Nineteenth-century King’s Chapel member Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894) was quite the “Renaissance Man” as an accomplished writer, physician, professor at Harvard Medical School, and inventor. However, Holmes’ aptitude for writing contributed to his successes in both his vocation and avocations - his contributions in the medical field included his famous essay “Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever” and his literary “Breakfast-Table” series are still often read in classrooms today.
Oliver Wendell Holmes started writing stories and poetry at a young age. At just 21-years-old, he published the poem “Old Ironsides” which encouraged readers to support the preservation of the USS Constitution. When visiting the USS Constitution Museum along the Freedom Trail today, visitors will find that the naval ship is still nicknamed “Old Ironsides,” thanks to Holmes’ centuries-old poem. Literary colleagues, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, formed the Fireside Poets alongside Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as the popular 19th-century magazine The Atlantic Monthly, where several of his literary works were published during his lifetime.
Holmes became a member of King’s Chapel after marrying Amelia Lee Jackson at the chapel on June 16, 1840. His view while attending services came from the upstairs gallery which is where his wife’s family, including the Cabots and Lowells, sat for much of the nineteenth century. King’s Chapel and its members also became the inspiration for many of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poems, including King’s Chapel, which he wrote for its 200th anniversary in 1886. You can read this poem further down the page. This poem about King’s Chapel conveys Holmes’ fondness for his church and his knowledge of its history. The twelve stanzas clearly refer to the chapel’s Anglican beginnings and historic members of the congregation, as well as its physical appearance. Below are some aspects of the chapel that Holmes refers to in the poem - can you find them?
Is it a weanling's weakness for the past That in the stormy, rebel-breeding town, Swept clean of relics by the levelling blast,
Still keeps our gray old chapel's name of "King's," Still to its outworn symbols fondly clings, - Its unchurched mitres and its empty crown?
Poor harmless emblems! All has shrunk away That made them gorgons in the patriot's eyes; The priestly plaything harms us not to-day; The gilded crown is but a pleasing show, An old-world heirloom, left from long ago, Wreck of the past that memory bids us prize,
Lightly we glance the fresh-cut marbles o'er; Those two of earlier date our eyes enthrall: The proud old Briton's by the western door, And hers, the Lady of Colonial days, Whose virtues live in long-drawn classic phrase, - The fair Francesca of the southern wall.
Ay! those were goodly men that Reynolds drew, And stately dames our Copley's canvas holds, To their old Church, their Royal Master, true, Proud of the claim their valiant sires had earned, That "gentle blood," not lightly to be spurned, Save by the churl ungenerous Nature moulds.
All vanished! It were idle to complain That ere the fruits shall come the flowers must fall; Yet somewhat we have lost amidst our gain, Some rare ideals time may not restore, - The charm of courtly breeding, seen no more, And reverence, dearest ornament of all.
Thus musing, to the western wall I came, Departing: lo! a tablet fresh and fair, Where glistened many a youth's remembered name In golden letters on the snow-white stone, - Young lives these aisles and arches once have known, Their country's bleeding altar might not spare.
These died that we might claim a soil unstained, Save by the blood of heroes; their bequests A realm unsevered and a race unchained. Has purer blood through Norman veins come down From the rough knights that clutched the Saxon's crown Than warmed the pulses in these faithful breasts?
These, too, shall live in history's deathless page, High on the slow-wrought pedestals of fame, Ranged with the heroes of remoter age; They could not die who left their nation free, Firm as the rock, unfettered as the sea, Its heaven unshadowed by the cloud of shame.
While on the storied past our memory dwells, Our grateful tribute shall not be denied, - The wreath, the cross of rustling immortelles; And willing hands shall clear each darkening bust, As year by year sifts down the clinging dust On Shirley's beauty and on Vassall's pride.
But for our own, our loved and lost, we bring With throbbing hearts and tears that still must flow, In full-heaped hands, the opening flowers of spring, Lilies half-blown, and budding roses, red As their young cheeks, before the blood was shed That lent their morning bloom its generous glow.
Ah, who shall count a rescued nation's debt, Or sum in words our martyrs' silent claims? Who shall our heroes' dread exchange forget, - All life, youth, hope, could promise to allure For all that soul could brave or flesh endure? They shaped our future; we but carve their names.