Nox Oculis

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

Médeçin, humoriste et poète américain. Né le 29 août 1809 à Cambridge, Massachusetts, gradua à Harvard (B.A., 1829 ; M.D., 1836); père de Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., juge à la Cour Suprême des États-Unis. Mort le 7 octobre 1894

Holmes étudia d'abord le droit qu'il abandonna rapidement au profit de la médecine. Il débuta dans la profession médicale comme médeçin omnipraticien (1836) mais orienta rapidement sa carrière vers le domaine académique pour devenir professeur d'anatomie et de physiologie à Dartmouth (1838-40), puis doyen à l'école médicale d'Harvard (1847-53), et finalement occupa la chaire Parkman d'anatomie et de physiologie à Harvard (1847-82). Conférencier brillant et populaire, il publia deux opuscules importants, dont un en opposition à la pratique de l'homéopathie et l'autre sur la nature des fièvres.

Un recueil de ses poèmes humoristiques fut publié en 1836. À partir de 1857, il publia dans le Atlantic Monthly une série d'essais demeurés populaires, ses "Breakfast-table sketches", qu'il réunit par la suite dans The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858) and plusieurs autres volumes subséquents. Le premiers volume contient des poèmes connus comme "The Chambered Nautilus". Il publia également trois romans, des biographies et des études médicales. Holmes inventa la stéréoscopie, une forme populaire de divertissement au XIXe siècle.

The Flâneur : Boston Common, December 6, 1882, During the Transit of Venus

    I love all sights of earth and skies,
    From flowers that glow to stars that shine ;
    The comet and the penny show,
    All curious things, above, below,
    Hold each in turn my wandering eyes :
    I claim the Christian Pagan's line,
    Humani nihil, -- even so, --
    And is not human life divine ?

    When soft the western breezes blow,
    And strolling youths meet sauntering maids,
    I love to watch the stirring trades
    Beneath the Vallombrosa shades
    Our much-enduring elms bestow ;
    The vender and his rhetoric's flow,
    That lambent stream of liquid lies ;
    The bait he dangles from his line,
    The gudgeon and his gold-washed prize.
    I halt before the blazoned sign
    That bids me linger to admire
    The drama time can never tire,
    The little hero of the hunch,
    With iron arm and soul of fire,
    And will that works his fierce desire, --
    Untamed, unscared, unconquered Punch !
    My ear a pleasing torture finds
    In tones the withered sibyl grinds, --
    The dame sans merci's broken strain,
    Whom I erewhile, perchance, have known,
    When Orleans filled the Bourbon throne,
    A siren singing by the Seine.

    But most I love the tube that spies
    The orbs celestial in their march ;
    That shows the comet as it whisks
    Its tail across the planets' disks,
    As if to blind their blood-shot eyes ;
    Or wheels so close against the sun
    We tremble at the thought of risks
    Our little spinning ball may run,
    To pop like corn that children parch,
    From summer something overdone,
    And roll, a cinder, through the skies.

    Grudge not to-day the scanty fee
    To him who farms the firmament,
    To whom the Milky Way is free ;
    Who holds the wondrous crystal key,
    The silent Open Sesame
    That Science to her sons has lent ;
    Who takes his toll, and lifts the bar
    That shuts the road to sun and star.
    If Venus only comes to time,
    (And prophets say she must and shall,)
    To-day will hear the tinkling chime
    Of many a ringing silver dime,
    For him whose optic glass supplies
    The crowd with astronomic eyes, --
    The Galileo of the Mall.

    Dimly the transit morning broke ;
    The sun seemed doubting what to do,
    As one who questions how to dress,
    And takes his doublets from the press,
    And halts between the old and new.
    Please Heaven he wear his suit of blue,
    Or don, at least, his ragged cloak,
    With rents that show the azure through !

    I go the patient crowd to join
    That round the tube my eyes discern,
    The last new-comer of the file,
    And wait, and wait, a weary while,
    And gape, and stretch, and shrug, and smile,
    (For each his place must fairly earn,
    Hindmost and foremost, in his turn),
    Till hitching onward, pace by pace,
    I gain at last the envied place,
    And pay the white exiguous coin :
    The sun and I are face to face ;
    He glares at me, I stare at him ;
    And lo! my straining eye has found
    A little spot that, black and round,
    Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb's rim.
    O blessed, beauteous evening star,
    Well named for her whom earth adores, --
    The Lady of the dove-drawn car, --
    I know thee in thy white simar ;
    But veiled in black, a rayless spot,
    Blank as a careless scribbler's blot,
    Stripped of thy robe of silvery flame, --
    The stolen robe that Night restores
    When Day has shut his golden doors, --
    I see thee, yet I know thee not ;
    And canst thou call thyself the same ?

    A black, round spot, -- and that is all ;
    And such a speck our earth would be
    If he who looks upon the stars
    Through the red atmosphere of Mars
    Could see our little creeping ball
    Across the disk of crimson crawl
    As I our sister planet see.

    And art thou, then, a world like ours,
    Flung from the orb that whirled our own
    A molten pebble from its zone ?
    How must thy burning sands absorb
    The fire-waves of the blazing orb,
    Thy chain so short, thy path so near,
    Thy flame-defying creatures hear
    The maelstroms of the photosphere !
    And is thy bosom decked with flowers
    That steal their bloom from scalding showers ?
    And hast thou cities, domes, and towers,
    And life, and love that makes it dear,
    And death that fills thy tribes with fear ?

    Lost in my dream, my spirit soars
    Through paths the wandering angels know ; My all-pervading thought explores
    The azure ocean's lucent shores ;
    I leave my mortal self below,
    As up the star-lit stairs I climb,
    And still the widening view reveals
    In endless rounds the circling wheels
    That build the horologe of time.
    New spheres, new suns, new systems gleam ;
    The voice no earth-born echo hears
    Steals softly on my ravished ears :
    I hear them "singing as they shine" --
    A mortal's voice dissolves my dream :
    My patient neighbor, next in line,
    Hints gently there are those who wait.
    O guardian of the starry gate,
    What coin shall pay this debt of mine ?
    Too slight thy claim, too small the fee
    That bids thee turn the potent key
    The Tuscan's hand has placed in thine.
    Forgive my own the small affront,
    The insult of the proffered dime ;
    Take it, O friend, since this thy wont,
    But still shall faithful memory be
    A bankrupt debtor unto thee,
    And pay thee with a grateful rhyme.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1882, dans The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes (1895)

"I should have felt more nervous about the late comet, if I had thought the world was ripe. But it is very green yet, if I am not mistaken; and besides, there is a great deal of coal to use up, which I cannot bring myself to think was made for nothing. If certain things, which seem to me essential to a millennium, had come to pass, I should have been frightened; but they haven't. Perhaps you would like to hear my..."

Latter-Day Warnings

    When legislators keep the law,
    When banks dispense with bolts and locks,
    When berries, whortle -- rasp -- and straw --
    Grow bigger DOWNWARDS through the box, --

    When he that selleth house or land
    Shows leak in roof or flaw in right, --
    When haberdashers choose the stand
    Whose window hath the broadest light, --

    When preachers tell us all they think,
    And party leaders all they mean, --
    When what we pay for, that we drink,
    From real grape and coffee-bean, --

    When lawyers take what they would give,
    And doctors give what they would take, --
    When city fathers eat to live,
    Save when they fast for conscience' sake, --

    When one that hath a horse on sale
    Shall bring his merit to the proof,
    Without a lie for every nail
    That holds the iron on the hoof, --

    When in the usual place for rips
    Our gloves are stitched with special care,
    And guarded well the whalebone tips
    Where first umbrellas need repair, --

    When Cuba's weeds have quite forgot
    The power of suction to resist,
    And claret-bottles harber not
    Such dimples as would hold your fist, --

    When publishers no longer steal,
    And pay for what they stole before, --
    When the first locomotive's wheel
    Rolls through the Hoosac tunnel's bore; --
    TILL then let Cumming a blaze away,
    And Miller's saints blow up the globe ;
    But when you see that blessed day,
    THEN order your ascension robe !

    Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Secret of the Stars

    Is man's the only throbbing heart that hides
    The silent spring that feeds its whispering tides ?
    Speak from the caverns, mystery-breeding Earth,
    Tell the half-hinted story of thy birth,
    And calm the noisy champions who have thrown
    The book of types against the book of stone !

    Have ye not secrets, ye refulgent spheres,
    No sleepless listener of the starlight hears ?
    In vain the sweeping equatorial pries
    Through every world-sown corner of the skies,
    To the far orb that so remotely strays
    Our midnight darkness is its noonday blaze ;
    In vain the climbing soul of creeping man
    Metes out the heavenly concave with a span,
    Tracks into space the long-lost meteor's trail,
    And weighs an unseen planet in the scale ;
    Still o'er their doubts the waneyed watchers sigh,
    And Science lifts her still unanswered cry :
    "Are all these worlds, that speed their circling flight,
    Dumb, vacant, soulless, - baubles of the night ?
    Warmed with God's smile and wafted by his breath,
    To weave in ceaseless round the dance of Death ?
    Or rolls a sphere in each expanding zone,
    Crowned with a life as vaired as our own ?"

    Oliver Wendell Holmes

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