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Nahant: Poetry by the Sea



Oliver Wendall HomesOLIVER WENDELL HOLMES        (1809 – 1894) was a major American poet, a doctor, and an accomplished writer of essays and fiction.  The popularity of his most famous poem, “Old Ironsides,” is largely responsible for the preservation of the frigate “U.S.S. Constitution,” now docked at the Charlestown (MA) Navy Yard.  As a physician, Holmes held the Parkman Professorship of Anatomy and Physiology at Harvard Medical School from 1847 – 1882, during which time he authored a number of medical texts.  In 1857, he named and was instrumental in the launching of The Atlantic Monthly, a literary magazine that was the outgrowth of the Saturday Club, a weekly meeting of America’s best writers residing in the Cambridge/Boston area.  H.W. Longfellow was also a member, and since they both taught at Harvard, it is likely they spent some, but not a great deal, of time together on Nahant while Holmes vacationed there.  Holmes’ reverie while watching birds on Nahant’s shore is described in the last part of “My Aviary.”




My Aviary


. . .


  How often gazing where a bird reposes,
Rocked on the wavelets, drifting with the tide,
I lose myself in strange metempsychosis
And float a sea-fowl at a sea-fowl’s side;

From rain, hail, snow in feathery mantle muffled,
Clear-eyed, strong-limbed, with keenest sense to hear
My mate soft murmuring, who, with plumes unruffled,
Where’er I wander still is nestling near;

The great blue hollow like a garment o’er me;
Space all unmeasured, unrecorded time;
While seen with inward eye moves on before me
Thought’s pictured train in wordless pantomime.

A voice recalls me. – From my window turning
I find myself a plumeless biped still;
No beak, no claws, no sign of wings discerning, –
In fact with nothing bird-like but my quill.


from: The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes   Household Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co.)  1880.