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From The World’s Wit and Humor, Volume I, American; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 224-253.


American Wit and Humor

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

An Aphorism and a Lecture

One knows of the boys mentioned, the other evening, in the course of a very pleasant poem he read us, a little trick of the Commons table-boarders, which I, nourished at the parental board, had never heard of. Young fellows being always hungry —— Allow me to stop dead short, in order to utter an aphorism which has been forming itself in one of the blank interior spaces of my intelligence, like a crystal in the cavity of a geode.

Aphorism by the Professor.

In order to know whether a human being is young or old, offer it food of different kinds at short intervals. If young, it will eat anything at any hour of the day or night. If old, it observes stated periods, and you might as well attempt to regulate the time of high-water to suit a fishing-party as to change these periods.

The crucial experiment is this. Offer a bulky and boggy bun to the suspected individual just ten minutes before dinner. If this is eagerly accepted and devoured, the fact of youth is established. If the subject of the question starts back and expresses surprise and incredulity, as if you could not possibly be in earnest, the fact of maturity is no less clear.

— Excuse me — I return to my story of the Commons-table. Young fellows being always hungry, and tea and dry toast 225 being the meager fare of the evening meal, it was a trick of some of the boys to impale a slice of meat upon a fork at dinner-time and stick the fork holding it beneath the table, so that they could get it at tea-time. The dragons that guarded this table of the Hesperides found out the trick at last and kept a sharp lookout for missing forks — they knew where to find one if it was not in its place. Now the odd thing was that, after waiting so many years to hear of this college trick, I should hear it mentioned a second time within the same twenty-four hours by a college youth of the present generation. Strange, but true. And so it has happened to me and to every person, often and often, to be hit in rapid succession by these twinned facts or thoughts, as if they were linked like chain-shot.

I was going to leave the simple reader to wonder over this, taking it as an unexplained marvel. I think, however, I will turn over a furrow of subsoil in it. The explanation is, of course, that in a great many thoughts there must be a few coincidences, and these instantly arrest our attention. Now we shall probably never have the least idea of the enormous number of impressions which pass through our consciousness, until in some future life we see the photographic record of our thoughts and the stereoscopic picture of our actions. There go more pieces to make up a conscious life or a living body than you think for. Why, some of you were surprised when a friend of mine told you there were fifty-eight separate pieces in a fiddle. How many “swimming glands” — solid, organized, regularly formed, rounded disks, taking an active part in all your vital processes, part and parcel, each one of them, of your corporeal being — do you suppose are whirled along like pebbles in a stream with the blood which warms your frame and colors your cheeks? A noted German physiologist spread out a minute drop of blood, under the microscope, in 226 narrow streaks, and counted the globules, and then made a calculation. The counting by the micrometer took him a week. You have, my full-grown friend, of these little couriers in crimson or scarlet livery, running on your vital errands day and night as long as you live, sixty-five billions five hundred and seventy thousand millions, errors excepted. Did I hear some gentleman say, “Doubted?” I am the Professor; I sit in my chair with a petard under it that will blow me through the skylight of my lecture-room if I do not know what I am talking about and whom I am quoting.

Now, my dear friends, who are putting your hands to your foreheads and saying to yourselves that you feel a little confused, as if you had been waltzing until things began to whirl slightly round you, is it possible that you do not clearly apprehend the exact connection of all that I have been saying and its bearing on what is now to come? Listen, then. The number of these living elements in our bodies illustrates the incalculable multitude of our thoughts; the number of our thoughts accounts for those frequent coincidences spoken of; these coincidences in the world of thought illustrate those which we constantly observe in the world of outward events, of which the presence of the young girl now at our table, and proving to be the daughter of an old acquaintance some of us may remember, is the special example which led me through this labyrinth of reflections, and finally lands me at the commencement of this young girl’s story, which, as I said, I have found the time and felt the interest to learn something of, and which I think I can tell without wronging the unconscious subject of my brief delineation.


A Short Lecture on Phrenology

Read to the Boarders at Our Breakfast-Table

I shall begin, my friends, with the definition of a pseudoscience. A pseudoscience consists of a nomenclature, with a self-adjusting arrangement, by which all positive evidence, or such as favors its doctrines, is admitted, and all negative evidence, or such as tells against it, is excluded. It is invariably connected with some lucrative practical application. Its professors and practitioners are usually shrewd people; they are very serious with the public, but wink and laugh a good deal among themselves. The believing multitude consists of women of both sexes, feeble-minded inquirers, poetical optimists, people who always get cheated in buying horses, philanthropists who insist on hurrying up the millennium, and others of this class, with here and there a clergyman, less frequently a lawyer, very rarely a physician, and almost never a horse-jockey or a member of the detective police. I did not say that Phrenology was one of the pseudosciences.

A pseudoscience does not necessarily consist wholly of lies. It may contain many truths, and even valuable ones. The rottenest bank starts with a little specie. It puts out a thousand promises to pay on the strength of a single dollar, but the dollar is very commonly a good one. The practitioners of the pseudosciences know that common minds, after they have been baited with a real fact or two, will jump at the merest rag of a lie, or even at the bare hook. When we have one fact found us, we are very apt to supply the next out of our own imagination. 228 (How many persons can read Judges xv. 16 correctly the first time?) The pseudosciences take advantage of this. I did not say that it was so with Phrenology.

I have rarely met a sensible man who would not allow that there was something in Phrenology. A broad, high forehead, it is commonly agreed, promises intellect; one that is “villainous low,” and has a huge hind-head back of it, is wont to mark an animal nature. I have as rarely met an unbiased and sensible man who really believed in the bumps. It is observed, however, that persons with what the phrenologists call “good heads” are more prone than others toward plenary belief in the doctrine.

It is so hard to prove a negative that, if a man should assert that the moon was in truth a green cheese, formed by the coagulable substance of the Milky Way, and challenge me to prove the contrary, I might be puzzled. But if he offer to sell me a ton of this lunar cheese, I call on him to prove the truth of the caseous nature of our satellite before I purchase.

It is not necessary to prove the falsity of the phrenological statement. It is only necessary to show that its truth is not proved, and cannot be, by the common course of argument. The walls of the head are double, with a great air-chamber between them, over the smallest and most closely crowded “organs.” Can you tell how much money there is in a safe, which also has thick double walls, by kneading its knobs with your fingers? So when a man fumbles about my forehead, and talks about the organs of Individuality, Size, etc., I trust him as much as I should if he felt of the outside of my strongbox and told me that there was a five-dollar or a ten-dollar bill under this or that particular rivet. Perhaps there is; only he doesn’t know anything about it. But this is a point that I, 229 the Professor, understand, my friends, or ought to, certainly, better than you do. The next argument you will all appreciate.

I proceed, therefore, to explain the self-adjusting mechanism of Phrenology, which is very similar to that of the pseudosciences. An example will show it most conveniently.

A—— is a notorious thief. Messrs. Bumpus and Crane examine him and find a good-sized organ of Acquisitiveness. Positive fact for Phrenology. Casts and drawings of A—— are multiplied, and the bump does not lose in the act of copying. — I did not say it gained. — What do you look so for? (to the boarders).

Presently B—— turns up, a bigger thief than A——. But B—— has no bump at all over Acquisitiveness. Negative fact; goes against Phrenology. Not a bit of it. Don’t you see how small Conscientiousness is? That’s the reason B—— stole.

And then comes C——, ten times as much a thief as either A—— or B——; used to steal before he was weaned, and would pick one of his own pockets and put its contents in another, if he could find no other way of committing petty larceny. Unfortunately C—— has a hollow, instead of a bump, over Acquisitiveness. Ah! but just look and see what a bump of Alimentiveness! Did not C—— buy nuts and gingerbread, when a boy, with the money he stole? Of course you see why he is a thief, and how his example confirms our noble science.

At last comes along a case which is apparently a settler, for there is a little brain with vast and varied powers — a case like that of Byron, for instance. Then comes out the grand reserve-reason which covers everything and renders it simply impossible ever to corner a phrenologist. “It is not the size alone, 230 but the quality of an organ, which determines its degree of power.”

Oh! oh! I see. The argument may be briefly stated thus by the phrenologist: “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Well, that’s convenient.

It must be confessed that Phrenology has a certain resemblance to the pseudosciences. I did not say it was a pseudoscience.

I have often met persons who have been altogether struck up and amazed at the accuracy with which some wandering Professor of Phrenology had read their characters written upon their skulls. Of course, the Professor acquires his information solely through his cranial inspections and manipulations. What are you laughing at? (to the boarders). But let us just suppose, for a moment, that a tolerably cunning fellow, who did not know or care anything about Phrenology, should open a shop and undertake to read off people’s characters at fifty cents or a dollar apiece. Let us see how well he could get along without the “organs.”

I will suppose myself to set up such a shop. I would invest one hundred dollars, more or less, in casts of brains, skulls, charts, and other matters that would make the most show for the money. That would do to begin with. I would then advertise myself as the celebrated Professor Brainey, or whatever name I might choose, and wait for my first customer — a middle-aged man. I look at him, ask him a question or two, so as to hear him talk. When I have got the hang of him, I ask him to sit down, and proceed to fumble his skull, dictating as follows:



Each to be accompanied with a wink
Amativeness, 7     Most men love the conflicting sex, and all men love to be told they do.
Alimentiveness, 8     Don’t you see that he has burst off his lowest waistcoat button with feeding — hey?
Acquisitiveness, 8     Of course. A middle-aged Yankee.
Approbativeness, 7, +     Hat well brushed. Hair ditto. Mark the effect of that plus sign.
Self-esteem, 6     His face shows that.
Benevolence, 9     That’ll please him.
Conscientiousness, 8½     That fraction looks first rate.
Mirthfulness, 7     Has laughed twice since he came in.
Ideality, 9     That sounds well.
Form, Size, Weight, Color,
Locality, Eventuality,
etc., etc. } 4 to 6.
    Average everything that can’t be guessed.
    And so of other faculties.    

Of course, you know, that isn’t the way the phrenologists do. They go only by the bumps. What do you keep laughing so for? (to the boarders) I only said that is the way I should practise “Phrenology” for a living.

Foreign Correspondence

Do I think that the particular form of lying often seen in newspapers under the title, “From our Foreign Correspondent,” does any harm? Why, no, I don’t know that it does. I suppose it doesn’t really deceive people any more than the “Arabian Nights” or “Gulliver’s Travels” do. Sometimes 232 the writers compile too carelessly, though, and mix up facts out of geographies and stories out of the penny papers, so as to mislead those who are desirous of information. I cut a piece out of one of the papers the other day which contains a number of improbabilities and, I suspect, misstatements. I will send up and get it for you, if you would like to hear it. Ah, this is it; it is headed


“This island is now the property of the Stamford family, — having been won, it is said, in a raffle, by Sir —— Stamford, during the stock-gambling mania of the South Sea Scheme. The history of this gentleman may be found in an interesting series of questions (unfortunately not yet answered) contained in the ‘Notes and Queries.’ This island is entirely surrounded by the ocean, which here contains a large amount of saline substance, crystallizing in cubes remarkable for their symmetry, and frequently displays on its surface, during calm weather, the rainbow tints of the celebrated South-Sea bubbles. The summers are oppressively hot, and the winters very probably cold; but this fact cannot be ascertained precisely, as, for some peculiar reason, the mercury in these latitudes never shrinks, as in more northern regions, and thus the thermometer is rendered useless in winter.

“The principal vegetable productions of the island are the pepper-tree and the breadfruit-tree. Pepper being very abundantly produced, a benevolent society was organized in London during the last century for supplying the natives with vinegar and oysters, as an addition to that delightful condiment. (Note received from Dr. D. P.) It is said, however, that, as the oysters were of the kind called natives in England, the natives of Sumatra, in obedience to a natural instinct, refused to touch 233 them, and confined themselves entirely to the crew of the vessel in which they were brought over. This information was received from one of the oldest inhabitants, a native himself, and exceedingly fond of missionaries. He is said also to be very skilful in the cuisine peculiar to the island.

“During the season of gathering the pepper, the persons employed are subject to various incommodities, the chief of which is violent and long-continued sternutation, or sneezing. Such is the vehemence of these attacks that the unfortunate subjects of them are often driven backward for great distances at immense speed, on the well-known principle of the æolipile. Not being able to see where they are going, these poor creatures dash themselves to pieces against the rocks or are precipitated over the cliffs, and thus many valuable lives are lost annually. As during the whole pepper harvest they feed exclusively on this stimulant, they become exceedingly irritable. The smallest injury is resented with ungovernable rage. A young man suffering from the pepper-fever, as it is called, cudgeled another most severely for appropriating a superannuated relative of trifling value, and was only pacified by having a present made him of a pig of that peculiar species of swine called the Peccavi by the Catholic Jews, who, it is well known, abstain from swine’s flesh in imitation of the Mohammedan Buddhists.

“The bread-tree grows abundantly. Its branches are well known to Europe and America under the familiar name of macaroni. The smaller twigs are called vermicelli. They have a decided animal flavor, as may be observed in the soups containing them. Macaroni, being tubular, is the favorite habitat of a very dangerous insect, which is rendered peculiarly ferocious by being boiled. The government of the island, therefore, never allows a stick of it to be exported 234 without being accompanied by a piston with which its cavity may at any time be thoroughly swept out. These are commonly lost or stolen before the macaroni arrives among us. It therefore always contains many of these insects, which, however, generally die of old age in the shops, so that accidents from this source are comparatively rare.

“The fruit of the bread-tree consists principally of hot rolls. The buttered-muffin variety is supposed to be a hybrid with the coconut-palm, the cream found on the milk of the coconut exuding from the hybrid in the shape of butter, just as the ripe fruit is splitting, so as to fit it for the tea-table, where it is commonly served up with cold —— ”

There, — I don’t want to read any more of it. You see that many of these statements are highly improbable. No, I shall not mention the paper.

— “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.


The old Master was talking about a concert he had been to hear.

— I don’t like your chopped music anyway. That woman — she had more sense in her little finger than forty medical societies — Florence Nightingale — says that the music you pour out is good for sick folks, and the music you pound out isn’t. Not that exactly, but something like it. I have been to hear some music-pounding. It was a young woman, with as many white muslin flounces round her as the planet Saturn has rings, that did it. She gave the music-stool a twirl or two and fluffed down on to it like a whirl of soap-suds in a hand-basin. Then she pushed up her cuffs as if she was going to fight for the 235 champion’s belt. Then she worked her wrists and her hands, to limber ’em, I suppose, and spread out her fingers till they looked as though they would pretty much cover the keyboard, from the growling end to the little squeaky one. Then those two hands of hers made a jump at the keys as if they were a couple of tigers coming down on a flock of black-and-white sheep, and the piano gave a great howl as if its tail had been trod on. Dead stop — so still you could hear your hair growing. Then another jump, and another howl, as if the piano had two tails and you had trod on both of ’em at once, and then a grand clatter and scramble and string of jumps, up and down, back and forward, one hand over the other, like a stampede of rats and mice more than like anything I call music. I like to hear a woman sing, and I like to hear a fiddle sing, but these noises they hammer out of their wood-and-ivory anvils — don’t talk to me; I know the difference between a bullfrog and a wood-thrush.

— “The Poet at the Breakfast-Table.


I want it to be understood that I consider that a certain number of persons are at liberty to dislike me peremptorily, without showing cause, and that they give no offense whatever in so doing.

If I did not cheerfully acquiesce in this sentiment toward myself on the part of others, I should not feel at liberty to indulge my own aversions. I try to cultivate a Christian feeling to all my fellow-creatures, but inasmuch as I must also respect truth and honesty, I confess to myself a certain number of inalienable dislikes and prejudices, some of which may possibly be shared by others. Some of these are purely instinctive; for 236 others I can assign a reason. Our likes and dislikes play so important a part in the order of things that it is well to see on what they are founded.

There are persons I meet occasionally who are too intelligent by half for my liking. They know my thoughts beforehand, and tell me what I was going to say. Of course they are masters of all my knowledge, and a good deal besides; have read all the books I have read, and in later editions; have had all the experiences I have been through, and more, too. In my private opinion, every mother’s son of them will lie at any time rather than confess ignorance.

I have a kind of dread, rather than hatred, of persons with a large excess of vitality — great feeders, great laughers, great story-tellers, who come sweeping over their company with a huge tidal-wave of animal spirits and boisterous merriment. I have pretty good spirits myself, and enjoy a little mild pleasantry, but I am oppressed and extinguished by these great lusty, noisy creatures, and feel as if I were a mute at a funeral when they get into full blast.

I cannot get along much better with those drooping, languid people, whose vitality falls short as much as that of the others is in excess. I have not life enough for two; I wish I had. It is not very enlivening to meet a fellow-creature whose expression and accents say, “You are the hair that breaks the camel’s back of my endurance; you are the last drop that makes my cup of woe run over”; persons whose heads drop on one side like those of toothless infants; whose voices recall the tones in which our old snuffling choir used to wail out the verse of

“Life is the time to serve the Lord.”

There is another style which does not captivate me. I recognize an attempt at the grand manner now and then, in persons 237 who are well enough in their way, but of no particular importance, socially or otherwise. Some family tradition of wealth or distinction is apt to be at the bottom of it, and it survives all the advantages that used to set it off. I like family pride as well as my neighbors, and respect the high-born fellow-citizen whose progenitors have not worked in their shirt-sleeves for the last two generations full as much as I ought to. But grandpère oblige; a person with a known grandfather is too distinguished to find it necessary to put on airs. The few Royal Princes I have happened to know were very easy people to get along with, and had not half the social knee-action I have often seen in the collapsed dowagers who lifted their eyebrows at me in my earlier years.

My heart does not warm as it should do toward the persons, not intimates, whoare always too glad to see me when we meet by accident, and discover all at once that they have a vast deal to unbosom themselves to me.

There is one blameless person whom I cannot love and have no excuse for hating. It is the innocent fellow-creature, otherwise inoffensive to me, whom I find I have involuntarily joined on turning a corner. I suppose the Mississippi, which was flowing quietly along, minding its own business, hates the Missouri for coming into it all at once with its muddy stream. I suppose the Missouri in like manner hates the Mississippi for diluting with its limpid but insipid current the rich reminiscences of the varied soils through which its own stream has wandered. I will not compare myself to the clear or the turbid current, but I will own that my heart sinks when I find all of a sudden I am in for a corner confluence, and I cease loving my neighbor as myself until I can get away from him.

— “The Poet at the Breakfast Table.”


The Deacon’s Masterpiece;

Or, the WonderfulOne-hoss Shay

A Logical Story

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, —
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
Georgius Secundus was then alive, —
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on that terrible Earthquake day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot —
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel or cross-bar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, throughbrace, — lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, —
239 Above or below, or within or without, —
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as deacons do,
With an “I dew vum,” or an “I tell yeou”)
He would build one shay to beat the taown
’N’ the keounty, ’n’ all the kentry raoun’
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
— ;“Fer,” said the Deacon, “’t’s mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
’N’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain,
            Is only jest
T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest.“

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke —
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the the straightest trees,
The panels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,” —
Last of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ’em,
Never no axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin, too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
240 Throughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he “put her through,” —
“There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and Deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake day!

Eighteen hundred — it came and found
The Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten —
“Hahnsum kerridge” they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came —
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrived,
And then come fifty, and fifty-five.

Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome — No extra charge.)

First of November — the Earthquake-day —
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
241 A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be — for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thills
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whipple-tree neither less or more,
And the back cross-bar as strong as the fore,
And the spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November ’Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
“Huddup!” said the parson — Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday’s text —
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the — Moses — was coming next.

All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill.
—First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill —
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n’-house clock —
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
— What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?

The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once —
All at once, and nothing first —
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

My Aunt

My aunt! my dear unmarried aunt!
    Long years have o’er her flown;
Yet still she strains the aching clasp
    That binds her virgin zone;
I know it hurts her — though she looks
    As cheerful as she can;
Her waist is ampler than her life,
    For life is but a span.

My aunt, my poor deluded aunt!
    Her hair is almost gray;
Why will she train that winter curl
    In such a spring-like way?
How can she lay her glasses down,
    And say she reads as well,
When, through a double convex lens,
    She just makes out to spell?

Her father — grandpapa! forgive
    This erring lip its smiles —
Vowed she would make the finest girl
    Within a hundred miles.
He sent her to a stylish school;
    ’Twas in her thirteenth June;
And with her, as the rules required,
    “Two towels and a spoon.”

They brace my aunt against a board,
    To make her straight and tall;
They laced her up, they starved her down,
    To make her light and small;
They pinched her feet, they singed her hair,
    They screwed it up with pins —
Oh, never mortal suffered more
    In penance for her sins.

So, when my precious aunt was done,
    My grandsire brought her back
(By daylight, lest some rabid youth
    Might follow on the track);
“Ah!” said my grandsire, as he shook
    Some powder in his pan,
“What could this lovely creature do
    Against a desperate man!”

Alas! nor chariot nor barouche
    Nor bandit cavalcade
Tore from the trembling father’s arms
    His all-accomplished maid.
244 For her how happy had it been!
    And Heaven had spared to me
To see one sad, ungathered rose
    On my ancestral tree.

The Ballad of the Oysterman

It was a tall young oysterman lived by the riverside,
His shop was built upon the bank, his boat was on the tide;
The daughter of a fisherman, that was so straight and slim,
Lived over on the other bank, right opposite to him.

It was the pensive oysterman that saw a lovely maid,
Upon a moonlight evening, a-sitting in the shade;
He saw her wave her handkerchief, as much as if to say,
“I’m wide awake, young oysterman, and all the folks away.”

Then up arose the oysterman, and to himself said he,
“I guess I’ll leave the skiff at home, for fear that folks should
I read it in the story-book, that, for to kiss his dear,
Leander swam the Hellespont, and I will swim this here.

And he has leaped into the waves, and crossed the shining
And he has clambered up the bank, all in the moonlight gleam;
Oh, there are kisses sweet as dew, and words as soft as rain —
But they have heard her father’s step, and in he leaps again!

Out spoke the ancient fisherman: “Oh, what was that, my
“’Twas nothing but a pebble, sir, I threw into the water.”
245 “And what is that, pray tell me, love, that paddles off so
“It’s nothing but a porpoise, sir, that’s been a-swimming

Out spoke the ancient fisherman: “Now, bring me
        my harpoon!
I’ll get into my fishing boat, and fix the fellow soon.”
Down fell that pretty innocent, as falls a snow-white lamb;
Her hair drooped round her pallid cheeks, like seaweed on a

Alas! for those two loving ones! she waked not from her
And he was taken with the cramp, and in the waves was
But Fate has metamorphosed them, in pity of their woe,
And now they keep an oyster shop for mermaids down below.

The Height of the Ridiculous

I wrote some lines once on a time,
     In wondrous merry mood,
And thought, as usual, men would say
     They were exceeding good.

They were so queer, so very queer,
     I laughed as I would die;
Albeit, in the general way,
     A sober man am I.

I called my servant, and he came;
     How kind it was of him,
To mind a slender man like me,
     He of the mighty limb!

“These to the printer,” I exclaimed,
     And, in my humorous way,
I added (as a trifling jest),
     “There’ll be the devil to pay.”

He took the paper, and I watched,
     And saw him peep within;
As the first line he read, his face
     Was all upon the grin.

He read the next: the grin grew broad,
     And shot from ear to ear;
He read the third: a chuckling noise
     I now began to hear.

The fourth: he broke into a roar;
     The fifth: his waistband split;
The sixth: he burst five buttons off,
     And tumbled in a fit.

Ten days and nights, with sleepless eye,
     I watched that wretched man,
And since, I never dare to write
     As funny as I can.


A Walk with the Schoolmistress

I can’t say just how many walks she and I had taken together before this one. I found the effect of going out every morning was decidedly favorable on her health. Two pleasing dimples, the places for which were just marked when she came, played, shadowy, in her freshening cheeks when she smiled and nodded good morning to me from the schoolhouse-steps.

I am afraid I did the greater part of the talking. At any rate, if I should try to report all that I said during the first half-dozen walks we took together, I fear that I might receive a gentle hint from my friends the publishers, that a separate volume, at my own risk and expense, would be the proper method of bringing them before the public.

—— I would have a woman as true as Death. At the first real lie which works from the heart outward, she should be tenderly chloroformed into a better world, where she can have an angel for a governess, and feed on strange fruits which will make her all over again, even to her bones and marrow. — Whether gifted with the accident of beauty or not, she should have been molded in the rose-red clay of Love, before the breath of life made a moving mortal of her. Love-capacity is a congenital endowment; and I think, after a while, one gets to know the warm-hued natures it belongs to from the pretty pipe-clay counterfeits of it. — Proud she may be, in the sense of respecting herself; but pride, in the sense of contemning others less gifted than herself, deserves the two lowest circles of a vulgar woman’s Inferno, where the punishments are Smallpox and Bankruptcy. — She who nips off the end of a brittle courtesy, as one breaks the tip of an icicle, to bestow upon those whom she ought cordially 248 and kindly to recognize, proclaims the fact that she comes not merely of low blood, but of bad blood. Consciousness of unquestioned position makes people gracious in proper measure to all; but if a woman puts on airs with her real equals, she has something about herself or her family she is ashamed of, or ought to be. Middle, and more than middle-aged people, who know family histories, generally see through it. An official of standing was rude to me once. Oh, that is the maternal grandfather — said a wise old friend to me, — he was a boor. — Better too few words, from the woman we love, than too many: while she is silent, Nature is working for her; while she talks, she is working for herself. — Love is sparingly soluble in the words of men; therefore they speak much of it; but one syllable of woman’s speech can dissolve more of it than a man’s heart can hold.

—— Whether I said any or all of these things to the schoolmistress, or not, — whether I stole them out of Lord Bacon, — whether I cribbed them from Balzac, — whether I dipped them from the ocean of Tupperian wisdom, — or whether I have just found them in my head, laid there by that solemn fowl, Experience, (who, according to my observation, cackles oftener than she drops real live eggs,) I cannot say. Wise men have said more foolish things, — and foolish men, I don’t doubt, have said as wise things. Anyhow, the schoolmistress and I had pleasant walks and long talks, all of which I do not feel bound to report.

—— You are a stranger to me, Ma’am. — I don’t doubt you would like to know all I said to the schoolmistress. — I sha’n’t do it; — I had rather get the publishers to return the money you have invested in this. Besides, I have forgotten a good deal of it. I shall tell only what I like of what I remember.

—— My idea was, in the first place, to search out the picturesque spots which the city affords a sight of, to those who have eyes. I know a good many, and it was a pleasure to look 249 at them in company with my young friend. There were the shrubs and flowers in the Franklin-Place front-yards or borders; Commerce is just putting his granite foot upon them. Then there are certain small seraglio- gardens, into which one can get a peep through the crevices of high fences, — one in Myrtle Street, or backing on it, — here and there one at the North and South Ends. Then the great elms in Essex Street. Then the stately horse-chestnuts in that vacant lot in Chambers Street, which hold their outspread hands over your head, (as I said in my poem the other day,) and look as if they were whispering, “May grace, mercy, and peace be with you!” — and the rest of that benediction. Nay, there are certain patches of ground, which, having lain neglected for a time, Nature, who always has her pockets full of seeds, and holes in all her pockets, has covered with hungry plebeian growths, which fight for life with each other, until some of them get broad-leaved and succulent, and you have a coarse vegetable tapestry which Raphael would not have disdained to spread over the foreground of his masterpiece. The Professor pretends that he found such a one in Charles Street, which, in its dare-devil impudence of rough-and-tumble vegetation, beat the pretty-behaved flower-beds of the Public Garden as ignominiously as a group of young tatterdemalions playing pitch-and-toss beats a row of Sunday-school boys with their teacher at their head.

But then the Professor has one of his burrows in that region, and puts everything in high colors relating to it. That is his way about everything. —— I hold any man cheap, — he said, — of whom nothing stronger can be uttered than that all his geese are swans. —— How is that, Professor? —— said I; — I should have set you down for one of that sort. —— Sir, — said he, — I am proud to say, that Nature has so far enriched me, that I cannot own so much as a duck without seeing in it as pretty a swan as ever 250 swam the basin in the garden of the Luxembourg. And the Professor showed the whites of his eyes devoutly, like one returning thanks after a dinner of many courses.

I don’t know anything sweeter than this leaking in of Nature through all the cracks in the walls and floors of cities. You heap up a million tons of hewn rocks on a square mile or two of earth which was green once. The trees look down from the hillsides and ask each other, as they stand on tiptoe, — “What are these people about?” And the small herbs at their feet look up and whisper back, — “We will go and see.” So the small herbs pack themselves up in the least possible bundles, and wait until the wind steals to them at night and whispers,— “Come with me.” Then they go softly with it into the great city, — one to a cleft in the pavement, one to a spout on the roof, one to a seam in the marbles over a rich gentleman’s bones, and one to the grave without a stone where nothing but a man is buried, — and there they grow, looking down on the generations of men from moldy roofs, looking up from between the less-trodden pavements, looking out through iron cemetery-railings. Listen to them, when there is only a light breath stirring, and you will hear them saying to each other, — “Wait awhile!” The words run along the telegraph of those narrow green lines that border the roads leading from the city, until they reach the slope of the hills, and the trees repeat in low murmurs to each other, — “Wait awhile!” By and by the flow of life in the streets ebbs, and the old leafy inhabitants — the smaller tribes always in front — saunter in, one by one, very careless seemingly, but very tenacious, until they swarm so that the great stones gape from each other with the crowding of their roots, and the feldspar begins to be picked out of the granite to find them food. At last the trees take up their solemn line of march, and never rest until they have encamped in the market-place. Wait long 251 enough and you will find an old doting oak hugging a huge worn block in its yellow underground arms; that was the cornerstone of the State-House. Oh, so patient she is, this imperturbable Nature!

—— Let us cry! ——

But all this has nothing to do with my walks and talks with the schoolmistress. I did not say that I would not tell you something about them. Let me alone, and I shall talk to you more than I ought to, probably. We never tell our secrets to people that pump for them.

Books we talked about, and education. It was her duty to know something of these, and of course she did. Perhaps I was somewhat more learned than she, but I found that the difference between her reading and mine was like that of a man’s and a woman’s dusting a library. The man flaps about with a bunch of feathers; the woman goes to work softly with a cloth. She does not raise half the dust, nor fill her own eyes and mouth with it, — but she goes into all the corners, and attends to the leaves as much as the covers. — Books are the negative pictures of thought, and the more sensitive the mind that receives their images, the more nicely the finest lines are reproduced. A woman, (of the right kind,) reading after a man, follows him as Ruth followed the reapers of Boaz, and her gleanings are often the finest of the wheat.

But it was in talking of Life that we came most clearly together. I thought I knew something about that, — that I could speak or write about it somewhat to the purpose.

To take up this fluid earthly being of ours as a sponge sucks up water, — to be steeped and soaked in its realities as a hide fills its pores lying seven years in a tan-pit, — to have winnowed every wave of it as a mill-wheel works up the stream that runs through the flume upon its float-boards, — to have curled up in the keenest 252 spasms and flattened out in the laxest languors of this breathing-sickness, which keeps certain parcels of matter uneasy for three or four score years, — to have fought all the devils and clasped all the angels of its delirium, — and then, just at the point when the white-hot passions have cooled down to a cherry-red, plunge our experience into the ice-cold stream of some human language or other, one might think would end in a rhapsody with something of spring and temper in it. All this I thought my power and province.

The schoolmistress had tried life, too. Once in a while one meets with a single soul greater than all the living pageant which passes before it. As the pale astronomer sits in his study with sunken eyes and thin fingers, and weighs Uranus or Neptune as in a balance, so there are meek, slight women who have weighed all which this planetary life can offer, and hold it like a bauble in the palm of their slender hands. This was one of them. Fortune had left her, sorrow had baptized her; the routine of labor and the loneliness of almost friendless city-life were before her. Yet, as I looked upon her tranquil face, gradually regaining a cheerfulness which was often sprightly, as she became interested in the various matters we talked about and places we visited, I saw that eye and lip and every shifting lineament were made for love, — unconscious of their sweet office as yet, and meeting the cold aspect of Duty with the natural graces which were meant for the reward of nothing less than the Great Passion.

—— I never addressed one word of love to the schoolmistress in the course of these pleasant walks. It seemed to me that we talked of everything but love on that particular morning. There was, perhaps, a little more timidity and hesitancy on my part than I have commonly shown among our people at the boarding-house. In fact, I considered myself the master at the breakfast-table; 253 but, somehow, I could not command myself just then so well as usual. The truth is, I had secured a passage to Liverpool in the steamer which was to leave at noon, — with the condition, however, of being released in case circumstances occurred to detain me. The schoolmistress knew nothing about all this, of course, as yet.

It was on the Common that we were walking. The mall, or boulevard of our Common, you know, has various branches leading from it in different directions. One of these runs down from opposite Joy Street southward across the whole length of the Common to Boylston Street. We called it the long path, and were fond of it.

I felt very weak indeed (though of a tolerably robust habit) as we came opposite the head of this path on that morning. I think I tried to speak twice without making myself distinctly audible. At last I got out the question, —— will you take the long path with me? —— Certainly, — said the schoolmistress, — with much pleasure. —— Think, — I said, — before you answer; if you take the long path with me now, I shall interpret it that we are to part no more! —— The schoolmistress stepped back with a sudden movement, as if an arrow had struck her.

One of the long granite blocks used as seats was hard by, — the one you may still see close by the Gingko-tree. —— Pray, sit down, — I said. —— No, no, she answered, softly, — I will walk the long path with you!

—— The old gentleman who sits opposite met us walking, arm in arm, about the middle of the long path, and said, very charmingly, — “Good morning, my dears!”

— “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table.


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