“The Last Leaf” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Countless students of the time, not only Mary Edwards, pp. 148-9, of The House on Harrigan’s Hill, were asked to memorize poems by poets of the Victorian Age (1850-1910), especially the New Englanders called the Fireside Poets like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Lowell.
According to Holmes (1809-1894) the poem that Mary memorized, “The Last Leaf,” was written for his own amusement sometime 1831-33. You can see that he was only 23 or so when he completed the poem. It was collected with other poems in its first edition in 1836. Though it was not considered among his best poems by critics, it had a number of admirers including Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allen Poe. His poems appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, which he named.
In addition to writing, like several 20th century poets, he was a doctor, educated at Harvard Medical School. Early in the 19th century, he advocated cleanliness in the patient’s presence and hand washing with disinfectant before examinations. Holmes wrote a paper on Puerperal Fever, an infection that especially injured women at childbirth and led commonly to miscarriage or to death of the mother. He antagonized physicians by accusing them of considering cleanliness unnecessary.
The most well-known Holmes is the celebrated Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who lived into his nineties. The senior Holmes could not have known that his son would live long, so who is Holmes, Sr. writing about in his poem “The Last Leaf?”
The figure was well-known in Boston, the grandfather of the famous 19th century writer Herman Melville. Major Thomas Melvill was claimed to be one of the “Indians” on the night of the Boston Tea Party in 1774. He never changed his wardrobe from early colonial attire and was referred to as “the last of the cocked hats.” Melvill’s three-cornered hat is what made the elderly man so queer to the young Holmes.
The most thoughtful lines of the poem are in the last stanza when he compares that old man, still alive even though all his friends are gone, to a newly budding tree still holding onto last year’s leaf which refuses to drop to the ground. As was true for Holmes’ son and for Mary Edwards in “The House on Harrigan’s Hill”, a long life can linger through many a change.
I saw him once before, As he passed by the door, And again The pavement stones resound, As he totters o’er the ground With his cane.
They say that in his prime, Ere the pruning-knife of Time Cut him down, Not a better man was found By the Crier on his round Through the town.
But now he walks the streets, And looks at all he meets Sad and wan, And he shakes his feeble head, That it seems as if he said, “They are gone.”
The mossy marbles rest On the lips that he has prest In their bloom, And the names he loved to hear Have been carved for many a year On the tomb.
My grandmamma has said— Poor old lady, she is dead Long ago— That he had a Roman nose, And his cheek was like a rose In the snow;
But now his nose is thin, And it rests upon his chin Like a staff, And a crook is in his back, And a melancholy crack In his laugh.
I know it is a sin For me to sit and grin At him here; But the old three-cornered hat, And the breeches, and all that, Are so queer!
And if I should live to be The last leaf upon the tree In the spring, Let them smile, as I do now, At the old forsaken bough Where I cling.
- original post February 2015