May 31, 2011

Most welcome and most wholesome tears

A friend recommended to Oliver Wendell Holmes that he read the short story "The Bell of Saint Basil's." Moved by the story, he wrote a letter on May 31, 1891 to its author, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. "I may as well confess that the pathos of your story quite overcame me," he wrote. "I did not know I had so many tears in my emotional fountains... It did me good to have a good, long cry."

The story which left Dr. Holmes in tears follows an elderly couple from Virginia, Mr. and Mrs. Peyton, in the decades after the Civil War. Mr. Peyton serves as President of the fictitious Saint Basil's College, though the aftermath of the war has left him without students. Even so, he makes his way to the chapel every morning to ring the bells and offer a prayer to the empty pews:

Saint Basil's boys have gone beyond the urging voice of the chapel bell. Saint Basil cannot call her roll to-day... Saint Basil was, in short, a college without a boy. She had kept her ancient name, her distinguished President, her college buildings, her extended real estate, her chartered rights, and to some extent her invested endowments. What she had not kept was her students. Virginians spoke of the college as they do of the corn-fields, the mansions, the very chickens; nay, the moon in the heavens: "Oh, you ought to have seen it before the war!"

One day, however, Mr. Peyton discovers a man sitting in the final row. It was the revelation of that man's identity that moved Dr. Holmes. "I could not help writing on the spot, while the impression of your story was still tingling all through me," he wrote to Ward. "The ink on the first page of this note and the tears on my cheeks dried at the same moment. I thank you, then, for all these most welcome and most wholesome tears."

3 comments:

  1. So, who was the man seated in the final row, and why did it move Holmes? (Or am I missing something here?)

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  2. Revealing his identity here would have ruined the story for you. I recommend reading it; it's a quick one.

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  3. Oops--it didn't occur to me to click on the title to access the entire tale. (Duh.) I shall do so. Thus, no need for a "spoiler alert."

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