August 29, 2010

Holmes: Now here I stand at fifty

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 29, 1809, Oliver Wendell Holmes became a medical doctor and reformer, a poet, a novelist, and one of the most defining members of Boston culture. He was a standard speaker for various events, meetings, anniversaries, and parties for visiting dignitaries in Boston — and, perhaps most importantly, he gave the city its self-centered nickname as the "Hub of the Solar System."

Holmes was known for his humor, his conversation, and his self-confidence. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that he was the main speaker for his own 50th birthday party on August 29, 1859. He presented a poem which well represented his wit, "At a Meeting of Friends." In it, he both reaffirms and denies that he is approaching old age:

I remember — why yes! God bless me! and was it so long ago?
I fear I'm growing forgetful, as old folks do, you know;
It must have been in 'forty — I would say 'thirty-nine—
We talked this matter over, I and a friend of mine.

He and his friend discuss the question of when old age begins. "Up to the age of thirty we spend our years like change" but somewhere after 30 years old, youth suddenly begins to disappear. They agree that the former youth is old the moment he turns 40... until his 40th birthday:

But one fine August morning I found myself awake:
My birthday: — By Jove, I'm forty! Yes, forty, and no mistake!
Why this is the very milestone, I think I used to hold,
That when a fellow had come to, a fellow would then be old!

In his wizened years, of course, he realizes 40 is not so old after all, and pledges old age does not start until 50. But, now on his 50th birthday, Holmes asks his friends if they think he is old:

Now here I stand at fifty, my jury gathered round;
Sprinkled with dust of silver, but not yet silver-crowned,
Ready to meet your verdict, waiting to hear it told;
Guilty of fifty summers; speak! Is the verdict old?

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