The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

Pages 161 -200


Judith Foo, Rhohini Bhaumik

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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

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 of Sarai.
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 eyes.

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Love's drapeau rouge. "Love's red flag": the maid's blush

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).

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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 6:19-20).

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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).

water-sulky. A "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 River.


caterpillar bridges. Bridges built
on timber pilings coated with tar.


Indiaman. A ship engaged in trade with India, or the East or West Indies. In particular, a large trading ship belonging to the East India Company.

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 1945.

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.

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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)

Elysian abandonment. 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 chancery'.

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 of mankind."

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.

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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, (1561–1626), 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, (1624—1689, 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 hay.

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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.

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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.

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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 locomotive.

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.

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wounds of angels which Milton tells of. In Book VI of Paradise Lost Milton describes the battle in Heaven as follows:

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.

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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).

[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 century

Hiram or Jonathan. Typical "Yankee" names.

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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 Their Bodies."

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..

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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.

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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.

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hidden caves. The lungs

streams of brightening purple. The oxygenated blood produced by pulmonary circulation.

that throbbing slave. The heart.

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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

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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.

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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."

old Italian. Latin. Modern Italian is a version of Latin as spoken in the classical period.

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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 its speaker.

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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.

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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.

conception. 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.

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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 or recurring.

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."

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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.

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albinesses. A female albino; a person with abnormally pale skin, hair and eyes, resulting in a congenital absence of pigment melanin.

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 tinges.

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 to Germany.

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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).

seventy-year clocks. 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.

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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…Every 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.)

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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 altered states.

faculties. Abilities or aptitudes whether natural or acquired. A capacity.

the young fellow. John

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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 vices?
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.

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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 likeness:

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.

spit. Thrust through, pierce.

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 states.

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 and beauty.

convalescents. 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.

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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.

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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 sympathetically.

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.


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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.

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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.

Titian's "portrait of a young man holding a glove in his hand," Louvre Museum.



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 B. Morse.



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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.

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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, immature.

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jobbers. A jobber is someone "who buys and sells goods as a middleman or dealer; a small trader or salesman; a wholesaler" (OED).

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 periods.

convolution. A fold, twist, turn, winding or sinuosity. Cerebral convolutions are the folds of the brain's two hemispheres.

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nicely. From nice as meaning "precise judgment or discrimination."

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."

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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.]

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"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).


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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 of readers.

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 [1884], 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.