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The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

Pages 41 - 80


Chris Chan, Carl Levitt

Page 41

bark. A small ship; in earlier times, a general term for all sailing vessels of small size, e.g. fishing-smacks, xebecs, pinnaces; in modern use, applied poetically or rhetorically to any sailing vessel (OED)

as the chaff in the stroke the flail. In early agriculture grains particularly wheat were threshed by hand. The threshing process consisted of beating the grain with a flail. The outer shell of the kernel called the chaff would be separated and blown away in the wind. In Holmes' metaphor the spray is light like the chaff and carried by the wind. Compare to Psalm 1 "The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away" (KJE)

beacon. A lighthouse or other conspicuous object placed upon the coast or at sea, to warn vessels of danger or direct their course. (OED)

Page 42

Religious mental disturbances. Holmes is implicitly denouncing the orthodox Calvinist theology that dominated religious life in Boston. Holmes cannot explicitly criticize Calvinist doctrine because the orthodox churches of Boston maintained large congregations and held considerable influence. Holmes opposed Calvinism not on a logical level but attacking the results that orthodox Calvinist theology had brought upon the world.
In the Canons of Dort, Calvin published his five points from which the theology springs. He describes the status of mankind as utterly depraved because of the original sin. However a limited elect are given Gods mercy and redeemed. Because of God's omniscient foreknowledge who will be saved and who will be damned is already known and hence immutable. Calvinist predetermination is a very strong position that has survived many attempts to attack the position logically. In a passage in his essay on Jonathan Edwards, a powerful New England clergyman known for his unflagging devotion to Calvinism as well as intense moving sermons, Holmes writes "Faintings, convulsions utter prostration, trances, visions like those of delirium tremens, were common occurrences. Children went home from the religious meetings crying aloud through the streets. Some lost their reason; not enough Edwards says to cause alarm, unless we are disposed to gather up all we can to darken the work and set it forth in frightful colors." (Jonathan Edwards an Essay) Holmes saw the destructive power of that Calvinist theology could exert. To Holmes no matter how perfect the logic behind the belief may be any set of beliefs that can so negatively impact people must be shunned and combated.

Somerville. The site of Mclean hospital, a mental asylum. The hospital was founded in the relatively new style of "moral treatment" of patients. (

Fakir. Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics. (OED)

Monk. A man (in early use also, occas.: a woman) who lives apart from the world and is devoted chiefly to contemplation and the performance of religious duties, living either alone or, more commonly, as a member of a particular religious community. (OED)

Deacon. In Congregational churches, one of a body of officers elected to advise and assist the pastor, distribute the elements at the communion, administer the charities of the church, and attend to its secular affairs. (OED) Holmes mentions these three types of religious figures to show that the clergy are equally as likely to go insane when pressed with certain religious dogmas.
42: Non compotes- Latin and short for Non compotes mentis a legal term meaning "a person of unsound mind" (OED). The law would not hold people of unsound mind accountable for their actions.

Page 43

43: Vulcanized India rubber- Natural Rubber is the coagulated latex of certain trees which forms a highly elastic and flexible substance (OED) The vulcanization process turns the raw rubber from a soft and malleable substance to hard and tough polymer. Holmes uses the vulcanization process as a metaphor for the transformation of a young and rosy maid into a hard and tough woman.

43: "The poor gentleman"- The Autocrat writes draws heavily on his experience as a public lecturer in this section. Holmes toured as a lecturer between the years of 1851 and 1856. In the early years of Holmes stayed relatively close to Boston. He would lecture to medical students in the morning and private audiences in the evening. Holmes would later travel further to lecture in New York and out west in Kentucky. At the time lecturing was a profitable enterprise for men of letters as well as seen as a way to spread knowledge with the public. Obviously the ideals of lecturing and the reality of the "performance did not line up as often as Holmes shares in this section. For more information on Holmes' lecture career see the chapter "lyceum lecture" in E.M. Tilton's biography of Holmes, The Amiable Autocrat.

43: announced as a public performer- Meaning Holmes' lecture audiences equated his educational lectures to the performances of actors and entertainers.

43: Buffos- A comic actor, a singer in a comic opera. (OED)

43: From prudential considerations- The Autocrat is announced as such a talented comic entertainer that he must restrain his act so that the audience don't "split their sides" or injure themselves from laughter.

43: Ulysses- The Latin name of the Greek Odysseus of homer's odyssey. Odysseus takes ten years to return from the Trojan War and encountered many fantastical islands on his journey as well as hardships that rob him of his twelve ships and his men. The Autocrat is exaggerating when he compares his lecture circuit to the journeys of Odysseus but he wants to convey the feeling of hardships that he experienced on his own journeys.
43: Histrionic- Theatrical or dramatic in character or style; esp. excessively theatrical, melodramatic, stagy. Also: characterized by pretence or deceit. (OED)



44: Private theatricals- A play or performance put on in a house rather than a public stage (OED). In the following passage the Autocrat compares the amateur performances in the country to ostensibly similar performances in Boston ("our metropolis").

44: Lyceum hall- An institution in which popular lectures are delivered on literary and scientific subjects. (OED)

44: Stage hero and heroines- i.e. Professional actors and actresses. These professional actors generally had a reputation for ranting and other debased behavior



45: Caesuras and cadence- Both are terms in formal poetry, Caesuras being pauses in the line and cadence being the rhythm of the syllables.

45: Iambic trimeter brachycatalectic- The Iambic trimeter brachycatalectic is a meter consisting of three pairs of two feet but is missing the last syllable. It is known as heroic meter and is styled after epic poetry. Holmes jokes about the meter as part of the larger joke the melodramatic retellings of love in these types of plays

45: A Prologue? - The joke is that Holmes is writing a prologue to a play he has never seen based only on tropes and themes that he knows.

45: A brandy peach: i.e. peach brandy. Peach brandy is light in color like the maidens "hueless" cheeks

45: A Green Baize: A coarse woollen stuff, having a long nap, now used chiefly for linings, coverings, curtains. (OED) The green baize is fake stage grass. Holmes is juxtaposing the melodrama of the production with the cheap and unrealistic props and scenery.

45: (Canvas) trees- Like the baize grass the canvas trees are stage scenery.


46: The world without- As in the world outside the play. Despite the harsh realities in the physical world in the world of the play love must triumph

46: Lords of Creation- The Autocrat is making fun off the conception that men are indeed the lords of creation when they are captivated so easily by women

46: when you're out of school- Holmes is joking that men are only the "masters of the world" after they leave school and until then they are under direct control of women who served as school teachers.

46: Magic bracelet- ? (!)

46: Headsman's trade- One who beheads; an executioner. (OED)

46: Falchion- A broad sword more or less curved with the edge on the convex side. In later use and in poetry: A sword of any kind. (OED)

46: Pikes armor- i.e. scales, the light reflects off the headsman's sword like light reflects of the scales of a fish in a river.

46: His snuff box- A box for holding snuff, A preparation of powdered tobacco for inhaling through the nostrils, usually small enough to fit in a pocket (OED) On a literal level the snuff causes the condemned to sneeze which forces his masterfully cut head to fall off. The snuff box is also a reference to Sir Plume in Pope's the Rape of the Lock who carries a snuff box and is undone by a pinch of snuff. The reference to The Rape of the Lock identifies the Holmes' prologue with the comedic mockery of the epic style in which Pope's work is written.


47: Burns- Robert burns (1759-1796), national poet of Scotland who wrote lyrics and songs in the Scottish dialect of English. He was also famous for his amours and his rebellion against orthodox religion and morality. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

47: "Scots wha hae"- A poem written by Robert Burns about Scottish national pride. The poem is written in a Scottish dialect of English and bemoans the subjugated state of Scotland.

47: Edward chain and slavery- The last two lines of the second stanza of Burn's "Scots Wha Hae" read: "See approach proud Edward's pow'r/Chains and slaverie!" Holmes is joking that it would have been a tragic mistake to amend the line.

47: A teetotaler- One who abstains (esp. one who pledges himself to abstain) from the use of any intoxicating liquor; a total abstainer. (OED) The temperance movement campaigned to eliminate the sale of alcohol in America and started to gain support in this time period. In the northeast the temperance movement was based in moralist sentiment and saw alcohol as a destroyer of and disrupter of households. The Temperance movement was ultimately successful and passed the 18th amendment in 1921 which prohibited the commercial sale of alcohol.


48: Sugar of lead- certain compounds resembling sugar in form or taste (OED)

48: strychnine- A highly poisonous vegetable alkaloid, C21H22N2O2, obtained chiefly from Strychnos Nux-vomica and other plants of the same genus. It is used in medicine as a stimulant and tonic. (OED) Holmes's supposed teetotaler juxtaposes actual positions such as strychnine and ratsbane (rat poison) with supposed poisons like whiskey and beer.

48: The tyrant- i.e. Alcohol. Temperance campaigners of the time compared alcohol to a tyrant that controlled its imbiber's lives.

48: Sydney Smith- Sydney Smith (1771-1845) one of the foremost English preachers of his day, and a champion of parliamentary reform. He was ordained by the Church of England and attended lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Smith co-founded the Edinburgh Review and wrote articles for the periodical. Through his writings he perhaps did more than anyone else to change public opinion regarding Roman Catholic emancipation. Smith was also famous for his wit and charm. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

48: The surgical operation- reference to a line by Sydney Smith line in Lady Holland's Memoir "It requires a surgical operation to get a joke well into a Scotch understanding."

48: North Briton- i.e. Scotland


49: Fourth proof rectified impression- These are all terms associated with the final stages of the printing process. The Autocrat cites the technical publishing terms to impress the importance of authors maintaining a presence on the work through the entire publishing process. This also prevents senseless editorial changes that can seriously impact the meaning of the work.

49: Calc'lates- U.S. colloq. To think, opine, suppose, ‘reckon'; to intend, purpose.(OED) The Autocrat is not speaking against women who think, opine etc. rather he is speaking against women who calc'lates rather than calculates. Holmes is very particular about the proper use of language and the perceptions that proper and improper speech can impart. For a use of calc'late in use see page 304.

49: Obeys the moon- Holmes means that the Atlantic is a monthly publication.

49: Luniversery- i.e. the time each month that the Atlantic is published.

49: Felis Catus- the Latin taxonomic nomenclature for a domestic cat

49: Linn. - Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and explorer who was the first to frame principles for defining genera and species of organisms and to create a uniform system for naming them. (Encyclopedia Britannica)


50: A single ray- i.e a single ray of light. Holmes is using Newton's experiments with light and prisms as a metaphor to describe the effects of wit. Newton took a completely darkened room and opened a small slit to admit light into the room. The light was then passed through a prism and split into its component colors. So to the consciousness that is in wit is diffracted into its component parts when spoken in conversation.

50: Never as fair as it is in daylight- Here Holmes reminds the audience that for all the benefit that wit can convey on a subject it is not a substitute for the subject itself. The ray of wit splits and focuses these messages but the subject itself is more than only discussion.

50: Yellow hair Iris- in Virgil's Aeneid, Dido falls in love with the Aeneas. Thinking her beloved dead Dido resolves to kill herself on a pyre of all of Aeneas's possessions. Though she is topped from immolating herself she falls upon one of Aeneas's swords mortally injuring herself in the process. She does not die and lies in pain on the ground. The goddess Juno takes pity on Dido's pain and sends Iris her messenger to end her life. Dido finally ends when Iris cuts a lock of Juno's golden hair. Holmes uses the metaphor to show that a sudden action or movement can end the charm of conversation.

50: Infelix Dido- Holmes is alluding to the convention of Homeric epithets found in epic poetry. In order to fill the complex meter in which epic poetry is written the writers devise long lists of epithets that fit the meter for that particular line. Beyond being a useful metric tool the heroic epithet also allowed the essential characteristic of the character to be highlighted. For example see "swift footed Achilles and "grey eyed Athena". The Homeric convention was used in Virgil's Aeneid and later Milton's paradise lost. In this instance Virgil is highlighting the unhappy character of Dido in her story.



51: Amour-propre- French: Self-love. The term or a variation of it has been used by a host of moral writers to describe the barrier of introspection. Self-love blinds people from seeing their own character flaws. The moral essayist Samuel Johnson, who had profound impact on Holmes, writes at length on the problems caused by self-love in The Rambler essays.

51: Story of archbishop and Gil Blas- Gil Blas de Santillane was the protagonist of the French picaresque novel of the same name. He was a trickster character who could almost always escape any dilemma through clever wit or charm.
The particular story Holmes references opens with hero Gil Blas in the employ of the Archbishop transcribing his sermons. When asked about the homilies he is transcribing Gil Blas flatters the archbishop and gains his trust. The archbishop tasks Gil Blas with speaking honestly about his sermons and homilies and warning him if he should ever start to falter. After the archbishop suffers a fit of apoplexy his sermons decline in quality. Gil Blas resolves not to tell the archbishop but is forced to answer when the archbishop asks what the people think of his most recent sermon. Gil Blas answers honestly that the most recent sermon, though excellent, was not of the same quality as the archbishops earlier sermons. The archbishop tells Gil Blas that he is sure that he is still as capable ever and fires Gil Blas.
The Autocrat mentions this story to show the power of self-love. Even though the Arch Bishop tasked Gil Blas with speaking honestly his self-love shut prevented him from taking the criticism.

51: Ready made from Disraeli- Holmes is referring to Isaac Disraeli, the British writer not his more famous son Benjamin Disraeli, the British politician. Disraeli (1766-1848) began his writing career writing pieces for The Wit Magazine. His most famous work Curiosities of Literature is a compilation of anecdotes about prominent writers and publishers of the day. (Encyclopedia of British Writers, 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries). Holmes is using Disraeli as an example of wit that lesser critics seek to become by stealing witticisms rather developing their own.

51: Belabored me in his feeble way- i.e. gave a negative review. The Autocrat is putting down petty critics of his work by noting that they frequently don't have their own accomplishments or indeed do not even write their own witticisms. These critics will never be able to significantly impact the works or reputation of the Autocrat.

51: Pillory- A device for punishment, usually consisting of a wooden framework mounted on a post, with holes or rings for trapping the head and hands, in which an offender was confined so as to be subjected to public ridicule, abuse, assault, etc.; punishment of this kind. Now hist. (OED)



52: Esprit- Sprightliness, vivacious wit in conversation or composition. (OED) The table of "men of esprit" hearkens back to the discussion of the "Mutual Admiration Societies" and particularly the Saturday club discussed on page 2.

52: Diminished fifths and flat sevenths- Chords [in music theory] known for their tonal ambiguity and dissonance (Oxford Encyclopedia of Music)
52: Twinned octaves- Two notes exactly an octave apart. Octaves became the basis of modern music because of their natural consonance. (Oxford Encyclopedia of Music) Holmes compares rigid thought to octaves and by doing so shows that rigidly proper music and speech do not take advantage of the full range of experiences that can be shared



53: Professional ruffian- i.e. an actor who specializes in playing rough or disreputable characters

53: Voce di petto- literally a "chest voice" meaning a deep voice

53: Falstaff's nine men in buckram- In Shakespeare's Henry IV part 2, The character Falstaff recounts the story of how he was assaulted by "Two men in Buckram" (Buckram-A kind of coarse linen or cloth stiffened with gum or paste. [OED]) Over the course of the story the number of men Falstaff is assaulted by increases until he is assaulted by eleven men in buckram clothes. The term "Men in Buckram" has since come to mean nonexistent people. The Autocrats reference both shows the audiences reaction to The Autocrats statement as incredulous while also referencing the number of non-physical people in John and Thomas's conversation.

53: A platform balance -a weighing machine with a platform on which the object to be weighed is placed. (OED) Holmes mentions a scale to mean that only one of the three Johns is physically there and that the other two exist as perceptions by others.



54: A rare vegetable, little known in boarding houses- Peaches were rare in boarding houses to their expensive costs and as the Autocrat shows us elsewhere the boarding house does not have a particularly large budget for food especially luxury fruits.

54: The breaking of the seedling tulip- Seedling tulips contain thousands of seeds of all of which will germinate and grow into the same tulip as the parent tulip. However of these one will be colored differently than the others. The different colored tulip will then produce tulips of its hue when it reaches maturity. By comparing humans to tulips the Autocrat shows both the rarity of geniuses and the legacy they leave behind.

54: The Seckel pear- Seckels are believed by many to be the only truly American variety of pear in commercial production. Unlike other varieties developed in the U.S. from a cross or bud sport of other European cultivars, Seckels are thought to have originated as a wild seedling near Philadelphia. They were discovered in the early 1800's. (Pear Bureau Northwest)


55: Old story books bound over again- Holmes means that lives of most people are similar if not identical. Even though each life looks unique the day to day life of humanity had changed little through the age

55: Millionaires old mother-i.e. Mother Nature who is rich with a multitude of experiences.

55: Musk deer- A solitary, shy animal which lives in mountainous regions from Siberia to the Himalayas. It has large ears, a very short tail, no antlers and a musk pod on its abdomen. The musk from this organ is valued for use in perfumes and soaps (Encyclopedia Britannica)

55: Civet cat- A long bodied short legged carnivorous of the family viverridae. Rather Catlike in appearance they have thickly furred tails, small ears and pointed snouts. Civets are usually solitary and live in tree hollows among rocks and in similar places coming out to forage at night. The anal glands of the civet open under the tail into a large pouch in which greasy, muck-like secretion accumulates. The secretion of the lesser oriental civet or rasse and of the oriental and African civets is employed commercially in the manufacture of perfume. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

55: Eloquently silent animal- Holmes is referring to a skunk but talks around it due to the impolite nature of the animal.

55: Carlyle's famous "characteristics" article- The article that Holmes refers to deals with the unconscious nature of genius. Carlyle posits that geniuses never know that they are in fact geniuses. Holmes uses the metaphor of the odorous animals as well as Carlyle's characteristics article to suggest that his readers may be genius but you are so used to being themselves that they don't realize they are a geniuses.

55: Notion- Chiefly N. Amer. Small wares, esp. cheap, useful articles. (OED) Holmes is making a pun on one of the many definitions of the word notion in relation to the Atlantic. He is soliciting submissions from his readership and defending the paper from detractors who would call the paper cheap.
56: Champion of the Heavy Weights- A professional boxer weighing over 12 st. 7 lb. [287] (OED)


56: "Mug"- A face, esp. an unattractive one. (OED) Holmes compares the ugly face of the face of the heavyweight boxer to the inelasticity of scientific fact. The metaphor hinges on the fact that the ugly appearance does not actually reflect the true manner of what is contained beneath it. In the case of the heavy weight the boxer may be a well-mannered person and in the case of the

56: Certain noted institutions at south Boston- The Autocrat is referring to the Boston Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum was well known at the time for the human treatment of its patients. In his visit to America Charles Dickens described the institution as "admirably conducted on those enlightened principles of conciliation and kindness," (American Notes for General Circulation)

56: Idiot school-A hospital for the mentally ill or mentally and intellectually disabled. (OED) Holmes is using the insanity of the inmates as a clear counterexample to man's statement that man is a rational being.


57: "Thou that reign'st in this bosom"- originally a German folk song called "Du, du liegst mir im Herzen" that was translated to English the English lyrics are as follows:

"Thou thou reign'st in this bosom;
There, There hast thou thy throne;
Thou, Thou knowest that I love thee,
Am I not fondly thine own?
Yes Yes Yes Yes
Am I not fondly thine own?

Then then ev'n as I love thee;
Say say wilt thou love me?
Thoughts thoughts tender and true love
Yes Yes Yes Yes
Say wilt thou cherish for me?

Speak speak love, I implore thee,
say say Hope ,may be thine,'
Thou, thou knowst that I love thee
Say but that thou wilt be mine
Yes Yes Yes yes
Say but that thou wilt be mine"
(Boston Glee Book 1839)

57: Having never studied it anywhere but in Paris- Holmes studied medicine extensively in Paris in the 1830s. The medical courses taught at La Charité were exclusively in French. Unlike many foreign students studying medicine in Paris at the time, Holmes had no difficulty with the French language. Through his time studying in Paris Holmes transitioned to using French as his primary language and took medical case notes in French rather than his native English. In a letter to his parents from Paris Holmes would write "French is almost a second mother tongue to me" For more information on Holmes' studies in Paris see "Oliver Wendell Holmes in Paris" (Dowling)

57: An Alsacian teacher: i.e. a native of the Alsace region of France. The "awkwardness" arises from the minor dialectical differences between Holmes Parisian French and the Alsacian French of BF.


59: Histoire Naturelle des bêtes-literally "A natural history of Ruminant Animals and Rodents, two legged and Other" Natural History: the branch of knowledge that dealt with all natural objects, animal, vegetable, and mineral (obs.) (OED) Ruminant: An animal that chews the cud; (Zool., also with capital initial) any of a group of artiodactyl mammals, including cattle, sheep, camels, and deer, that have a large compartment in the gut (the rumen), anterior to the true stomach, in which food (esp. cellulose) is partially digested by bacteria and from which it is returned to the mouth for further chewing. (OED) The joke is that there are no two legged ruminants and as well as no ruminating rodents. The title suggests that the work is a satire of certain types of people.
59: Great Pedlington with notes and additions- In this time period American publishers would essentially steal British books and republish them in America with "notes and additions".

59: Shelf 13 division c etc. - Founded in 1848, by an act of the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, the Boston Public Library was the first large free municipal library in the United States. The library was opened to the public on March 20, 1854 and contained approximately 16,000 volumes (Boston Public Library). Here Holmes is showing the power of a public library and also drawing his readership in. By placing such a text in a physical location he encourages his Boston readership to search out the book and to his readers outside of Boston he shows the power immense power that libraries can have as repositories of human knowledge.

59: Duodecimo-The size of a book, or of the page of a book, in which each leaf is one-twelfth of a whole sheet, also fig. Applied to a person or thing of minute or diminutive size. (OED) Holmes is joking with his readers that even the novel that everyone has the capability to write will only fill three small volumes. Holmes is suggesting that once the universal banality of everyday life is swept away there are limited unique experiences that can be shared.

59: Bound herbaria- A collection of dried plants systematically arranged; a hortus siccus. Also, a book or case contrived for keeping such a collection; the room or building in which it is kept. (OED) Holmes uses the herbaria as a metaphor for explaining why life so much more than just a written recording of it. While strictly speaking the herbaria is accurate and shows the details of the plants detailed within it misses the larger experience of nature and the feelings it can evoke.


60: Alluvial waste-Of soil, silt, or other material: carried by and deposited from flowing water (OED) The Autocrat is comparing the story of people lives to a stream. The stream will mostly contain rocks and silt but will also contain a nugget or two of gold.

60: Cradling-To nurture, shelter, or rear in infancy, or in the earliest stage. (OED) Holmes is joking that the writing process is own that needs to be nurtured and taken care of to be brought to publishable maturity.

[Chris Chan, pages 61-80]


61: show up – "To expose (a person's faults, ignorance, misdeeds, etc)" (OED).

61: native – "Inherent, innate" (OED).


62: All our failures…are lifted from our bruised shoulders, and fall, like Christian's pack, at the feet of that Omnipotence – A reference to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), an allegory in which the protagonist Christian undertakes a pilgrimage to the Celestial City in an effort to rid himself of his "pack" or "burden," i.e., his awareness of his sins. After numerous travails and failed attempts to remove his pack, Christian manages to relieve himself at last upon sight of the cross at the walls of Salvation.

62: read with a mark – i.e., to read using a bookmark.

62: Entre nous – "Between us" (French).


63: taking off big wigs and professional gowns – i.e., deflating self-important personages such as judges, who would have been easily recognizable via their elaborate dress ("big wigs and professional gowns").

63: disembalming and unbandaging of all literary mummies – A reference to the numerous translations of ancient Egyptian texts, which were written in hieroglyphics, into modern languages. These translations were made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone – a slab with text inscribed in hieroglyphics, Demotic (an alternate ancient Egyptian script), and Ancient Greek – in 1795 by Napoleonic forces during the French expedition to Egypt. In the decades that followed, "Egyptology" flourished into a subject of considerable interest among Western scholars (annotation list).

63: octavo – "A size of page traditionally produced by folding a standard printing sheet three times to form a section of eight leaves" (OED); here, a book or text written in such a size. As is the case here, the word is "sometimes [used] with the implication of popular appeal or cheapness" (OED).

63: missal – "A Roman Catholic book of devotions, esp. when illuminated [i.e. ‘adorned with brilliant colors, metallic pigments, etc']" (OED).

63: take, – to wife: Used both in the context of marriage, and in reference to chess – a pawn that advances to the opponent's end of the board may be promoted into a queen.

63: plebeian – "Commonplace…unsophisticated, uncultured" (OED).

63: "put him through" – i.e., "To carry [him] through (successfully)" (OED).

63, footnote: Saturday Club – A group established in 1855 of renowned Boston intellectuals, writers, scientists, and scholars, so named because they met regularly on Saturdays to discuss various matters of social and intellectual interest. Notable members included Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Swiss natural historian Louis Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and historian John Lothrop Motley.


64: a dozen ringing intelligences, each answering to some chord of the macrocosm – The Saturday Club's members engaged in a wide variety of intellectual pursuits, ranging from history and literature to philosophy and the sciences.

64: the equatorial zone of the system is soothed by well-studied artifices – i.e. the stomach is replete with good food and wine, with "equatorial" connoting the girth of someone who is full (annotation list).

64: apprehensions – Views or opinions "entertained upon any subject" (OED).

64: medius lectus – lit. "middle couch" (Latin): the seat or couch in a Roman tricilinium, or sitting room, reserved for guests. The medius lectus was flanked by two other courches named the lectus summus, which was placed to the left, and the lectus imus, which was placed to the right and which served as the seat of the host.

64: professional mortars – A mortar is "a short piece of artillery…used to discharge missiles, in later use esp. explosive shells, at high angles" (OED).

64: bon-bons – "A lozenge or other confection made of sugar" (OED); figuratively, celebratory or happy occasions, gifts, presents, etc.


65: "The trail of the serpent is over them all!" – Thomas Moore, "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," Lalla Rookh (1817). The Autocrat quotes the line to recognize how many of his observations, metaphors, and other figures of speech have been borrowed from his own lectures.

65: cleaving the green waters of the Back Bay – In June 1857, Holmes and his family moved into a new residence at 21 Charles Street, which overlooked the Charles River. The location not only afforded him the opportunity to row out on the river every morning in his boats, but also influenced his later writings on the pleasures and benefits of rowing (Tilton 238); see also pp. 167-170. Thirteen years later, when Holmes moved once again to a new home on Beacon Street, he campaigned in support of land reclamation in the Back Bay; the current neighborhood of the same name was successfully established in 1871 on the reclaimed land (Tilton 304).

65: Provincial blue-noses – i.e. Rowing shells (or small boats) manned by crews from rural areas. Holmes could also be punning on the term "blue-nose," which can refer to either a schooner (in the original sense) or a derogatory term for Presbyterians (OED), whose religious roots lie in the Calvinist tradition from which he sought to distance his own beliefs.

65: Metropolitan boat clubs – Rowing associations from Boston and Cambridge (annotation list).

65: the characters above referred to – That is, "[a]ll lecturers, all professors, all schoolmasters" as mentioned previously.

65: Beacon Street door plate in August – i.e., the brass plate is covered with dust (annotation list). Holmes himself would move to a new residence on Beacon Street in November 1870; see previous note on Back Bay, p. 65.


66: quiet batrachians – i.e., frogs.

66: less elevated order of reptilia – Reptiles that, in contrast to the "quiet batrachians," make loud noises, possibly crocodiles and alligators (annotation list).

66: what is going on India – A reference to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, during which sepoys (Indian soldiers who served the British) mutinied against the British East India Company. The rebellion spread across central India, and rebel forces tortured and murdered women, children, and British soldiers, prompting the British government to directly intervene. The mutiny was finally suppressed in 1859, and the government promptly installed direct rule over India via the newly established British Raj.

66: a dark-skinned, inferior, but still "Caucasian" race – In the emergent "racial science" of the 19th century, Indians were classified with Europeans as "Caucasian" (annotation list).

66: Dele – "destroyed" (Latin), with echoes of the Roman senator Cato the Elder's (234-149 BCE) warning to the Roman Republic: "Carthago delenda est" (lit. Carthage must be destroyed). Rome defeated Carthage (now present-day Tunis in Tunisia) in the Punic Wars and destroyed the city in 146 BCE.

66: Homeric heroes – The heroes of the ancient Greek poet Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Such figures were frequently characterized as being descendants of the immortal Greek gods, yet nevertheless possessed mortal flaws; a well-known example is Achilles of the Iliad.

66: themes – Compositions or "exercise[s] written on a given subject" (OED).

66: melas oinos – As the Autocrat proceeds to explain, this term refers to the ancient Greek and later Roman practice of watering one's wine; oinos is Greek for "wine."


67: melasses – i.e., molasses, a major import from the Caribbean and used to produce rum in England throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (annotation list).

67: Webster – Noah Webster, Jr. (1758-1843), American lexicographer best known for his work An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which would serve as one of the fundamental standard-bearers for modern American English spelling and usage.

67: Cotton Mather – New England Puritan minister (1663-1728) and author of the Magnalia Christi Americana ("The Glorious Works of Christ in America," 1702), which details the rise and spread of Puritanism throughout New England from 1620 to 1698. Mather's writings exerted a strong influence on New England's spiritual and cultural development, and he drew on Biblical texts to account for contemporary American events and issues.

67: antiquaries – An antiquary is a "student of early history" (OED), particularly of classical Greek and Roman antiquity; here the term refers more generally to scholars who study historical records. Throughout the Autocrat, Holmes carried on a running argument against critics who chose to overlook the literary merit of texts in favor or pointing out factual or philological mistakes and inconsistencies (annotation list).

67: barn-door-fowl flights – A reference to Alexander Pope's Dunciad (1728), a withering satire of leading British critics, intellectuals, and politicians, in which the owl is figured as the symbol of intellectual stupidity or "dulness." (Holmes and his educated readers would have been very familiar with the texts of Pope and his contemporaries.) The implication here is that the findings of the "small antiquaries" are of little intellectual substance or quality to the broader academic community (annotation list).

67: "Notes and Queries" – A scholarly journal first published in 1849 in London by William Thoms, "Notes and Queries" was intended as a means of academic exchange among scholars of literature, history, genealogy, and other factual knowledge. Its early issues featured "Notes" (miscellaneous findings, statistics, and quirks on any number of topics) and "Queries" (which consisted of both questions submitted by readers and scholarly responses to such questions). Though the Autocrat pokes fun at its contents, Holmes nevertheless read "Notes and Queries" diligently, and it features prominently in several of his other essays (annotation list; see also pp. 281-284).

67: triremes – "An ancient galley (originally Greek, afterwards also Roman) with three ranks of oars one above another, used chiefly as a ship of war" (OED). The comparison here is to the three-volume works of antiquarian research published by Historical Societies; such volumes would have been of very little general interest (annotation list).

67: Amines (?)

67: parasitical literature – That is, secondary sources. The Autocrat compares lazy writers who compose historical works by sifting through other reported findings to "Amines…who pick up [their] grains of native-grown food with a bodkin."

67: bodkin – "A short pointed weapon; a dagger" (OED).

67: Goethe – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), prolific German writer of verse poetry, drama, and literary and aesthetic criticism. His philosophical writings exerted a strong influence on the writings of later German and Swiss thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, whereas his literary works – most notably his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and his closet drama Faust (1808) – spearheaded the Romantic movement in Germany and the rest of Europe, particularly in England and France.

67: "made a Golgotha" – i.e. created a "heap of skulls" amounting to useless information of no intellectual substance (annotation list). In Hebrew, "Golgotha" roughly translates to the "place of skulls;" its English equivalent, "Calvary," refers to the site beyond the walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified.

67: "Oak Hall" – Name of a clothing business founded by George W. Simmons in the 1830s in Boston. "Oak Hall" became renowned for its ready-made clothes, a feature that the Autocrat draws upon here in his claim that his verses, like a "coat" from the Bostonian clothing company, are not meant for any particular person or occasion but nevertheless "will suit somebody."

67: family-man – i.e., a man of noble or high-ranking lineage. See also pp 20-22.

67: compages – "A whole formed by the compaction or juncture of parts, a framework or system of conjoined parts" (OED).


69: the gray-haired boys – i.e., other members of Holmes' Harvard Class of 1829 (annotation list); also referred to by the Professor as simply "the boys" (120).

69: dipped toast – French toast, or any dry bread that has been dipped in water or milk before serving.



70: some Doctor of Divinity – A play on the word "damned," which would have been spelled out as "d––d" in Holmes' time so as to preserve propriety; hence the "two letters before the word ‘good'" that the correspondent has included in his suggestion to the Autocrat (annotation list).

70, footnote: valerian – A medicinal plant exploited for its sedative properties and used in the treatment of hysteria. Its effects are purportedly equivalent to those of catnip to cats.



71: roseate – "Rosy; happy" (OED).

71: Proserpina that actually cut the yellow hair – A reference to the ancient Greek myth in which the goddess Hera (or "Here"; Roman equivalent Juno) sent Iris (Roman equivalent Proserpina) to cut a lock of hair from Dido, Queen of Carthage, such that the latter would die and her soul would thus be set free.

71: Madame d'Enfer – Roughly, "the first lady of Hell" (French).

71: bathycolpian – An alternate form of "bathukolpian," meaning "deep-bosomed" (OED).

71: "Oceanic Miscellany" (?)

71: "Waft us home the message" – From the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell's (1777-1844) "The Pleasures of Hope" (1799): "O Star-eyed Science! Hast though wandered there, / To waft us home the message of despair?"



72: certain German physiologists by the name of Weber – A possible reference to the brothers Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795-1878) and Eduard Weber (1806-1871), both of whom extensively studied human sensation and perception.

72: Leviathan, or "Great Eastern" – The SS Great Eastern was an iron steam ship designed by the British enginner Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). At the time of its launch in 1858, it was the largest ship built in the world – with a length of 692 ft (211 m) and a beam of 82 ft (25 m) – and could carry up to 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling. The ship was finally scrapped in 1890.

72: Primrose household – The Autocrat refers here to a scene in Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1768), in which the wealthy Primrose family arranges to have their family portrait rendered by a professional painter. The envisioned piece has the daughter Sophia rendered as a "shepherdess, with as many sheep as the pastor could put in for nothing" (Ch. 16); the other members are to be similarly depicted in ornate, decadent, and often bizarre dress and appearance.



73: cheroot – "A ciagr made in Southern India or Manila," distinguished from other cigars by the fact that its "two extremities [are] cut off square" (OED).


74: evanescent – "That quickly vanishes or passes away; having no permanence" (OED).

74: Day and Martin – British boot blacking company first founded in 1770 in London.

74: Dr. Wigan's doctrine of the brain's being a double organ – In his essay "Duality of the Mind" (1844), Dr. Arthur Wigan (d. 1847) proposed that the brain consists of two interrelated "organs" or hemispheres, with the phenomenon of recognition arising as a result of the initial failure of one hemisphere of the brain to translate sensory perceptions to the other hemisphere. Wigan incorrectly hypothesized, however, that recognition only occurs when the mind is "exhausted" or lacking in energy.

74: hangs fire – That is, hesitates or is "slow in acting" (OED).



75: Bulwer's novels – Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803-1873), English politician and writer whose poems, plays, and novels were immensely popular in Britain.

75: Mr. Olmsted – Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), American journalist who later earned widespread fame as a landscape architect, designing New York City's Central Park (1858) and Prospect Park (1867), among other places. Olmsted devoted much of his journalism to investigating the South's slave-driven economy, which he ardently attacked for its economic and moral degradation of Southern civility.

75: reddening litmus-paper, and blushing cheeks – i.e., the Autocrat's early experiments in chemistry coincided with his emerging interest in girls near his age (annotation list).

75: eheu! – "Alas!" (Latin)

75: "Soles occidere et redire possunt" – "Suns may set and yet rise again" (Latin), from "Catulllus 5" by the Latin poet Catullus (ca. 84 – ca. 54 BCE).



76: ohne phosphorgeruch – "without phosphorus odor" (German).

76: "gambrel-roofed" – Describes a two-sided roof with two slopes (one shallow, the other steep) on each side. The original Harvard Hall (c. 1677, burned 1766) at Harvard University is the first-known structure in America constructed with a gambrel roof, but the description is also of great personal significance as Holmes' boyhood home shared this architectural feature as well (annotation list).

76: swarthy – "Black or blackish; dusky" (OED).

76: grenadier-like rows – i.e., the "seedling onions" are arranged in a very orderly fashion, akin to the formation of grenadiers in combat.

76: everlasting…immortelle…asphodel – Names of various herbs and flowers, with "everlasting" and "immortelle" referring to the same herb. Asphodel is a liliaceous (i.e. lily-like) flower mostly native to southern Europe, and has been associated with immortality, a suggestion also carried by the other two names.

76: mummied Pharaoh – See note on Egyptology on p. 63.



77: pugil – "A small handful, or a large pinch, of something" (OED).

77: rappee – "A coarse snuff made from dark strong-smelling tobacco leaves, and originally obtained by rasping [i.e. scraping or scoring] a piece of tobacco" (OED).

77: Tonka-bean – "The black, fragrant, almond-shaped seed of a large leguminous tree…of Brazil, Guyana, and adjacent regions, used for scenting snuff, and as an ingredient in perfumes" (OED).

77: I made the manual sign – The Autocrat mimics the motion of "taking a pinch," used by someone who wishes to partake of the snuff (annotation list).



78: Trois Frères – The Trois Frères Provencaux, a notable Parisian restaurant where Holmes and his fellow medical school colleagues dined regularly on Sundays. This group of weekly diners constituted the Société d'Observation Medicale ("Society of Medical Observation"), which Holmes describes earlier as "a body of scientific young men in a great foreign city" (6).

78: Scotch-plaided snuff-box – Snuff was typically stored in small air-tight containers known as snuff boxes in order to prevent their contents from drying and thus losing their potency. In this case, the "snuff-box" is decorated with a Scottish plaid design.

78: Lundy-Foot, Chambertin, Clos Vougeot – Lundy-Foot is a variety of snuff; Chambertin and Clos Vougeot are red burgundies produced in the French villages of Gevrey-Chambertin and Vougeot, respectively. As noted literary scholar William C. Dowling notes, Holmes' inclusion of distinctly French items throughout the Autocrat invites his wider audience into the Parisian environment he inhabited as a medical student, "thus permitting them to gaze beyond the narrow bounds of New England culture to a wider horizon" (117).

78: slumbering in its straw cradle – The wines would have been stored in straw caskets.

78: kine – The plural form of "cow," now archaic (OED).

78: strophes – In traditional Greek lyric poetry, a "series of lines forming a system, the metrical structure of which is repeated in a following system called the antistrophe" (OED).

78: sharp little milk-teeth – i.e., children too young to have lost their first set of teeth, for whom "apples" would have been a special treat (annotation list).

78: Byron's line about "striking the electric chain" – "A flower – the wind – the ocean – which shall wound, / Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound." George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1818).

78: the folio Shakespeare – A copy of a Shakespearean play "in folio," i.e., "in the form of a full-sized sheet folded once" (OED). Although folio sizes varied greatly depending on the size of the paper used, the implication here is that the "folio Shakespeare" would have been a substantially large book, with a page of height of at least 15 inches (38 cm).



79: Christmas pastry – A possible equivalent to an English Christmas cake or fruitcake. The tradition of baking Christmas cakes dates back to roughly the 16th century, when the English ate their cakes on Christmas Eve after having fasted the day before.

79: George the Second – Hanoverian monarch (1683-1760) who presided over Great Britain during most of the French and Indian War (1754-1763); the historical allusions that follow refer to events and personalities dating to this period.

79: the elder Pitt is coming into power – William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) was a British Whig statesman who oversaw Britain's involvement in the French and Indian War. He later served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1766 to 1778 and notably supported the American colonies' movement toward independence from Great Britain.

79: General Wolfe – Major General James Peter Wolfe (1727-1759) commanded British forces in North America during the French and Indian War and oversaw the eventual defeat of the French at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, the same battle in which he was killed.

79: and over the Channel they are pulling the Sieur Damiens to pieces – On January 5, 1757, French civil servant Robert-François Damiens attempted a failed assassination of King Louis XV. Damiens was apprehended, tortured, and summarily executed by drawing and quartering – in which his four limbs were simultaneously pulled apart by horses – on March 28 of that year.

79: Hirams and Jonathans and Jonases – Common "Yankee" names for young men who hailed from New England (annotation list).

79: Fort William Henry – A former British fort at the southern end of Lake George in New York, Fort William Henry became notorious as the site where Indian soldiers tortured stationed British troops following a successful siege by the French in 1757. The fort was destroyed by the French soon after the siege, but a replica was constructed in the 1950s.

79: – I was thinking – said he – who was king of England when this old pie was baked: John's comment is a jibe against the landlady's poverty and her low social status, and the Autocrat proceeds to rebuke him sharply on p. 80.

79: cela va sans dire – "That goes without saying" (French).

79: bolted – "Sifted" (OED). The preceding "ground" is used as the past tense of "grind."


80: stillicidium – "A morbid dropping or trickling" (OED); i.e. tears, but with the implication of false over overdramatically "self-conscious sentiment."

80: imps of the boarding-house Inferno – i.e., boarders who "torture" the landlady like little devils or "imps" in Hell (annotation list).

80: "Quoiqu'elle soit très solidement montée, il faut ne pas BRUTALISER la machine" – "Although it is solidly made, the machine should not be treated brutally" (French; annotation list).