September 16, 2010

Melvill and Holmes: the last leaves

When Thomas Melvill died on September 16, 1832, he was 86 years old and one of the last remnants of the generation that fought for American independence. A member of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, Melvill participated in the so-called Boston Tea Party. Some of the tea leaves from that event found their way into his boots; he saved them and those leaves are now on display in Boston's Old State House.

Despite living well into the 19th century, Melvill remained a throwback to the colonial/Revolutionary era, in fashion and figure. Boston poet Oliver Wendell Holmes (who later shared champagne with Melvill's grandson, the novelist Herman Melville) noted the anachronism in one of his greatest poems, "The Last Leaf" (1831):

...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.

...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.

Holmes himself nearly lived to the end of the century and was the last of the Fireside Poets living. In a sense, then, Holmes was the last leaf of his own generation, much like Thomas Mevill was the last of his. Holmes noticed the irony shortly before his death, writing in a letter: "I have lasted long enough to serve as an illustration of my own poem."

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