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Tribute to Oliver Wendell Holmes

December 3, 1879 — Breakfast honoring Oliver Wendell Holmes on his 70th birthday, Boston MA


Ladies and Gentlemen: One word in courtesy I must say in replying to so kind a mention as that which is made, not only of me, but those of my sex who are so happy as to be present here today. I think, in looking on this scene, of a certain congress which took place in Paris more than a year ago. It was called a congress of literary people, gens de lettres.

When I heard that this was to take place I immediately bestirred myself to attend its sittings and went at once to the headquarters to find how I might do so. I then learned to my great astonishment that no women were to be included among these gens de lettres, that is, literary people. 

Now, we have thought it a very modest phrase sometimes to plead that, whatever women may not be, they are people. And it would seem today that they are recognized as literary people, and I am very glad that you gentlemen have found room for the sisterhood today, and have found room to place them so numerously here, and I must say that to my eyes the banquet looks very much more cheerful than it would without them. It looks to me as though it had all blossomed out under a new social influence, and beside each dark stem I see a rose.

But I must say at once that I came here entirely unprovided with a speech, and, not dreaming of one, yet I came provided with something. I considered myself invited as a sort of grandmother — indeed, I am, and I know a grandmother is usually expected to have something in her pocket. And I have a very modest tribute to the illustrious person whom we are met today to honor. With your leave I will read it.

     Thou metamorphic god!
Who make’s the straight Olympus thy abode,
     Hermes to subtle laughter moving,
     Apollo with serener loving,
     Thou demi-god also!
Who dost all the powers of healing know;
     Thou hero who does wield
     The golden sword and shield, —
     Shield of a comprehensive mind,
And sword to wound the foes of human kind;

     Thou man of noble mold!
     Whose metal grows not cold
Beneath the hammer of the hurrying years;
     A fiery breath doth blow
     Across its fervid glow,
And still its resonance delights our ears;

     Loved of thy brilliant mates,
     Relinquished to the fates,
Whose spirit music used to chime with thine,
     Transfigured in our sight,
     Not quenched in death’s dark night,
They hold thee in companionship divine.

     O autocratic muse!
     Soul-rainbow of all hues,
Packed full of service are thy bygone years;
     Thy winged steed doth fly
     Across the starry sky,
Bearing the lowly burthens of thy tears.

     I try this little leap,
     Wishing that from the deep
I might some pearl of song adventurous bring.
     Despairing, here I stop,
     And my poor offering drop, —
Why stammer I when thou art here to sing?



Source: Women at the Podium: Memorable Speeches in History, ed. S. Michele Nix (New York: Harper Resources). pp. 74-76.