December 6, 2010

Holmes: Pay thee with a grateful rhyme

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was interested in many things. In addition to being a poet, novelist, and essayist, he was a physician, a professor, and an inventor. It should be no surprise that he was particularly fascinated by the transit of Venus, an occurrence where the planet Venus is visible in front of the sun, appearing as a small black circle. Holmes observed this astronomical event from Boston Common on December 6, 1882 (it was not seen again until 2004) and wrote a poem about it, "The Flâneur" (a French word, meaning "idler" or "loafer"):

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?

Holmes admits his favorite human innovation is "the tube that spies / The orbs celestial in their march" (a telescope). He heads to Boston Common, to join a crowd preparing to observe the transit of Venus. After paying "the scanty fee":

...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...

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.

Holmes then imagines that Venus is "a world like ours," wondering if there are flowers or even cities on its surface, "and life and love... and death." He is "lost in a dream" until:

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.

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