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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 (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 (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.
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 (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.
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."
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;
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
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
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 (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
M.S.M.AMember 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
a certain lecturer. As Holmes's subsequent footnote makes
clear, the lecturer was Holmes himself.
littératrice- "A literary woman; an authoress."
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
"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
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
Alfred Cumming (1802 1873), appointed governor of the
Utah territory in 1858 to replace Brigham Young following the
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.
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.
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
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.
"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
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
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.
"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
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."
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
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.
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)
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.
(1764 1789) was an undefeated (18 for 18) British racehorse.
Frederick Herring (1795 1865),was a painter in Victorian
England who had earlier been a coachman.
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.
equine females. Here, horse signifies "male equine."
The Autocrat contraposes "horse" and "mare"
in the way we still contrapose pairs like "buck"/"doe,"
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.
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,
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.
published by the House of Elzevir, a celebrated family of Dutch
booksellers, publishers, and printers from the 17th and early
Bench of Bishops.
The whole body of Anglican bishops assembled in council.
The Christian statement of belief in the Holy Trinity.
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
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,
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.
A street seller of fruit and vegetables in London and other British
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."
The clerk, who leads a sedentary life sitting in an office, suffers
pain in his posterior from contact with the saddle.
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
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 (1845 1877) was a record setting horse who
raced to sulky. She trotted 103 races and won 86 of them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. (See notes to page 2.)
Dexter, Maud S.
Two contemporary trotters.
American Eclipse (1814-1817) was an undefeated (8 for 8) American
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
or linen bonnets worn by married women, and therefore emblematic
of domesticity and decency.
a "blooded" horse"/phlebotomized.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)