by Lin Nulman, Historic Site Educator
In April, for National Poetry Month, we had literary historian Rob Velella as our virtual guest speaker. This enjoyable talk on the “friendship poems” of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. focused on the literary and Harvard friends who inspired him. Dr. Holmes also wrote about King’s Chapel, where he was a member, on several occasions.
Another Holmes poem I find both charming and poignant has a secret chapel connection. “The Last Leaf” was, as Rob explained to us, written about Thomas Melvill, whose memorial stone is attached to the back wall of the King’s Chapel. Whether it was placed there in his honor, or was displaced out of the Burying Ground at some point, I’m not sure. (Research to do!)
The poem’s speaker sees aged Mr. Melvill walking in Boston, looking weary and lost and out of step with the 19th century. His clothes are from younger days in the 18th century: “the old three-cornered hat,/And the breeches, and all that...”. He seems to be thinking sadly of people long gone. The poem’s speaker wants to chuckle at his eccentric look, but also feels deeply for Melvill’s losses, knowing that he may find himself someday in Melvill’s old-fashioned shoes.
“The Last Leaf” was not a Holmes poem I knew, and as a King’s Chapel History Program educator, I’m happy Rob introduced us. I have Melvill’s image from the poem in my mind now whenever I see this stone, and he's become, vividly, a person who once lived, once took a walk, was once seen by an empathetic poet.
The poem preserves a sense of his life, and the stone preserves his name and the dates of that lifetime. Together they get me thinking, during Preservation Month in May, about what preservation can be. It can be the profound preservation of this entire mid-18th-century church and crypt, so much of which is original. It can be stories about past people and events, whether in writing or in conversations we have with chapel visitors. It can also be quiet objects I pass by sometimes, that suddenly blossom into new meaning, as the Melvill stone did through Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem.
I have gladly collected “The Last Leaf” into my mental anthology of King’s Chapel writing. Other pieces in the collections include the poems and prose of member Sarah Wentworth Morton, and the novels The Scarlet Letter and Little Women. Come visit and ask us why! “The Last Leaf” felt especially good to discover during April, Literature and Poetry Month, because Thomas Melvill’s grandson, my beloved Herman Melville, had a whale of a time as a writer himself.
King's Chapel History Program
Dive deeper into King's Chapel's 337 year history on the History Program blog.