame as the author of The Rise of the Dutch Republic, which had sold 65,000 copies in both England and America at its first printing in 1856. In The Early Years of the Saturday Club, E.W. Emerson recalled that "reviewers and the general public were united in one large chorus of praise for the Dutch Republic. No such American triumph in the field of history had been seen since Prescott's first volume, published twenty years before." On the other side of the Atlantic, Motley's work had immediately been translated into French, German, Russian, and Dutch.


warriors shall breathe. The Rise of the Dutch Republic was acclaimed for its vivid portrayal of historical characters and dramatic description of events such as the seige of Leiden. Its hero, William the Silent (William of Orange) was both a warrior and a statesman, whose role in the Dutch struggle for independence Motley conceived as comparable to the role of George Washington in the American Revolution. In honor of its historical connection with the Dutch Reform Church in the pre-revolutionary period, his statue stands today in the Old Queens quad at Rutgers. (See introductory section.)

caught from our sunsets. That is, it is the spirit of American independence that has allowed Motley to understand the Dutch struggle against Spanish tyranny better than modern Europeans. The idea of translatio imperii -- the historical movement of liberty and freedom of thought from east to west -- was a convention of classical republican thought, as in Bishop Berkeley's "Westward the course of empire takes its way."

charnels of time. The Rise of the Dutch Republic was also seen as a work of heroic scholarship, based on years of painstaking work in the Dutch national archives, as well as archives in Spain and England. Motley wrote as follows to Holmes in 1853:"I go day after day to the archives here (as I went all summer in the Hague), studying the old letters and documents of the fifteenth century. Here I remain among my fellow-worms, feeding on these musty mulberry-leaves, out of which we are afterwards to spin our silk. . . . It is something to read the real, bona fide signs-manual of such fellows as William of Orange, Count Egmont, Alexander Farnese, Philip III, Cardinal Granvelle, and the rest of them." Motley, blessed from his boyhood with an extraordinary talent for languges, was able to read sources in Dutch, Latin, Spanish, French, German, and Italian with equal facility.

Van Tromp with his broom. Maarten Tromp (van Tromp is a misnomer) an admiral in the Dutch navy who lived from 1598 to 1653. Legend had it that after a victorious battle in the First Anglo-Dutch War, Tromp attached a broom to his mast to show that he had ‘swept' the English from the sea.

"Are republics still ungrateful, as of old?" Proverbial, as when Benjamin Franklin speaks in 1789 of "The reproach thrown on republics, that they are apt to be ungrateful" (Writings 9:365). Holmes's note refers to the recall of Motley as Minister to England in 1870. Sumner, who had been Motley's sponsor for the diplomatic post, had persuaded the Senate to vote against Ulysses S. Grant's proposed annexation of Santo Domingo. In John Lothrop Motley, a memoir written shortly after Motley's death in 1877, Holmes summarizes the evidence that Grant's recall of Motley was meant as retaliation against Sumner for opposing his Santo Domingo Treaty.

the dead summer's jewels. Grapes, which when "trampled and crushed" are transformed into wine in which summer -- the "bright cup" recalling the sunlight in which the grapes grew -- is preserved. At the meeting of the Saturday Club at which Holmes read this poem, these lines preceded the raising of a toast to Motley, "THE TRUE KNIGHT OF LEARNING" who was about to return to Europe to research the next volumes of his history of the United Netherlands.

a sprinkling-machine. In the period before city streets were paved -- hard pavng being too punishing on the horses owned by most residents -- sprinkling machines were used to lay the dust as the end of hot summer days. These consisted of a large water-filled perforated cylinder which, revolving as it was drawn behind a team of horses, laid down a light layer of moisture. The Autocrat's metaphor compares conversation, as the sprinkling machine that lays the dust for more formal composition.

 

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"Fust rate"…"a superior piece of goods" – The Autocrat takes issue with commercial terms being extended to cover matters assumed to be in the realm of human values rather than economic or monetary value.

like the previous question in the General Court. The General Court is the Massachusetts state legislature. The name has been retained from the colonial period. Moving the ‘previous question' is a parliamentary maneuver used to end debate, and the moving of amendments, on any debatable or amendable motion, bringing the motion to an immediate vote.

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inductively, as electricians would say. Refers to the induction between two metal objects that are not connected but can exchange electrons freely. The Autocrat's metaphor involves the excess of electrical energy that builds up in the mind of an intelligent listener when listening to a dull or plodding speaker.

a crow with a king-bird after him. The Autocrat's metaphor -- the dull speaker as crow, the bright listener as kingbird -- correponds to the aggressive behavior of the species of actual kingbirds found in New England, who drive away crows and ravens who might otherwise discover the location of their nests.

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"frisette".A fringe of curled, often artificial hair, usually worn on the forehead by a woman.

too rusty for recent grief. A black dress would ordinarily be worn as a sign of mourning for a child, parent, or near relation who had died within the past year. The implication is that the "middle-aged female" is wearing this dress not for mourning but because poverty has limited her wardrobe.


basso-relievo. Sculpture in low relief, here used to describe a mddle-aged woman who has lost the curvaceousness of her more youthful figure.

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trilobites. A fossil group of extinct marine arthropods that date to 540 million years ago until their extinction 250 million years ago. For Holmes, these were always a mysterious reminder of the immense stretches of cosmic and geological time implied by modern scientific discoveries. In The Poet at the Breakfast Table, the third volume in Holmes's Breakfast Table trilogy, a character called the Master keeps a singularly perfect and beautiful speciment of a fossile trilobite on his desk as a modern equivalent of the medieval memento mori tradition: "Look here! -- he said. I keep oblivion always before me. . . . Each time I fill a sheet of paper with what I am writing, I lay beneath this relic of a dead world. . . . Our world, too, with all its breathing life, is but a leaf to be folded with the other strata, and if I am only patient, by and by I shall be just as famous as imperious Caesar himelf, embedded with me in a conglomerate."

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dissolving view. By using a lantern with two or more lenses, or a pair of lanterns, two or more slides could be projected in such a way as to dissolve seamlessly from one picture into another, producing effects such as day into night or the changing seasons. Aanimated demonstration of the effect may be viewed at

 

http://www.theadamsresidence.co.uk/gs/dissolve/dissolve1.html

her mourning dress, the mercury drops. The Schoolmistress has recently lost her mother, and the Autocrat's foregoing comments about how a "great calamity" affects mind and memory unwittingly causes a sharp stab of self-recognition that causes her to go pale.

gratuitous advertisements. A joke and a mild remonstrance. Leaning back in one's chair when sitting at table is boorish behavior, made more boorish by the fact that -- the Autocrat here is doubtless thinking of young John, who, however attractive a character, is not noted for politesse -- some who do so leave marks of the hair oil or lotion they are wearing on the landlady's wall. The "advertisements" for these brands of oil or lotion are "gratuitous" in the sense that their makers have not had to pay for them.

signet on soft wax. A signet ring or stamp as used on letters, in which the writer folds the envelope, drops warm wax on the fold, then stamps the wax while still soft. When it hardens, the acts as a demonstration that the letter has not been opened or read by a third party.

velvet-handed steam-engine at the Mint. The Autocrat is thinking of the version of the lever press invented by Uhlhorn in 1839, which replaced the screw presses used earlier. The new design permitted engraved dies of carbon steel to be applied, with a pressure of many tons, to blanks of silver or gold alloy, preserving the details of the impression while stamping out the coin as a separate object.

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Catharine Hays, Tyburn, officiating artist. Catharine Hays (1690 – 1726) was an English woman who, with the help of two lodgers who lived with her, killed her husband and threw his remains in the Thames. She was convicted of petty treason and sentenced to be burned alive. Tyburn, usually known as a scene of public hangings, was the scene of her execution. The state executioner, whom the Autocrat refers as "officiating artist," botched the operation, and Hays was killed only when a piece of wood was thrown at her head.

"Bishop Hooper" – John Hooper (1500 – 1555) was the Anglican Bishop of Gloucester and Worcester and a proponent of the English Reformation, for which he became a martyr during the Marian Persecutions carried out by Mary I.
"Mr. John Bellows, of Gloucester" – Very little information on this man is available. He was a Quaker printer, lexicographer and archaeologist who lived from 1831 to 1902. (From the title of A Many-sided Man)

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Stubb's old mezzotint. George Stubbs (1724 – 1806), an English painter known primarily for his paintings of horses, and in particular his painting of Eclipse, of which the Autocrat has a copy.

Eclipse. Eclipse (1764 – 1789) was an undefeated (18 for 18) British racehorse.

Herring. John Frederick Herring (1795 – 1865),was a painter in Victorian England who had earlier been a coachman.

Plenipotentiary. Plenipotentiary (1831 – 1854) , regarded as one of the best racehorses of his era, winning six out of seven races, including the Epsom Derby in 1834.

Epsom. The Epsom Derby. (See notes to page 35 below.)

yon suburban village. Cambridge, where Holmes was born and grew up.

horse, six equine females. Here, horse signifies "male equine." The Autocrat contraposes "horse" and "mare" in the way we still contrapose pairs like "buck"/"doe," or "ram"/"ewe."

"Morgin." Spelt phonetically to suggest the New England accent. The Morgan, bred for use as a coach horse and for harness racing (trotting). was one of the earliest breeds developed in the United States.

horse-trotting. A form of horse racing in which the horse races at a specific gait (a trot), while pulling a sulky, a two-wheeled cart.

Godolphin "Arabian."– The Godolphin Arabian (1724 – 1753) was one of three stallions that were founders of the modern thoroughbred racing bloodstock. He is named after his owner, Francis Godolphin.

Aldus. Aldus Manutius (1449 – 1515), an Italian humanist who became a printer and publisher when he founded the Aldine Press at Venice. His editions became emblems of Renaissance bookmaking, and Aldus himself has been credited with inventing italic type and establishing the modern use of the semicolon.

Elzevirs. Works published by the House of Elzevir, a celebrated family of Dutch booksellers, publishers, and printers from the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Bench of Bishops. The whole body of Anglican bishops assembled in council.

Athanasian creed. The Christian statement of belief in the Holy Trinity.

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cankered. The literal reference is to a disease that normally attacks trees weakened by age and exposure to harsh weather. The metaphor draws on the conventional notion that societies, like animals and plants, exist in a natural cycle of growth and decay.

borderers. Historically, those dwelling near the border of Engand and Scotland, but here referring to any group living beyond the borders of law and civilization, and therefore harboring wild or reckless souls. The Autocrat is here glancing at the backcountry inhabitants portrayed by writers like Frances Trollope in Domestic Manners of the Americans, who had much to say about the coarseness or crudity of American life in the newly-settled western regions of the country.

Southern gentry, not republicans. A common Northern view of the South was that it was dominated by a slave-owning oligarchy -- a small group composed of the owners of the great plantations -- who constituted an anomaly in a Federal system based on political equality. In Causes of the American Civil War, Holmes's friend J.L. Motley specifically identifies this group as a quasi-aristoracy whose defense of its own narrow interests has driven the South into secession and the nation into Civil War. The planter class in the slave states were notoriously unlettered and fond of drinking, gambling, and horseracing.

sporting men. Men commonly supposed to spend their lives betting on horse races and boxing matches, drinking to excess, and running up debts they would never be able to pay. In general terms, the type was associated with European aristocracy and its hangers-on.

costermonger. A street seller of fruit and vegetables in London and other British towns.

Derby day. The famous race at Epsom Downs. Holmes originally attended the Derby in 1834, visiting England on his way to study at the École de médecine in Paris. He recalled the event years later: "The Derby Day of 1834 was exceedingly windy and dusty. Our party, riding on the outside of the coach . . . arrived in a very deteriorated condition, but recompensed for it by the extraordinary sights we witnessed. . . It was no common race that I went to see in 1834. 'It is asserted in the columns of a contemporary that Plenipotentiary was absolutely the best horse of the century.' This was the winner of the race I saw."

without wincing. The clerk, who leads a sedentary life sitting in an office, suffers pain in his posterior from contact with the saddle.

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the thimble rigger's "little joker". One of the many varieties of swindling games in which the operator, having palmed a pellet or seed, bets that an onlooker cannot guess the thimble under which it lies. The "little joker" in this comparison is the object that is supposed to lie under the thimble.

Lady Suffolk. A standardbred mare who raced both under saddle and to sulky in the 1840s. She was held in high regard for her speed and stamina, often traveling to and from her races pulling her own harness equipment. The record that the Autocrat refers to in the note was set in 1845 at Beacon Course in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Flora Temple. Flora Temple (1845 – 1877) was a record setting horse who raced to sulky. She trotted 103 races and won 86 of them.

Mr. Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson. (See notes to page 2.)

Dexter, Maud S. Two contemporary trotters.

American Eclipse. American Eclipse (1814-1817) was an undefeated (8 for 8) American thoroughbred racehorse.

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brisk omnibuses. Horsecars drawn along tramlines, an early form of public transport. In Holmes's time, the horsecars running between Boston and Cambridge did much to join what had earlier been separate literary and intellectual worlds.

mob-caps. Cloth or linen bonnets worn by married women, and therefore emblematic of domesticity and decency.

a "blooded" horse"/phlebotomized. B looded is an illiterate coinage for "blood horse," meaning a thoroughbred racehorse. The Autocrat's joke is that a horse who in literal terms had been "blooded" would have had blood taken from his veins (phlebotomized) for medical purposes, a procedure licensed for centuries by an older humoral theory of medicine. As a physician and professor of medicine, Holmes opposed the practice of "bleeding" patients -- usually done through venesection, but sometimes through "cupping" -- as medically unsound and dangerous to patients.

holding him up hard. - Holding up a horse to slow him down, as an author should pull back from the spotlight when the public is getting too much of him.

letting him out. Letting the horse loose at the right time to pick up speed, as an author should get his name out in the public when the market is right.

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Signor Blitz. Signor Blitz (1810 – 1877), a popular magician who came to in America in 1834, and whose act included keeping multiple flat objects spinning on sticks.

ground bait. The bait thrown into the water to draw fish into the vicinity before fishing reels let their line out. The comparison is with extracts of a forthcoming book meant to stimulate interest in the title before it is released.

electro-gilded celebrity. Electro-gilding is the art or process of gilding copper, iron, etc., by means of voltaic electricity. The Autocrat's metaphor implies literary celebrity that amounts to a thin coating of gold over a common base.

favorite with the pit. The pit refers to part of a theater occupied by those who have bought the cheapest tickets -- Shakespeare's "groundlings," or in the Autocrat's analogy those who read cheap or sensational literature.

augurs of the literary or scientific temple. In ancient Rome, augurs were a priestly class who foretold the future success or failure of coming events. Their equivalent the Autocrat's metaphor would be Bostonians old enough to have seen the reputations of some authors rise and die away.

Prince-Rupert's-drop. A glass object created by dipping molten glass into cold water. The result is a tadpole-shaped droplet of glass with a very strong head, but with a brittle tail that, when it is broken off, causes the drop to explode. Similarly, an authorial reputation kept aloft by mutual praise from other authors. A single unbiased review, the Autocrat implies, would explode such a reputation like a Prince-Rupert's drop.


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swimming bladders. The gas filled organ that gives a fish its buoyancy. In the Autocrat's metaphor, these refer to the laudatory "Critical Notices," composed by friends or those seeking a return favor, that keep the reputations of mediocre writers afloat.

Naushon. Naushon Island. lying just to the north of Martha's Vineyard, is one of the Elizabeth Islands. Until 1843, Naushon was owned by the Bowdoin family, being managed for the family by William W. Swain of New Bedford. In that year the island was purchased by Swain and John M. Forbes, of Boston and Milton. Swain, who oversaw the property on a year-round basis, came to be known as the "Governor." A celebrated scene of generous hospitality, the island was known especially by those invited to spend time there for its annual "hunts," which began in the days when deer were plentiful, its fresh- and salt-water fishing, and meals where distinguished guests and foreign visitors joined in witty repartee and serious conversation. Guests were asked compose poems and songs for the "Island Book," which contains a number of unpublished contributions by Holmes. This section of the Autocrat memorializes one of his visits.

like bearded Druids. trees hung with moss and thus resembling the long beards of members of the priestly caste of pre-Christian England and northern Europe.

Stonehenge-like monoliths. Naturally-occurring outcrops of rock that, in their nakedness and size, resemble the famous British prehistoric monument constructed from standing stones.


Mary's Lake. – Second largest fresh-water lake, situated at the northeastern end of Naushon Island.


Lord of the Manor. John Murray Forbes (1813 – 1898), American railroad magnate and owner of Naushon Island. He married the daughter of William Swain, and the island has since remained in the hands of the Forbes family.


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EGO fecit. As the Divinity Student immediately notes, the Autocrat is for jocular purposes using ungrammatical Latin. By using fecit rather than feci, he recalls the practice of Renaissance artists who used the third person to declare their composition of a painting. The joke is that having caught pickeral whose combined weight adds up to six pounds, he is claiming to have executed a work comparable to a Renaissance masterpiece..

Andrews and Stoddard. Ethan Allan Andrews (1787-1858) , an American educator, published a number of Latin textbooks as well as a Latin grammar book jointly produced with Solomon Stoddard (1800-1847).


the great statesman
. Daniel Webster (1782-1852), born in New Hampshire, graduated from Dartmouth. A powerful speaker, he gained an early reputation as a lawyer and public orator. As a Senator (1827-41), he became a leading opponent of John Calhoun's theory of states' rights and Jackson's war against the Bank of the United States. Though widely regarded as the leading national politician to have been produced by New England, he forfeited the good opinion of many anti-slavery constituents when he delivered his famous "Seventh of March Speech" on the Union, in which he argued for the Compromise of 1850, a piece of legislation that would in ten years lead directly to Southern secession and the outbreak of Civil War. He was a frequent and favored guest at Naushon Island.

Blair-ing it up. [???] The context suggests that Blair refers to a patented flatiron or pressing iron advertised in the 1850s, but we have been unable to trace the reference in contemporary publications.


prinking. "An act of adjusting the appearance or making smart" (OED)