Holy Father's "niece." Recalls the corrupt period of the Catholic Church
immediately before the Reformation, in which popes, who had taken
vows of celibacy, fathered sons and daughters and passed them
off as "nephews" and "nieces." Thus, for
instance, the dying Bishop in Browning's The Bishop Orders
His Tomb: "Nephews--sons mine . . . ah God, I know not!"
the tough old Dean.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) author of Gulliver's Travels,
The Tale of a Tub, and other masterworks of Augustan satire.
An Anglican clergyman, he became Dean of St. Patrick's cathedral
in 1713. His poem Cadenus and Vanessa records his relationship
with the much younger Esther Vanhomrigh, who fell deeply in love
with Swift when they met in 1708, and with whom their rupture
in 1723 led to her death.
Patriarch's wintry face / "maid of
Egypt" / lotus-loving Memphian
[CONJ] Hagar, the Egyptian maid of Sarah, the wife of Abraham,
often called the "Patriarch" of the three great monotheistic
religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.:
1 Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children:
and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
2 And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained
me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that
I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice
3 And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after
Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her
to her husband Abram to be his wife.
4 And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she
saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her
Love's drapeau rouge. "Love's red flag": the
The "great Leveller." Love, which has the power
to erase all differences in age, social station, etc.
"la levre inferieure deja pendante." "the lower lip already hanging" (French).
epigastrium. "That part of the abdomen which is immediately
over the stomach" ( New Sydenham Soc. Lexicon).
Took up a difficult language. As the frontier of medical
research began to move from Paris, where he had received his
own training, to Vienna and Berlin, Holmes taught himself German
in middle age. Records of his oral examinations of Harvard medical
students in the 1850s contain references to numerous
old Cato was thinking of learning to play the fiddle.
Cicero's De Senectute ("Of Old Age") takes as
its central figure M. Porcius Cato the Censor, then in his eighty-fourth
year. Cicero portrays him as saying to his young interlocutors
Laelius and Scipio Aemillanus, that "in my old age I have
learned Greek, which I seized upon as eagerly as if I had been
desirous of satisfying a long-continued thirst, with the result
that I have acquired first-hand the information which you see
me using in this discussion by way of illustration. And when
I read what Socrates had done in the case of the lyre, an instrument
much cultivated by the ancients, I should have liked to do that
too, if I could."
"Saints and their Bodies." An essay extolling
the virtues of physical exercise and sport, written by Thomas
Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) and published in the Atlantic
Monthly, Vol. 1, No. 5, March, 1858. The essay reflects a
contemporary preoccupation with what in Britain was called "muscular
Christianity", a Christian commitment to piety and physical
health basing itself on the New Testament, which sanctions the
concepts of character (Philippians 3:14) and well-being (1Corinthians
a flat-bottomed skiff. "A kind of clinker-built sculling-
or pleasure-boat. Also, a long narrow racing-boat for one oarsman,
outrigged, usually fitted with a sliding-seat, and covered in
fore and aft with canvas" (OED).
a fancy "dory." "A small boat; esp. a small flat-bottomed boat
used in sea-fisheries, in which to go out from a larger vessel
to catch fish" (OED).
"sulky" is "a light two-wheeled carriage or chaise
(sometimes without a body), seated for one person: used principally
for trials of speed between trotting-horses. The Autocrat's water-sulky
is a racing boat built for one.
outriggers. A bracket with a rowlock at the end that is
fixed to the side of a rowing boat to increase the leverage of
the oar. Also: a light boat fitted with such structures. (Outriggers
were introduced on the Tyne between 1830 and 1840; an outrigger
boat was built for the Cambridge crew for the University boat
race of 1845, but not used until the next year, when both crews
rowed in outriggers.)
Back Bay. Before its transformation into buildable land
by an 1857 filling project, the Back Bay was literally a bay,
west of the Shawmut Peninsula (on the far side from Boston Harbor)
between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles River entering from
the west. The plan by the architect Arthur Gilman was approved
in 1856. It is based on the French model and has a strict street
grid, unique for Boston at the time. The mostly 3 to 4 story
brownstone houses were designed by different architects but thanks
to the strict regulations, they all integrate nicely. The houses
had every amenity and were of high quality. It attracted many
rich Bostonians who moved from the South End or Beacon Hill to
this new fashionable district.
the Charles. The Charles River is an 80 mi (129 km) long
river that flows in an overall northeasterly direction in eastern
Massachusetts. From its source in Hopkinton, the river travels
through 23 cities and towns, passing by Cambridge and Harvard
before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Boston.
the Mystic. The Mystic River lies to the north of and
flows approximately parallel to the lower portions of the Charles
caterpillar bridges. Bridges built
on timber pilings coated with tar.
ship engaged in trade with India, or the East or West Indies.
In particular, a large trading ship belonging to the East India
Navy Yard. Established in 1800, Charlestown Navy Yard,
situated along the southeastern Charlestown waterfront in Boston's
inner harbor, formally designated the Boston Naval Shipyard in
the Ohio. USS Ohio (1820), a ship-of-the-line, launched
in 1820 and in commission as a warship from 1838 to 1840 and
from 1846 to 1850, then later used as a receiving ship in Boston.
out of sight of the dear old State House.
the great desert.
I.e., the ocean, a "desert" in the older sense of being
vast, trackless, and uninhabited.
devil's-aprons. Kelp of the genus Laminaria (esp. L. saccharina
of the Atlantic ocean) having a large flat leathery thallus shaped
somewhat like an apron.
jaws of Behemoth. An animal mentioned in the book of Job,
used in modern literature as a general expression for one of
the largest and strongest animals.
15 Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass
as an ox.
16 Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in
the navel of his belly.
17 He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones
are wrapped together.
18 His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like
bars of iron. (Job 40: 15-18)
Elysium is the state or abode of the blessed after death in Greek
mythology, also figuratively referring to a place or state of
ideal or perfect happiness.
feathering-calluses. To "feather" an oar is
to turn it as it leaves the water at the end of a stroke, so
that it may pass through the air edgeways.
old Time's head in a chancery. A slang term in wrestling
for the position of the head when held under the opponent's left
arm to be pommelled severely, the victim meanwhile being unable
to retaliate effectively; hence sometimes figuratively used of
an awkward fix or predicament. The term derives from the tenacity
and absolute control with which the British Court of Chancery
holds anything -- as memorably dramatized in Dickens's Bleak
House -- and the certainty of cost and loss to property in
as an old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese. The
"old inhabitant" is a cheese mite, which eat away at
the surface of the cheese, creating distinctive pinholes and
craters in the surface. It was commonly believed that the action
of the living mites on the surface of these cheeses contributes
to the overall flavor.
the grim abode of Science. Massachusetts
General Hospital, founded in 1811. When Holmes enrolled as a
student there in 1831, Drs John Collins Warren and James Jackson
had spearheaded the move of Harvard Medical School from Cambridge
to a location adjacent to the Hospital, permitting students easy
access to operating theaters and bedside clinical training. The
first operation under anaesthesia -- in this case, sulphuric
ether -- was performed there by Dr. Warren in 1846, marking the
first great contribution of America to modern medical science.
Holmes himself bestowed the name "anaesthesia" on the
class of agents permitting such surgery. "The adjective,"
he wrote to W.G.T. Morton, who had administered the ether to
the patient upon whom Jackson operated, "will be 'Anaesthetic.'"
Attention should be paid, he argued, to "fixing the terms,
which will be repeated by the tongues of every civilized race
the horse railroad. The
steam railroad came upon the scene in the late 1840s. Using the
same principle, the horse-drawn railroad then replaced the omnibuses
which had been used in Boston since the 1920s. The first horse
car line began operation on 26 March 1856, running from Central
Square, Cambridge to Bowdoin Square in Boston.
the wheeled-barges. The Autocrat's name for the horse-drawn
cars. He is comparing them to the barges drawn by donkeys and
mules along the Erie and Delaware Canals, which reached the height
of their functionality in the mid-1800s.
Isaac Watts. English hymnwriter, theologian and logician.
A prolific and popular hymnwriter, he was recognized as the "Father
of English Hymnody", credited with some 750 hymns.
"Alike unknowing and unknown".
From Watts's Hymn 88:
"The living know that they must die,
But all the dead forgotten lie;
Their mem'ry and their sense is gone,
Alike unknowing and unknown.
saddle leather . . . sole leather. I.e., riding horseback as opposed to walking.
Bacon and Sydenham. Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban,
(15611626), English philosopher, statesman, scientist,
jurist and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord
Chancellor of England. Bacon's works established and popularised
inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called
the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His Novum
Organon, outlining a systematic procedure of investigating
nature, marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework
for science, and is widely assumed to have inspired the institution
of the Royal Society later in the 17th century.
Thomas Sydenham, (16241689, London), physician recognized
as a pioneer of clinical medicine and epidemiology. Because he
emphasized detailed observations of patients and maintained accurate
records, he has been called "the English Hippocrates."
His emprical investigation of pathological states, in contrast
to the then-standard "theoretcial" teaching from Galenic
texts, gave him heroic status as a pathbreaking figure in English
clinical practice. Holmes would always see in Sydenham an early
instance of the modern physico-pathological idea of disease that
he himself studied at the Ecole de Medicine in Paris. Syndenham
and his contemporary Dr Thomas Fuller, both of whom had seen
service in the cavalry during the Civil War, strongly recommended
horse riding as a therapeutic measure for hysteria and hypochondriasis:
"And if, as is sometimes the case, as often as the narcotic
is omitted, the pain come on afresh, there isn nothing that I
have hitherto been able to think of that is so certain a means
of effecting thorough cure as riding on horseback" (Sydenham's
Observationes medicinae, 1676).
hepar. The liver, which swells or becomes distended when
in a pathological state, was one of the few reliable means of
diagnosis in an age when there were no other means of telling
about a patient's internal state of health. Palpating, or feeling
the liver with one's fingertips, could tell a physician whether
or not the liver was swollen.
a silver-mounted bridle in their hand. I.e., born into
a rich family. The Autocrat's twist on the proverbial "born
with a silver spoon in his mouth"
triturate. Physiological: said of the action of the molar
teeth, the gizzard, etc. upon food. Glancing at the expense of
keeping a horse, the Autocrat pictures it chewing away steadily
on its owner's money -- "bank bills" -- rather than
live on horseback as Wesley did. John Wesley, the founder
of Methodism, travelled generally on horseback, preaching two
or three times each day. Stephen Tomkins is quoted in Edward
T. Oakes's John Wesley: A Biography as calculating that
Wesley "rode 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds, ...
and preached more than 40,000 sermons.
an Arab Arabian horses are considered one of the finest
and most precious breeds of horses. Three Arabs, the Godolphin
Arabian, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerley Turk, are credited
as the founders of the modern Thoroughbred horse-racing stock.
Esquimaux kayak. A canoe made of a framework of
light wood covered with sealskins sewn together, made and used
by the Inuit of Greenland and other Eskimo peoples.
a Dutch fishwife to Psyche. A "fishwife" is a woman who sells fish.
Fishwives, who "cried their wares" through the streets,
were proverbially coarse in their language and physical appearance.
Psyche is the beautiful young lover of Cupid in Apulaius's
Metamorphoses, written in the 2nd century AD.
they used to waddle along. The earliest form of the bicycle,
which lacked either a gear assembly or a chain to transmit the
motion of the legs into smooth motion, consisted simply of a
single large wheel to the hub of which pedals were attached for
the feet. The "waddling" motion was produced by the
rider's constant need to stay erect.
a "treadle-locomotive". Prototype of the modern
bicycle. The first mechanically propelled 2-wheel vehicle was
believed to have been built by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a Scottish
blacksmith, in 1839. A nephew later claimed that his uncle developed
a rear-wheel drive design using mid mounted treadles connected
by rods to a rear crank, similar to the transmission of a steam
Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The Centennial
International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World's
Fair in the United States, was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
from May 10 to November 10, 1876, to celebrate the 100th anniversary
of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.
It was officially the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures
and Products of the Soil and Mine. It was held in Fairmount Park,
along the Schuylkill River. The fairgrounds were designed by
Herman J. Schwarzmann. About 10 million visitors attended, equivalent
to about 20% of the population of the United States at the time.
"And [wheels] rush in where [horses] fear to tread".
The Autocrat echoes, for comic effect, Alexander Pope's famous
lines -- "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread"
-- in The Essay on Criticism:
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Distrustful Sense with modest Caution speaks;
It still looks home, and short Excursions makes;
But ratling Nonsense in full Vollies breaks;
And never shock'd, and never turn'd aside,
Bursts out, resistless, with a thundering Tyde!
the feathered Mercury. Messenger of the gods in Roman mythology, identifed
with the Hermes of the Greeks, usually portrayed as wearing winged
shoes or "talaria,"said to have been made by Hephaestus,
the Greek god of fire and the arts, of imperishable gold.
aerial swimming. At the time the Autocrat writes, the
only known means of heavier-than-air flight was by hot-air balloons,
which had been demonstrated by the Montgolfier brothers in France
at the end of the eighteenth-century.
wounds of angels which Milton tells of. In Book VI of
Paradise Lost Milton describes the battle in Heaven as
And writh' d him to and fro convolv'd; so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passd through him, but th' Ethereal substance clos'd
Not long divisible, and from the gash
A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow'd
Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.
Since now we find this our Empyreal form
Incapable of mortal injurie
Imperishable, and though pierc'd with wound,
Soon closing, and by native vigour heal'd.
thousand-footed bridges. See illustration in notes to page 164.
Tadmor in the Desert. Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east
of Damascus, containing the monumental ruins of a great city
that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient
world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture
of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations,
married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian
influences. The phrase "Tadmor in the wilderness" is
almost universally understood by Biblical scholars to refer to
Palmyra, the ruins of which remain to the present day, and give
us the highest idea of Solomon's splendor and magnificence. Palmyra
stood upon a fertile plain surrounded by a barren desert, having
the river Euphrates on the east.
preached my sermon from the lay-pulpit.
The institution of "lay preaching"
was introduced by John Wesley in England when Methodism, although
still formerly a movement within the Anglican Church, undertook
to carry the message of Christianity to neglected agricultural
and industrial areas of late eighteenth-century England. As a
traveling preacher, Wesley was himself unable to minister to
the congregations who gathered to hear his evangelical message.
The custom of the lay preacher -- sometimes called "local
preachers" -- arose when Wesley agreed to authorize certain
members of the laity to carry on his work at Sunday meetings
after his departure. Lay preachers were subject to examination
either by Wesley himself or others of the small number of ordained
Anglican priests who had joined him in his evangelical mission.
In America, a new tradition of essay-writing
had emerged in the early republic when Joseph Dennie, later editor
of the influentail Federalist publication The Port Folio,
began writing periodical pieces entitled "The Lay Preacher"
in The Farmer's Weekly Museum in Walpole, New Hampshire.
Later collected and published in a single volume, The Lay
Preacher was responsible for Dennie's having been distinguished
by Yale President Timothy Dwight as "the American Addison."
The Autocrat's description of his lyceum lectures (Autocrat,
142) and essays as "sermons" demonstrates the degree
to which Holmes welcomed this association. A contemporary biographer.
W.S. Kennedy, noted that "there is a good deal of the preacher
in Holmes: his essays are lay sermons" (Oliver Wendell
Holmes, Poet, Litterateur, Scientist. Boston: 1883).
clipper-built. [FIX] Clippers, running the
British blockade of Baltimore, came to be recognized for speed
rather than cargo space. Fast speed was required for the Chinese
opium trade between England, India and China. Small, sharp-bowed
British vessels were the result. An early example, which is today
known as an opium clipper, was the Transit of 1819.
single-stick players. Single-stick contests, portrayed
in the Robin Hood ballads and other works describing medieval
popular culture, consisted of fighting or fencing with a wooden
stick or sword held in one hand, Thomas Hughes's story Tom
Brown's School Days contains a spirited description of cudgel-play
during the first half of the 19th century. Even as a rural pastime,
the sport practically died out during the third quarter of that
Hiram or Jonathan. Typical "Yankee" names.
batter puddings. American
name for Yorkshire pudding, a fried batter served with meat dishes,
which rises to become round and fluffy.
my young friend.
Again refers to Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Saints and
less quarrelsome church-militant. The Church is supposed
to be "militant" as fighting for men's souls against
Satan, but, as the Autocrat wryly notes, theologians are more
often found fighting among themselves. If they could vent their
vitriol in a boxing ring, he suggests, their disputes would be
much more quickly solved.
an infallible and a heretic. Refers
to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility -- i.e., that
God is able to speak directly through a Pope making an ex
cathedra doctrinal judgment. A "heretic" is then
anyone who doesn't assent to that judgment..
the Benicia Boy. John Camel Heenan, aka the Benicia Boy
(1834 -1873), an American bare-knuckle prize fighter. Though
highly regarded, he had only three formal fights in his entire
career, losing two and drawing one. Heenan is best remembered
for his second contest, when he travelled to England to fight
British champion Tom Sayers. The bout, generally seen as boxing's
first world championship, ended in chaos when spectators broke
into the ring and the police intervened. The referee finally
called a draw. The Benicia Boy came home to a hero's welcome,
but later returned to England where he had just one more fight,
losing controversially to new British champion, Tom King.
now living in New York State an old gentleman. [???]
writes in the compass. Practice of microscopic writing.
The Autocrat uses the feat of writing the Psalms and the Gospels
in the circumference of a coin to illustrate the keenness of
the old man's eyesight.
white ashes. Metaphorically, the white hair of an aged
person as compared to the white ashes left by a burned-out fire.
old-fashioned heroics. The verse or metre used in heroic
poetry. In Greek and Latin poetry this was the hexameter; in
English, German, and Italian, the iambic of five feet or ten
syllables; in French, the Alexandrine of twelve syllables. For
Holmes, the exemplary instance was the iambic pentameter couplet
as used by Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) in his translations of
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but also in his satires
and Horatian epistles. Many of Holmes's own poems were written
in this form.
that forward young fellow. Young John, the Autocrat's fellow boarder. Forward
means presumptuous, pert; bold, immodest.
hidden caves. The lungs
streams of brightening purple. The oxygenated blood produced by pulmonary circulation.
that throbbing slave. The heart.
lucid globes. The eyes.
seven-hued light. I.e.,
so-called "white" light is actually composed of all
the colors of the spectrum.
cloven sphere. The brain; "cloven" because it
is split into the left and right hemispheres
the late Mr. Bayly. Manufacturer
of distinctive headgear since 1865, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
artificial integument. Literally, the natural covering or investment of the
body, or of some part or organ, of an animal or plant; a skin,
shell, husk, rind. Here, clothing and other "external"
accoutrements such as hats.
Leghorn straw. A straw plaiting for hats and bonnets,
made from a particular kind of wheat, cut green and bleached,
and so called because imported from Leghorn in Tuscany.
that portion of my native town. Cambridgeport, where OWH
went to school as a boy.
Port-chuck. Slang term used by the schoolboys to refer
to the working-class boys of Cambridgeport.
unnatural calmness about its nap. Nap: The smooth
glossy surface of a silk, felt, or beaver hat. The "unnatural
calmness" about it suggests over-frequent brushing.
dilapidated castor. A hat, originally either of beaver's
fur, or intended to be taken as such. North American fishermen
in the 17th and 18th centuries traded metal items for beaver
robes made of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. These
castor gras in French (or "beaver coat" in English)
became prized by European hat makers in the second half of the
16th century, as they converted the pelts to fur felt. The discovery
of the superior felting qualities of beaver fur, along with the
rapidly increasing popularity of beaver felt hats in fashion,
transformed the incidental trading of fishermen in the sixteenth
century into a growing trade in the French and later English
territories in the next century.
ultimum moriens. The last part to die.
pummies de tare. The Old Gentleman's
mispronunciation of the French pommes de terre, "potato."
Latin. Modern Italian is a version of Latin as spoken in the
Coleridge knew this very well. In his Biographia Literaria
(1817), Samuel Taylor Coleridge advised young writers to "Never
pursue literature as the sole business of life or the means on
which you rely for obtaining its comforts." Readers of the
Autocrat were aware that Holmes's profession as a physician and
teacher of anatomy was embodied in the persona of the "Professor"
in its pages. The Professor at the Breakfast-Table, the
third volume in the breakfast table trilogy, features him as
quarantined once in Marseilles. People coming into the
port of Marseilles, France were often quarantined, forced to
stay aboard ships for weeks to guarantee that they were free
of transmittable diseases like cholera or the plague. The Great
Plague of Marseilles was the last of the significant European
outbreaks of bubonic plague. Arriving in Marseille, France in
1720, the disease had killed 100,000 people in the city and the
surrounding provinces. Holmes departed from Marseilles in 1835,
at a time when a particularly lethal strain known as "Asiatic
cholera" was already killing patients in the Paris hospitals
by the hundreds.
"regained my freedom with a sigh." Byron, The
Prisoner of Chillon:
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:even I
Regained my freedom with a sigh.
he can sing least. I.e., is least able to write poetry.
complementary. Forming a complement, something which completes
or makes up a whole.
Central Intelligence. The power of human consciousness
to integrate separate sensory data into a single comprehensive
understanding of external reality. In Holmes's writing, this
normally involves a strong relation to the theory of the sensus
communis developed by Thomas Reid and the Scottish Common
Sense school of philosophy, carried forward from the "moral
sense" theory of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Adam Smith's
Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The action or faculty of conceiving, forming an idea.
hand organ man. I.e., like the player of a barrel organ
who cranks a handle to play a set number of "automatic"
tunes. Many of Holmes's poems were composed for ceremonial occasions,
such as dinners for writers or statesmen or other distinguished
visitors to Boston. A typical example is the poem written
for the farewell dinner given to John Lothrop Motley, author
of The Rise of the Dutch Republic, on pp. 26-27. For hand
organ, see notes to page 182 below.
winch. Here, the pulley or wheel attached to the handle
by which a barrel organ was cranked.
adagio. Performed in slow time, leisurely and gracefully
played. (OED) Here, the Autocrat's metaphor refers to "original"
poetry appealing to sentiment or deeper feeling, in contrast
to poems written for stated occasions.
every note marks. The metaphor depends on the actual construction
of a hand organ (barrel organ), in which steel pins were set
so as to sound specific notes of a tune when the organist turned
the crank. The arrangement of these pins -- what the Autocrat
means by "planting these bristling points" -- was a
delicate, laborious, and specialized task. Similarly, the mastery
of rhyme and meter that permits the poet to express thoughts
in poetic form, whether that of an "official" poem
written for a specific occasion or a more original and personal
expression in verse, comes only with practice and discipline.
epigram. A pointed or antithetical saying. Here, a short
poem ending in a witty or ingenious turn of thought.
stock. In reference
to intellectual or literary topics, material kept in stock for
use; commonly used or brought forward, constantly reappearing
corolla/disk/calyx. A plant at different states of development,
showing a variety of appearances while belonging to a single
organic process. The corolla consists of the colored petals
of a fully opened flower. The disk is the in-between state
when the flower has partially opened. The calyx is the
"whorl of leaves forming the outer envelope in which the
flower is enclosed while yet in the bud." (OED). The Autocrat's
is referring, metaphorically, to the variety of poems just read
by the Poet: "one of his stateliest songs, a gay chanson
[song], and then a string of epigrams."
vibritile. Of the nature of vibration; marked or characterized
by vibration (OED).
resonant: causing reinforcement or prolongation of sound,
especially by synchronous vibration. Here, the sensitivity of
the Schoolmistress's emotional nature in responding to the Autocrat's
preceding remark, as one string in a musical instrument responds
to the vibration of another sounding the same note.
Marvell's fawn. Andrew Marvell's The Nymph Complaining
for the Death of her Fawn.
albinesses. A female albino; a person with abnormally
pale skin, hair and eyes, resulting in a congenital absence of
fulvous. Reddish-yellow, dull yellow, brown or tawny.
leonine. Resembling a lion, lion like. (OED). In this
case, what the Autocrat has in mind in describing female hair
that is "shot through with golden light, with tawny or fulvous
opaline. Resembling an opal, in color or iridescence.
(OED). A brilliance or sparkle in the eye of the leonine blonde,
as opposed to the "deficiency of coloring matter" in
the eye of the albino-like "negative blonde."
Cowper. William Cowper (1731-1800), English poet best
known in New England for his great four-book poem The Task.
The Autocrat includes him in this roster of poets "tinged
with melancholy" not because he died young but because he
suffered from periodic bouts of depression and insanity that
left him unable to write.
Keats. John Keats (1795-1821), whose career as a poet
ended with his early death at age 26. Shelley's poem Adonais,
which attributed his death to the savage attacks on Keats's poetry
by reviewers in Blackwood's Magazine and TheQuarterly
Review, in effect portrayed him as the martyr of the Romantic
movement in English poetry.
Lucretia and Margaret Davidson: Lucretia Davidson (1808-1825), born in Plattsburgh,
New York, was the extraordinarily precocious daughter of a physician
father and authoress mother. She learned to read at age four,
and by the time she was twelve was well-read in the work of such
writers as Goldsmith, Shakespeare, and Kotzebue. By the time
she died of tuberculosis at sixteen, she had written over 250
poems published as her Poetical Remains. Robert Southey's
1829 study of Davidson's poetry, comparing her to the work of
Kirke White in Britain, established her as an American counterpart
of Keats in the mythology of Romantic poets who died young. Davidson's
sister Margaret (1823-1838), similarly precocious, wrote both
poems and a play, the Tragedy of Alethia, which were introduced
to the public by Washington Irving. Like her sister, she died
of tuberculosis at an early age. The poems of the two sisters
were subsequently published together.
the French poet Gilbert. Nicolas-Joseph-Florent Gilbert (1750-1780), born
at Fontenoy-le-Château, Vosges, Lorraine, was the author
of such works as Le Dix-huitième Siécle
and Mon Apologie, satirizing the Enlightenment ideology
of the Encyclopædists and their followers. He died in Paris
in 1780 as the result of a horseback accident.
the Hôtel Dieu. Located next to the cathedral of
Notre Dame on the Île de France, the Hôtel Dieu was
the oldest hospital in Paris, having been existence at least
since 829. It had burned down in 1772 but had been rebuilt. At
the time Gilbert died there is was dreadfully overcrowded --
"We have seen the dead mixed with the living there,"
said an official report issued in 1788. "We have seen convalescents
together with the sick, the dying, and the dead. Often we have
seen contagious and noncontagious diseases diseases in the same
ward. women with syphilis and some with fever" -- but after
the French Revolution was wholly reconstructed to become the
greatest of the Paris teaching hospitals. Overcrowding was eliminated,
medical staff was appointed only on the basis of highly competitive
examinations, and systematic clinical study of disease pathology
was undertaken by such medical pioneers as Bichat and Charles
Pieere Alexandre Louis. By the time Holmes arrived there as a
medical student in 1833, the Hôtel Dieu was at the center
of a system of specialized teaching hospitals that drew foreign
students from every country in Europe as well as America and
Africa. The Hôtel Dieu was finally torn down only in 1877,
by which time leadership in the study of medicine had passed
the great hospital of Paris. The Hôtel Dieu.
Kirke White. Henry Kirke White (1785-1806), born in Nottingham,
the son of a butcher, for which trade he was himself intended.
Having virtually taught himself to read English, he proceeded
to learn Latin and Greek on his own, and was later apprenticed
to a lawyer who offered to release him from his contract if he
could raise the money for college. In 1803 was published his
Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with Other Poems. With
the help of friends he was provided the means to enter St. John's
College, Cambridge, but shortly after taking up residence died
of a fatal illness thought to have been brought about by the
strain of excessive concentration on his studies. His Remains
were edited by Robert Southey in five volumes (1807-1822).
See Psalm 90:10: "The days of our years are threescore years
and ten; and if by reason or strength they be fourscore years,
yet it is their strength, labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut
off and we fly away."
the Angel of Life / the Angel of the Resurrection. I.e.,
a human being is given an alloted number of days to live, then,
having died, must wait until the Last Judgment to be given the
opportunity to come back to life. Holmes uses conventional religious
imagery precisely to forestall condemnation of the Autocrat's
sometimes unorthodox religious views.
the terrible escapement. In a watch, the mechanism that
intervenes between the motive power and regulator, which alternately
checks and releases the train, thus causing an intermittent impulse
to be given to the regulator. In Holmes's metaphor, the escapement
is the brain as it regulates the "wheels of thought,"
or spontaneous power of human consciousness.
pinion. a small or spur fixed on the same arbor or axle
as the main wheel and driving the dial wheel of a watch.(OED).
hempen lassos. Ropes made from hemp, an annual herbaceous
plant, Cannabis Sativa. Here, the "hangman's noose"
made by a person who commits suicide by hanging himself.
grim friend: a revolver.
peremptory: decisive final, precludes further debate.
monosyllable. The sharp report of a revolver when someone
committing suicide pulls the trigger.
that building which we pass. The Boston Lunatic Hospital.
McLean, founded in 1811. Originally named Asylum for the Insane,
it was the first institution organized by a cooperation of prominent
Bostonians who were concerned about homeless mentally ill persons
"abounding on the streets and by-ways in and about Boston."
It became internationally known after Charles Dickens wrote favorably
about his visit in American Notes: "At South Boston,
as it is called, in a situation excellently adapted for the purpose,
several charitable institutions are clustered together. One of
these, is the State Hospital for the insane; admirably conducted
on those enlightened principles of conciliation and kindness
patient in this asylum sits down to dinner every day with a knife
and fork; and in the midst of them sits the gentleman whose manner
of dealing with his charges I have just described. At every meal,
moral influence alone restrains the more violent among them from
cutting the throats of the rest."
kind city fathers. A passing allusion to a theme that
begins in the opening pages of the Autocrat. Specifically,
Holmes is thinking of those "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." (See
notes to page 22.)
trivially. In a trifling, slight or paltry way. Frivolously.
coarse tools. here, opium or alcohol; described as tools
because they interfere with the machinery of the brain by producing
faculties. Abilities or aptitudes whether natural or acquired.
the young fellow. John
Guinea worm. A disease that takes its name from its prevalence
along the Guinea coast of West Africa. Its medical name is dracunculiasis,
from Dracunculus medinensis, a nematode that passes into
the human body from unfiltered water containing small crustaceans
that have been infected with D. medinensis larvae. When contaminated
water has been drunk, the crustaceans die and release the stage
3 larvae, which then penetrate the stomach or intestinal wall.
After maturing,they mate. Adult male worms die while the females
migrate in the subcutaneous tissues towards the surface of the
skin. After about a year of infection, the female worm forms
a blister on the skin, generally on the foot, which breaks open.
When the patient seeks to relieve the local discomfort by placing
the foot in water, the female worm emerges and releases her stage
1 larvae. The traditional treatment, to which the Autocrat refers
here, is still used in modern medicine. Putting a silk loop around
its head, one then slowly winds the worm out on a stick, being
careful not to break it off while doing so.
moral guinea worms. these are the vices-intemperance is
one. Here, the Autocrat is saying one must search for the head
of this moral guinea worm: what would drive somebody to such
188: no head at all: the Autocrat is making the point that repressed
trauma causes some mental disturbances or diseases, in turn,
causing people to indulge in vices. Most physicians treated them
as behavioral aberrances rather than treating the cause.
Ithuriel. In Paradise Lost , Book IV, 810-821,
John Milton refers to Ithuriel as a cherub dispatched by Gabriel
to locate Satan, who, as he will later assume the form of a serpent,
has entered the Garden of Eden in the form of a toad ("squat
like a Toad close at the ear of Eve"). By touching Satan
with his spear, Ithuriel causes the Tempter to resume his proper
Him thus intent Ithuriel with his Spear
Touch'd lightly; for no falshood can endure
Touch of Celestial temper, but returns
Of force to its own likeness: up he starts
Discoverd and surpriz'd. As when a spark
Lights on a heap of nitrous Powder, laid
Fit for the Tun some Magazine to store
Against a rumor'd War, the Smuttie graine
With sudden blaze diffus'd, inflames the Air:
So started up in his own shape the Fiend.
Back stept those two fair Angels half amaz'd
So sudden to behold the griesly King.
The Autocrat's argument is that the best way
to combat drunkenness -- the Temperance movement was very strong
at the time the Autocrat appeared -- is not to thunder
against it with fire-and-brimstone diatriabes but, patiently
and reasonably, to convince those suffering from alcoholism that
they are deforming their lives.
Blasted angel. Satan, who in Paradise Lost is leader
of the rebel angels in the War in Heaven and is scarred or deformed
-- the word "blasted" here refers to having been hit
by thunderbolts -- in his real appearance.
spasmodic. Occurring or proceeding by fits and starts,
irregular, intermittent; not sustained or kept up. The Autocrat
uses the term in its contemporary medical sense to mean the reaction
of the brain to intoxicants like alcohol or extreme emotional
Ninon de l'Enclos. Anne
"Ninon" de l'Enclos (1620-1705), a French author, courtesan,
freethinker, and patron of the arts. She was a popular figure
in Parisian salons, and her own drawing room became a centre
for the discussion and consumption of the literary arts. In her
early thirties she was responsible for encouraging the young
Molière. As a courtesan, Ninon took a succession of notable
and wealthy lovers, including the king's cousin the Great Condé,
Gaston de Coligny, and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld.
These men did not support her, however; she prided herself on
her independent income. Saint Simon wrote that "Ninon always
had crowds of adorers but never more than one lover at a time,
and when she tired of the present occupier, she said so frankly
and took another. Yet such was her authority that no man dared
fall out with his successful rival; he was only too happy to
be allowed to visit as a familiar friend." As an author
she defended the possibility of living a good life in the absence
of religion, notably in 1659's La coquette vengée ("The
Flirt Avenged"). The Autocrat's casual mention recalls his
own earlier life in Paris, where her name, by then forgotten
in the English-speaking world, had become synonymous with wit
Recovering health and strength after illness; in the way of recovery,
still in need of nursing.
latent. Concealed, present or existing but not manifest,
exhibited or developed.
zoophyte. A plant having some qualities of animals. The
Autocrat's point is that those whose mind and sympathies are
cold and inert when sober can be roused to liveliness and generosity
-- flower out "like a full-blown rose" -- after a few
drinks. But when they revert to sobriety -- that is, "when
water takes their colors out" -- they also revert to the
moral equivalent of a vegetative state.
subscription-paper. A subscription was "a scheme
for raising money by public subscription," (OED), usually
for charitable or civic reasons. (" Many People of Quality
came into a voluntary Subscription of twenty.Guineas a-piece,
for the erecting a Theatre." C. Cibber Apol. Life C. Cibber
vi. 113.) A subscription paper was "a paper on which subscriptions
to a particular cause are recorded or invited. ("When lightning
burned Edward Savage's house to the ground, Buckley Squires brought
a subscription paper by for the relief of the poor man and his
family." R. E. Shalhope Tale of New Eng. v. 138.)
the alcoholic virtues don't wash When said of fabric,
wash means the ability to keep color and brightness while
being laundered. The Autocrat's point is that the generosity
produced by alcohol does not last when the person sobers up.
rum. Christian Temperance advocates insisted that all
alcohol, despite its differences, was the same.
"in all its sunset glow". From Byron's praise
of hock and soda water in Don Juan, Canto II, stanza 180:
Not the first sparkle of the desert spring,
Nor Burgundy in all its sunset glow,
After long travel, ennui, love, or slaughter.
Vie with the draught of hock and soda water.
foaming grape. Champagne. The phrase is taken fromIn
Memoriam A.H.H., by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), a
requiem for the poet's Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam.
The Autocrat quotes it in this context partly because its emphasis
on the possibility of religious belief in a scientific age constitutes
a rejoinder to the many Christian groups who supporting the growing
Temperance movement in Boston and the country generally:
To-day the grave is bright for me,
For them the light of life increased,
Who stay to share the morning feast,
Who rest to-night beside the sea.
Let all my genial spirits advance
To meet and greet a whiter sun;
My drooping memory will not shun
The foaming grape of eastern France.
the first miracle. The miracle at the wedding at Cana,
where Jesus turns the water into wine. The incident occurs only
in the fourth Gospel, John 2:1-11. The Autocrat is of course
deploying the Biblical reference to confront advocates of Christian
Temperance with their own inconsistency.
ad valorem. A duty or tax in proportion to value. The
Autocrat is saying the poor, whose fortune and life is more trying
and grueling, may be more inclined to vice and intemperance,
but, understanding their circumstances, Heaven will judge them
that blows where it listeth. I.e., wishes or wants to.
The reference is to John 3: 7-9, in which the wind is compared
to the Holy Spirit: "Marvel not that I said unto thee. Ye
must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth . And thou
hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh
and whither it goeth."
the imaginative classes. Specifically, those who write
poetry, paint, compose music, or otherwise create art.
reverie. A moment or period of being lost, especially
pleasantly in one's thoughts; a daydream.
flag. To droop or to sink down heavily.
Mr. Walker, the hygeian humorist. A humorist is "a
person subject to humours' or fancies; a fantastical or
whimsical person; a faddist" (OED). Mr. Walker [???] is untraced, but
represents the "hygienic movement" -- often associated
with hydropathy or the "water cure" of various diseases
-- of the mid-nineteenth century. The preamble of the constitution
of the American Hygienic and Hydropathic Association of Physicians
and Surgeons, for instance, established in 1850, says that "its
objects shall be the diffusion of those physiological principles
which are usually comprised under the term Hygiene, and the development
of the therapeutic virtues of water to their fullest extent,
on a strictly scientific basis, and with special reference to
the laws of the human system, both in health and disease."
In general, hygienic practitioners opposed the drugging, purging,
bleeded practices of so-called "regular" physicians,
objectives with which Holmes himself was in thorough agreement.
lassitude. The condition of being weary, whether in body
or mind. Flagging of the bodily or mental power; indifference
to exertion, weariness.
double meaning of the word smile. Young John, the
Autocrat's always irrepresible fellow boarder, is reacting to
the meaning of smile that had recently been taken up in
American slang. The OED gives this as "a drink, especially
of whisky," and as an example cites G.H. Kingsley: "You
just take a smile' of the real, old, blue-grass Bourbon."
underbreeding. One who is of inferior breeding or upbringing,
wanting in polish or refinement; vulgar.
imbecility. Mental or intellectual weakness. A type of
inertia. (Johnson's Dictionary.)
Titian. Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488 1576),
Italian painter, the most important member of the 16th-century
Venetian school. One of the most versatile of Italian painters,
he was known especially for his portraits and mythological and
religious subjects. His use of color had a strong influence on
painters of the Italian Renaissance.
of a young man holding a glove in his hand," Louvre
Gallery of the Louvre. The Louvre was transformed
into a public museum during the French Revolution. Holmes spent
much time there during his studies as a medical student in Paris,
when this representation of the gallery was painted by Samuel
risorius of Santorini. The risorius is a muscle of facial
expression which arises in the fascia over the parotid gland
and, passing horizontally forward, superficial to the platysma, inserts onto
the skin at the angle of the mouth. The Autocrat is here drawing
on Holmes's detailed knowledge as a teacher of anatomy. His point
about what he calls "the terrible smile" --
by which he means the "constitutional grin" to which
he says some faces are given -- depends on the physiological
fact that the risorius alone retracts the angle of the mouth
to produce a smile that seems wholly insincere because it does
not involve the skin around the eyes. (A genuine smile raises
the lips with the action of zygomaticus major and zygomaticus
minor muscles and causes "crow's feet" around the eyes
using the orbicularis oculi muscles.)
comely. Fair, pretty, beautiful.
the great naturalist. Louis Agassiz (for biographical
background, see notes to page 2). Agassiz was a tireless collector
of natural specimens -- Edwin Percy Whipple famously wrote of
him that there was no new species in the country "that was
not sent to himas the one man in the country that could explain
it" -- but especially of snapping turtles. The Harvard Museum
of Natural History still has on display one of the turtle embryos,
preserved in alcohol, that Agassiz collected for his great work
Contributions to the Natural History of the United States
of America (1866).
ovarian eggs. Eggs carried in the female organ of reproduction.
Develops the example of the turtle embryos above: the ideas carried
in the brains of half a dozen individuals are, though still embryonic,
those that in a generation or a century will play a major role
in human civilization.
inchoate. In an initial or early stage. Underdeveloped,
jobbers. A jobber is someone "who buys and sells
goods as a middleman or dealer; a small trader or salesman; a
excretion. In medical terms, that which is separated and
ejected from the body.
parallax. Difference or change in the apparent position
or direction of an object as seen from two different points,
as in the practice of "shooting the sun" in navigation.
The Autocrat's metaphor compares the way the same idea can look
different from the perspective of two different times or historical
convolution. A fold, twist, turn, winding or sinuosity.
Cerebral convolutions are the folds of the brain's two
nicely. From nice as meaning "precise judgment
martyr-burning and witch-hanging. The Divinity Student
is the representative within the Autocrat's boarding-house world
of Calvinist doctrines such as Total Depravity -- the idea that
humans are born without any possibility of achieving Divine Grace
through an exercise of their own will -- and Predestination.
The Autocrat deliberately chooses martyr-burning -- referring
obliquely to the Spanish Inquisition and the burning of Protestants
in Queen Mary's England -- and witch-hanging -- by now
recognized as an irrational and shameful episode in Puritan New
England -- as examples so obviously inconsistent with New Testament
belief that one may hope to see doctrines as Total Depravity
will someday join them among the distortions, rather than the
principles, of Christian belief..
Intra Muros. "Within the walls." The speaker
of the poem is a city dweller compelled to remain inside while
spring outside the windows is bringing the earth back to life:
"I hear the whispering voice of Spring / The thrush's trill,
the cat-bird's cry / Like some poor bird with prisoned wing /
That sits and sings, but longs to fly."
the scarlet shell-fish. [???]
[Note: we aware that
this seems to suggest lobsters or crayfish. The objection is
that both turn scarlet only when cooked, while the shell-fish
being sold by the fishmonger in the poem are clearly raw.]
"Gil Blas". L'histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane,
a French picaresque novel by Alain Renè Lesage (1688-1747),Widely
regarded by the last masterpiece of the picaresque genre. The
Spanish epitaph that begins this section of the Autocrat
is from Lesage's preface, which contains a famous parable about
two kinds or levels of reading. Lesage tells the story of two
bachelors (students) of the University of Salamanca who are traveling
back to the university after a vacation. Tired with walking,
they take their rest by a spring of cool water. One notices a
flat gravestone overgrown with moss and grass. Dropping water
on the stone, they find the words the Autocrat quotes: Aquí
está encerrada el alma del licendiado Pedro Garcias.
The first student, remarking the clumsiness of saying that an
alma (soul) is buried beneath the turf, gets up and proceeds
on his way to Salamanca. The second student, suspecting that
this wasn't merely a matter of bad grammar, pries up the stone
and digs beneath. There he finds a purse of leather containing
pieces of gold and a card with these words written in Latin:
"Whoever thou art who has wit enough to discover the meaning
of the inscription, I appoint thee my heir, in the hope thou
wilt make a better use of my fortune than I have done."
Lesage then addresses the reader directly:
"Now, my good friend and reader, you
must be like one or the other of these two students. If you case
your eye over my adventures without fixing on the moral concealed
underneath them, you will derive very little benefit from the
perusal" (Trans. Tobias Smollett).
The Autocrat is at this point about to embark
on a series of his own childhood recollections specifically addressed
to "youthful readers" -- though he defines this as
"young persons from the age of twelve to that of four-score
years and ten, at which latter period of life I am sure that
I shall have at least one youthful reader" (199) -- who
he encourages to take in the way Lesage here desiderates.
licentiate. One who has received a licence' from
a university, college, or the like. In medieval use, designated
a right to teach ultimately granted by the Papacy. Subsequently,
the holder of a particular degree between bachelor and master
or doctor, still preserved in certain foreign universities (cf.
Spanish licenciato, French licencié).
I have come bearing flowers. "I have offered you
my thoughts just as they occurred in my own mind."
a seed-capsule. In botany, a type of simple, dry fruit
produced by many species of flowering plants. The capsule is
a structure composed of two or more carpels that in most cases
is dehiscent, i.e. at maturity, it splits apart (dehisces) to
release the seeds within. In the Autocrat's metaphor, the thoughts
offered in the preceding passage have their worth only because
they may take root in the minds or imaginations of a multitude
felt, with Pindar. Pindar, the ancient Greek poet from
Thebes, praises water as the most precious of human goods in
his first Olympian Ode, lines 1-2: "Best blessing of all
is water." Though Holmes read Greek, his high valuation
of Pindar came indirectly from his own favorate Latin poet Horace.
Quintilan, the great Latin rhetorician, said of Pindar that "Of
the nine lyric poets, Pindar is by far the greatest, in virtue
of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and
figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and
his rolling flood of eloquence, characteristics which, as Horace
rightly held, make him inimitable."
Dame Prentiss. Dame schools were private elementary schools.
Holmes remembered Dame Prentiss as "a good, motherly old
dame, who ruled her little flock, not with a scourge of birches,
but with a long willow rod that reached quite across the schoolroom
'reminding, rather than chastening'" (E.E. Brown, Life
of Oliver Wendell Holmes , pp. 26-27).
have known Abraham. I.e., have gone to heaven. In Judaism,
the concept of the Bosom of Abraham was associated with the belief
of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: "after our death
in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and
all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17).
In Christianity, the Bosom of Abraham occurs in only the parable
of the rich man and Lazarus, in the gospel of Luke (16:19-31;
see Luke 16:22 and Luke 16:23). Lazarus, a leper who had asked
for alms at a rich man's gate, is carried by the angels to that
destination after death. Abraham's bosom contrasts with the destination
of the rich man , who ends up in Hades. Church fathers sometimes
used the term to mean limbo, the abode of the righteous who died
before Christ and who were not admitted to heaven until his resurrection.
Among Christian writers since the 1st century AD, as for the
Autocrat here, "the Bosom of Abraham" has become synonymous
with Christian Heaven itself.