April 27, 2010

Holmes: our brave old tree

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes once confessed that he was a bit provincial. Indeed, much of his writing centers on Boston, which he called the "Hub of the Solar System." He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a home where (allegedly) the Battle of Bunker Hill was planned. Just a couple hundred yards from his front door stood a famous tree where, local legend has it, General George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775. On April 27, 1861, Holmes sat under that tree and composed a poem on its legend, "Under the Washington Elm, Cambridge":

    Eighty years have passed, and more,
    Since under the brave old tree
Our fathers gathered in arms, and swore
They would follow the sign their banners bore,
    And fight till the land was free.

    Half of their work was done,
    Half is left to do,—
Cambridge, and Concord, and Lexington!
When the battle is fought and won,
    What should be told of you?

    Hark! — 'tis the south-wind moans, —
    Who are the martyrs down?
Ah, the marrow was true in your children's bones
That sprinkled with blood the cursed stones
    Of the murder-haunted town!

    What if the storm-clouds blow?
    What if the green leaves fall?
Better the crashing tempest's throe
Than the army of worms that gnawed below;
    Trample them one and all!

    Then, when the battle is won,
    And the land from traitors free,
Our children shall tell of the strife begun
When Liberty's second April sun
    Was bright on our brave old tree!

In its own way, the poem is somewhat like "Paul Revere's Ride" in that it discusses a Revolutionary War topic in the context of the Civil War ("the south wind moans"). Earlier in the month when Holmes wrote it, his son Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. enlisted in the Union Army.

The tree no longer stands; when it became old it was torn down (and cut into souvenir pieces). There is no significant proof of the connection to Washington. Even so, a marker exists (shaped innocuously like a manhole cover) in the street in the middle of one of the most dangerous intersections in Cambridge (gawkers, beware).

*The image above is courtesy of the Cambridge Historical Society. Its headquarters, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, includes a small exhibit on the Washington Elm and its transition to souvenir pieces. More information on the tree is easily found on their web site.


  1. Rob,

    Second stanza, first line: should that read "Half of their work was done" (not "doe"--or are we talking about deer here? If so, I guess the "half left to do" would be "buck," and that's not very poetic). Nice entry about the tree.

  2. Yes, good catch! As people can see by my mistakes, I really do write these things myself and always without copying and pasting. :)