Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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I find that the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (29 August 18098 October 1894) was an American physician, writer, poet, and the father of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.


Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.
  • For there we loved, and where we love is home,
    Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts
    Though o'er us shine the jasper-lighted dome:--
    The chain may lengthen, but it never parts!
    • Homesick In Heamoney
  • The god looked out upon the troubled deep
    Waked into tumult from its placid sleep
    The flame of anger kindles in his eye
    As the wild waves ascend the lowering sky;
    He lifts his head above their awful height
    And to the distant fleet directs his sight.
    • "Translation From The Æneid, Book I" written while at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (c. 1824).
  • Faith loves to lean on time's destroying arm,
    And age, like distance, lends a double charm.
    • Urania: A Rhymed Lesson (1846), p. 11.
  • Lord of all being, thronèd afar,
    Thy glory flames from sun and star;
    Center and soul of every sphere,
    Yet to each loving heart how near!

    Sun of our life, Thy quickening ray,
    Sheds on our path the glow of day;
    Star of our hope, Thy softened light
    Cheers the long watches of the night.
    • "Lord Of All Being" (1848).
  • Grant us Thy truth to make us free,
    And kindling hearts that burn for Thee,
    Till all Thy living altars claim
    One holy light, one heavenly flame.
    • "Lord Of All Being" (1848).
  • Then the white man hates him [the Native American], and hunts him down like the wild beasts of the forest, and so the red-crayon sketch is rubbed out, and the canvas is ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God's own image.
    • "The Pilgrims of Plymouth" (Oration, December 22, 1855), in Cephas Brainerd and Eveline Warner Brainerd (eds), The New England Society Orations: Volume II. New York: The Century Co., 1901, p. 298.
  • You can never be too cautious in your prognosis, in the view of the great uncertainty of the course of any disease not long watched, and the many unexpected turns it may take.
    I think I am not the first to utter the following caution : —
    Beware how you take away hope from any human being. Nothing is clearer than that the merciful Creator intends to blind most people as they pass down into the dark valley. Without very good reasons, temporal or spiritual, we should not interfere with his kind arrangements. It is the height of cruelty and the extreme of impertinence to tell your patient he must die, except you are sure that he wishes to know it, or that there is some particular cause for his knowing it. I should be especially unwilling to tell a child that it could not recover; if the theologians think it necessary, let them take the responsibility. God leads it by the hand to the edge of the precipice in happy unconsciousness, and I would not open its eyes to what he wisely conceals.
    • Valedictory Address to medical graduates at Harvard University (10 March 1858), published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Vol. LVIII, No. 8 (25 March 1858), p. 158; this has also been paraphrased "Beware how you take away hope from another human being".
  • Call him not old whose visionary brain
    Holds o’er the post its undivided reign
    For him in vain the envious seasons roll,
    Who bears eternal summer in this soul.
    • "The Old Player" (1861), in Songs in Many Keys (1862).
  • Dream on! Though Heaven may woo our open eyes,
    Through their closed lids we look on fairer skies;
    Truth is for other worlds, and hope for this;
    The cheating future lends the present's bliss;
    Life is a running shade, with fettered hands,
    That chases phantoms over shifting sands;
    Death a still spectre on a marble seat,
    With ever clutching palms and shackled feet;
    The airy shapes that mock life's slender chain,
    The flying joys he strives to clasp in vain,
    Death only grasps; to live is to pursue, —
    Dream on! there 's nothing but illusion true!
    • "The Old Player" (1861), in Songs in Many Keys (1862).
  • Storms, thunders, waves!
    Howl, crash, and bellow till ye get your fill;
    Ye sometimes rest; men never can be still
    But in their graves.
  • Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear. How terrible is the one fact of beauty!
    • A Mortal Antipathy (1885) This statement is often misquoted as "Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness".
  • I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be better for mankind-and all the worse for the fishes.
    • Part of a statement at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society (30 May 1860), generally quoted in a simplified form omitting Holmes's exceptions including opium and anaesthetics.
    • Throw out opium, which the Creator himself seems to prescribe, for we often see the scarlet poppy growing in the cornfields, as if it were foreseen that wherever there is hunger to be fed there must also be a pain to be soothed; throw out a few specifics which our art did not discover, and it is hardly needed to apply; throw out wine, which is a food, and the vapors which produce the miracle of anaesthesia, and I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica [medical drugs], as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind,—and all the worse for the fishes.
    • As quoted in a review of Currents and Counter-currents in Medical Science (1860) in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Vol. 40 (1860), p. 467
    • Paraphrased variant: If all the medicine in the world were thrown into the sea, it would be bad for the fish and good for humanity.
  • Speak not too well of one who scarce will know
    Himself transfigured in its roseate glow;
    Say kindly of him what is, chiefly, true,
    Remembering always he belongs to you;
    Deal with him as a truant, if you will,
    But claim him, keep him, call him brother still!
    • "Poem", read at a dinner given for the author by the medical profession of the City of New York (April 12, 1883); reported in The Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ed. Eleanor M. Tilton (1895, rev. 1975), p. 71.
  • On Thee we fling our burdening woe,
    O love Divine, forever dear:
    Content to suffer, while we know,
    Living and dying, Thou art near!
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 596.
  • I would never use a long word, even, where a short one would answer the purpose. I know there are professors in this country who 'ligate' arteries. Other surgeons only tie them, and it stops the bleeding just as well.
    • 'Scholastic and Bedside Teaching', Introductory Lecture to the Medical Class of Harvard University (6 Nov 1867). In Medical Essays 1842-1882 (1891), 302.
  • God reigneth. All is well.
    • Hymn at the Funeral Services of Charles Sumner; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). Compare Browning, Pippa Passes: "God's in his heaven— All's right with the world".
  • One unquestioned text we read,
    All doubt beyond, all fear above;
    Nor crackling pile nor cursing creed
    Can burn or blot it—God is love.
    • What we all think; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919). Compare Browning, Paracelsus: "God! Thou art love! I build my faith on that".
  • If we are only as the potter's clay
    Made to be fashioned as the artist wills,
    And broken into shards if we offend
    The eye of Him who made us, it is well.
    • Rights; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.
    • On the Seventieth Birthday of Julia Ward Howe (May 27, 1899); reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • The mossy marbles rest
    On the lips that he has prest
    In their bloom;
    And the names he loved to hear
    Have been carved for many a year
    On the tomb.
    • The last Leaf; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • I know it is a sin
    For me to sit and grin
    At him here;
    But the old three-cornered hat,
    And the breeches, and all that,
    Are so queer!
    • The last Leaf; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Thou say’st an undisputed thing
    In such a solemn way.
    • To an Insect; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • And silence, like a poultice, comes
    To heal the blows of sound.
    • To an Insect; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • You think they are crusaders sent
    From some infernal clime,
    To pluck the eyes of sentiment
    And dock the tail of Rhyme,
    To crack the voice of Melody
    And break the legs of Time.
    • The Music Grinders; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • And since, I never dare to write
    As funny as I can.
    • The Height of the Ridiculous; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • When the last reader reads no more.
    • The last Reader; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • The freeman casting with unpurchased hand
    The vote that shakes the turrets of the land.
    • Poetry, a Metrical Essay; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • And when you stick on conversation’s burrs,
    Don't strew your pathway with those dreadful urs.
    • A rhymed Lesson. Urania; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Wake in our breast the living fires,
    The holy faith that warmed our sires;
    Thy hand hath made our nation free;
    To die for her is serving Thee.
    • Army Hymn; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Thine eye was on the censer,
    And not the hand that bore it.
    • Lines by a Clerk; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Where go the poet's lines?
    Answer, ye evening tapers!
    Ye auburn locks, ye golden curls,
    Speak from your folded papers!
    • The Poet's Lot; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • A few can touch the magic string,
    And noisy Fame is proud to win them;
    Alas for those that never sing,
    But die with all their music in them!
    • The Voiceless; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • O hearts that break and give no sign
    Save whitening lip and fading tresses!
    • The Voiceless; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
    As the swift seasons roll!
    Leave thy low-vaulted past!
    Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
    Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
    Till thou at length art free,
    Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
    • The chambered Nautilus; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • One flag, one land, one heart, one hand,
    One Nation evermore!
    • Voyage of the good Ship Union; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • His home! the Western giant smiles,
    And twirls the spotty globe to find it;
    This little speck, the British Isles?
    ’T is but a freckle,—never mind it.
    • A good Time going; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • But Memory blushes at the sneer,
    And Honor turns with frown defiant,
    And Freedom, leaning on her spear,
    Laughs louder than the laughing giant.
    • A good Time going; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • You hear that boy laughing?—you think he’s all fun;
    But the angels laugh, too, at the good he has done;
    The children laugh loud as they troop to his call,
    And the poor man that knows him laughs loudest of all.
    • The Boys; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Good to the heels the well-worn slipper feels
    When the tired player shuffles off the buskin;
    A page of Hood may do a fellow good
    After a scolding from Carlyle or Ruskin.
    • How not to settle it; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Lean, hungry, savage anti-everythings.
    • A modest Request; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
    That was built in such a logical way
    It ran a hundred years to a day?
    • The Deacon's Masterpiece; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • A general flavor of mild decay.
    • The Deacon's Masterpiece; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • It went to pieces all at once—
    All at once and nothing first,
    Just as bubbles do when they burst.
    • The Deacon's Masterpiece; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • The brightest blades grow dim with rust,
    The fairest meadow white with snow.
    • Chanson without Music; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • When lawyers take what they would give
    And doctors give what they would take.
    • Latterday Warnings; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
  • Fame is the scentless sunflower, with gaudy crown of gold;
    But friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold.
    • No Time like the old Time; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky…
Written 16 September 1830 in response to reports that the U.S.S. Constitution was to be scrapped, it is generally credited with arousing public sentiment sufficient to save the ship, which remains a commissioned ship of the U.S. Navy to this day, the oldest floating commissioned naval vessel in the world. · Full text online at Wikisource
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high;
And many an eye has danced to see That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout, and burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air shall sweep the clouds no more.
Her deck once red with heroes' blood where knelt the vanquished foe;
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood, and waves were white below;
No more shall feel the victor's tread,or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea!
Oh, better that her shattered bulk should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep, and there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag, set every threadbare sail
And give her to the god of storms, the lightning and the gale!

Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions (1842)

Full text online at Wikisource
  • Those kind friends who suggest to a person suffering from a tedious complaint, that he "Had better try Homoeopathy," are apt to enforce their suggestion by adding, that "at any rate it can do no harm." This may or may not be true as regards the individual. But it always does very great harm to the community to encourage ignorance, error, or deception in a profession which deals with the life and health of our fellow-creatures.
  • So long as the body is affected through the mind, no audacious device, even of the most manifestly dishonest character, can fail of producing occasional good to those who yield it an implicit or even a partial faith. The argument founded on this occasional good would be as applicable in justifying the counterfeiter and giving circulation to his base coin, on the ground that a spurious dollar had often relieved a poor man's necessities.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)

Full text online
All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called “facts.” They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain.
A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.
Chapter I
  • All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly called “facts.” They are the brute beasts of the intellectual domain.
  • He must be a poor creature that does not often repeat himself. Imagine the author of the excellent piece of advice, "Know thyself," never alluding to that sentiment again during the course of a protracted existence! Why, the truths a man carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail? I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.
  • When one has had all his conceit taken out of him, when he has lost all his illusions, his feathers will soon soak through, and he will fly no more.
  • I say that conceit is just as natural a thing to human minds as a centre is to a circle. But little-minded people's thoughts move in such small circles that five minutes' conversation gives you an arc long enough to determine their whole curve. An arc in the movement of a large intellect does not sensibly differ from a straight line. Even if it have the third vowel ['I', the first-person pronoun] as its centre, it does not soon betray it. The highest thought, that is, is the most seemingly impersonal; it does not obviously imply any individual centre.
  • Even in common people, conceit has the virtue of making them cheerful; the man who thinks his wife, his baby, his house, his horse, his dog, and himself severally unequalled, is almost sure to be a good-humored person, though liable to be tedious at times.
  • What are the great faults of conversation? Want of ideas, want of words, want of manners, are the principal ones, I suppose you think. I don't doubt it, but I will tell you what I have found spoil more good talks than anything else;—long arguments on special points between people who differ on the fundamental principles upon which these points depend. No men can have satisfactory relations with each other until they have agreed on certain ultimata [finalities] of belief not to be disturbed in ordinary conversation, and unless they have sense enough to trace the secondary questions depending upon these ultimate beliefs to their source. In short, just as a written constitution is essential to the best social order, so a code of finalities is a necessary condition of profitable talk between two persons.
  • A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide.
  • You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove anything that you want to prove.
  • Some of the sharpest men in argument are notoriously unsound in judgment.
  • Everybody likes and respects self-made men. It is a great deal better to be made in that way than not to be made at all.
Chapter II
  • Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad.
  • Though fortune scowl, though prudence interfere,
    One thing is certain: Love will triumph here!

    Lords of creation, whom your ladies rule,—
    The world's great masters, when you 're out of school,—
    Learn the brief moral of our evening's play
    Man has his will,—but woman has her way!
  • Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust.
Chapter III
  • Scientific knowledge, even in the most modest persons, has mingled with it a something which partakes of insolence. Absolute, peremptory facts are bullies, and those who keep company with them are apt to get a bullying habit of mind.
  • Mark this which I am going to say once for all: If I had not force enough to project a principle full in the face of the half dozen most obvious facts which seem to contradict it, I would think only in single file from this day forward.
    • Holmes' critique of "single file" thinking foreshadows Fyodor Dostoevsky's attack, in an essay of October 1876, on what he called "the straight-line approach". See Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, Volume 1: 1873–1876 (Northwestern University Press, 1997), pp. 641–57, 721–29.
  • How many people live on the reputation of the reputation they might have made!
Chapter IV
  • I try his head occasionally as housewives try eggs,— give it an intellectual shake and hold it up to the light, so to speak, to see if it has life in it, actual or potential, or only contains lifeless albumen.
  • Laughter and tears are meant to turn the wheels of the same machinery of sensibility; one is wind-power, and the other water-power; that is all.
  • I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it,—but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
    • Josephus Daniels, ambassador to Mexico, sent this quotation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 1, 1936, in a note of New Year greetings, with this comment: "Here is an expression from Holmes which, if it has missed you, is so good you may find a use for it in one of your 'fireside' talks". Reported in Carroll Kilpatrick, ed., Roosevelt and Daniels (1952), p. 159.
  • Did I not say to you a little while ago that the universe swam in an ocean of similitudes and analogies?
    • Earlier in the chapter Holmes says that all the comparisons and analogies ever made "would be but a cupful from the infinite ocean of similitudes and analogies that rolls through the universe".
Chapter V
  • Don't ever think the poetry is dead in an old man because his forehead is wrinkled, or that his manhood has left him when his hand trembles! If they ever were there, they are there still!
  • Do you think I don't understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy?
    Don't know what it means? - Well, I will tell you. You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, — and the fools know it.
Chapter VI
  • Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all.
  • There is that glorious Epicurean paradox uttered by my friend the Historian, in one of his flashing moments: "Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessaries." To this must certainly be added that other saying of one of the wittiest of men: "Good Americans when they die go to Paris."
    • Holmes attributed the remark "Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris" to "one of the wittiest of men". Later writers have attributed the saying to friend and fellow Saturday Club member Thomas Gold Appleton. In 1859, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also a member of that club, recorded in one of his journals, "T. Appleton says, that he thinks all Bostonians, when they die, if they are good, go to Paris." Emerson in His Journals, ed. Joel Porte (1982), p. 486. Neither sentence has been found in the published writings of Appleton, but the remark may have been made in the presence of Holmes and Emerson. Oscar Wilde used the Holmes version in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), p. 75 (Complete Works, vol. 4, 1923), and A Woman of No Importance (1893), p. 180 (Complete Works, vol. 7, 1923).
  • Boston State-house is the hub of the solar system. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar.
  • The axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the center of each and every town or city.
  • I won't say, the more intellect, the less capacity for loving; for that would do wrong to the understanding and reason;—but, on the other hand, that the brain often runs away with the heart's best blood, which gives the world a few pages of wisdom or sentiment or poetry, instead of making one other heart happy, I have no question.
  • But to radiate the heat of the affections into a clod, which absorbs all that is poured into it, but never warms beneath the sunshine of smiles or the pressure of hand or lip,—this is the great martyrdom of sensitive beings,—most of all in that perpetual auto da fé where young womanhood is the sacrifice.
  • The world's great men have not commonly been great scholars, nor its great scholars great men.
  • Knowledge and timber shouldn't be much used, till they are seasoned.
  • The men of facts wait their turn in grim silence, with that slight tension about the nostrils which the consciousness of carrying a "settler" in the form of a fact or a revolver gives the individual thus armed.
Chapter VII
  • The great delusion of mankind is in supposing that to be individual and exceptional which is universal and according to law.
  • Now habit is a labor-saving invention which enables a man to get along with less fuel,—that is all; for fuel is force.
Chapter VIII
  • The hat is the ultimum moriens of "respectability".
    • "Ultimum moriens," the Autocrat explains, "is old Italian [i.e. Latin], and signifies last thing to die."
  • The creative action is not voluntary at all, but automatic; we can only put the mind into the proper attitude, and wait for the wind, that blows where it listeth, to breathe over it. Thus the true state of creative genius is allied to reverie, or dreaming.
Chapter IX
  • You know well enough what I mean by youth and age;—something in the soul, which has no more to do with the color of the hair than the vein of gold in a rock has to do with the grass a thousand feet above it.
  • It is by little things that we know ourselves; a soul would very probably mistake itself for another, when once disembodied, were it not for individual experiences which differ from those of others only in details seemingly trifling.
  • One could never remember himself in eternity by the mere fact of having loved or hated any more than by that of having thirsted; love and hate have no more individuality in them than single waves in the ocean;—but the accidents or trivial marks which distinguished those whom we loved or hated make their memory our own forever, and with it that of our own personality also.
  • Each woman virtually summons every man to show cause why he doth not love her.
Chapter X
  • Why should we be more shy of repeating ourselves than the spring be tired of blossoms or the night of stars?
  • The soul of a man has a series of concentric envelopes round it, like the core of an onion, or the innermost of a nest of boxes. First he has his natural garment of flesh and blood. Then, his artificial integuments, with their true skin of solid stuffs, their cuticle of lighter tissues, and their variously tinted pigments. Thirdly, his domicile, be it a single chamber or a stately mansion. And then, the whole visible world, in which Time buttons him up as in a loose outside wrapper.
Chapter XI
  • Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions. After looking at the Alps, I felt that my mind had been stretched beyond the limits of its elasticity, and fitted so loosely on my old ideas of space that I had to spread these to fit it.
  • Little I ask, my wants are few;
    I only wish a hut of stone,
    (A very plain brown stone will do,)
    That I may call my own;—
    And close at hand is such a one,
    In yonder street that fronts the sun.
    • "Contentment".
Chapter XII
  • Memory is a net; one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook; but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.
  • You may set it down as a truth which admits of few exceptions, that those who ask your opinion really want your praise, and will be contented with nothing less.
  • Nothing is so common-place as to wish to be remarkable. Fame usually comes to those who are thinking about something else, - very rarely to those who say to themselves, "Go to, now, let us be a celebrated individual!"
  • How many have withered and wasted under as slow a torment in the walls of that larger Inquisition which we call Civilization!
  • Talk about it as much as you like,—one's breeding shows itself nowhere more than in his religion.
  • Be polite and generous, but don't undervalue yourself. You will be useful, at any rate; you may just as well be happy, while you are about it.
  • Leverage is everything,—was what I used to say;—don't begin to pry till you have got the long arm on your side.
  • I do not know in what shape the practical question may present itself to you; but I will tell you my rule in life, and I think you will find it a good one. Treat bad men exactly as if they were insane. They are in-sane, out of health, morally. Reason, which is food to sound minds, is not tolerated, still less assimilated, unless administered with the greatest caution; perhaps, not at all. Avoid collision with them, so far as you honorably can; keep your temper, if you can,—for one angry man is as good as another; restrain them from violence, promptly, completely, and with the least possible injury, just as in the case of maniacs,—and when you have got rid of them, or got them tied hand and foot so that they can do no mischief, sit down and contemplate them charitably...
  • If a man has a genuine, sincere, hearty wish to get rid of his liberty, if he is really bent upon becoming a slave, nothing can stop him. And the temptation is to some natures a very great one. Liberty is often a heavy burden on a man. It involves that necessity for perpetual choice which is the kind of labor men have always dreaded. In common life we shirk it by forming habits, which take the place of self-determination. In politics party-organization saves us the pains of much thinking before deciding how to cast our vote.
  • We forget that weakness is not in itself a sin. We forget that even cowardice may call for our most lenient judgment, if it spring from innate infirmity.
  • All of us love companionship and sympathy; some of us may love them too much. All of us are more or less imaginative in our theology.
  • There isn't a text in the Bible better worth keeping always in mind than that one, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' .
  • What's the use in our caring about hard words after this,—'atheists,' heretics, infidels, and the like? They're, after all, only the cinders picked up out of those heaps of ashes round the stumps of the old stakes where they used to burn men, women, and children for not thinking just like other folks.
  • You inherit your notions from a set of priests that had no wives and no children, or none to speak of, and so let their humanity die out of them. It didn't seem much to them to condemn a few thousand millions of people to purgatory or worse for a mistake of judgment. They didn't know what it was to have a child look up in their faces and say 'Father!' It will take you a hundred or two more years to get decently humanized, after so many centuries of de-humanizing celibacy.
  • We are very shy of asking questions of those who know enough to destroy with one word the hopes we live on.
  • What a miserable thing it is to be poor.
  • The Widow Rowens was now in the full bloom of ornamental sorrow.

The Professor at the Breakfast Table (1859)

The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a deal longer.
First published in The Atlantic Monthly (May 1859)
  • Nobody talks much that doesn't say unwise things, — things he did not mean to say; as no person plays much without striking a false note sometimes.
    • Ch. I.
  • What a blessed thing it is, that Nature, when she invented, manufactured, and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!
    • Ch. I.
  • Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.
    • Ch. V.
  • Time, time only, can gradually wean us from our Epeolatry, or word-worship, by spiritualizing our ideas of the thing signified.
    • Ch. V.
  • The real religion of the world comes from women much more than from men, — from mothers most of all, who carry the key of our souls in their bosoms. It is in their hearts that the "sentimental" religion some people are so fond of sneering at has its source. The sentiment of love, the sentiment of maternity, the sentiment of the paramount obligation of the parent to the child as having called it into existence, enhanced just in proportion to the power and knowledge of the one and the weakness and ignorance of the other, — these are the "sentiments" that have kept our soulless systems from driving men off to die in holes like those that riddle the sides of the hill opposite the Monastery of St. Saba, where the miserable victims of a falsely-interpreted religion starved and withered in their delusion.
    • Ch. V.
  • You don't know, perhaps, but I will tell you; the brain is the palest of all the internal organs, and the heart the reddest. Whatever comes from the brain carries the hue of the place it came from, and whatever comes from the heart carries the heat and color of its birthplace.
    • Ch. VI.
  • Why can't somebody give us a list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and another list of things that everybody says and nobody thinks?
    • Ch. VI.
  • So from the heights of Will
    Life's parting stream descends,
    And, as a moment turns its slender rill,
    Each widening torrent bends,

    From the same cradle's side,
    From the same mother's knee,
    —One to long darkness and the frozen tide,
    One to the Peaceful Sea!

    • "The Two Streams", Ch. VI.
  • Poets are never young, in one sense. Their delicate ear hears the far-off whispers of eternity, which coarser souls must travel towards for scores of years before their dull sense is touched by them. A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.
    • Ch. X.
  • The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a deal longer.
    • Ch. XI.
  • Most persons have died before they expire, — died to all earthly longings, so that the last breath is only, as it were, the locking of the door of the already deserted mansion.
    • Ch. XI.

Mechanism in thought and morals (1871)

  • I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped straggling letters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872)

  • I talk half the time to find out my own thoughts, as a school-boy turns his pockets inside out to see what is in them. One brings to light all sorts of personal property he had forgotten in his inventory.
    • Ch. 1, p. 1 The Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vol. 3 (1892)
  • I don't want to have the territory of a man's mind fenced in. I don't want to shut out the mystery of the stars and the awful hollow that holds them. We have done with those hypaethral temples, that were open above to the heavens, but we can have attics and skylights to them. Minds with skylights...
    One-story intellects, two-story intellects, three-story intellects, with skylights. All fact-collectors, who have no aim beyond their facts, are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize, using the labors of the fact-collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict; their best illumination comes from above, through the skylight. There are minds with large ground floors, that can store an infinite amount of knowledge; some librarians, for instance, who know enough of books to help other people, without being able to make much other use of their knowledge, have intellects of this class. Your great working lawyer has two spacious stories; his mind is clear, because his mental floors are large, and he has room to arrange his thoughts so that he can get at them,—facts below, principles above, and all in ordered series; poets are often narrow below, incapable of clear statement, and with small power of consecutive reasoning, but full of light, if sometimes rather bare of furniture in the attics.
  • "I suppose you are an entomologist?"
    "Not quite so ambitious as that, sir. I should like to put my eyes on the individual entitled to that name. No man can be truly called an entomologist, sir; the subject is too vast for any single human intelligence to grasp".
  • Science is a first-rate piece of furniture for a man's upper chamber, if he has common sense on the ground-floor.
  • Men are idolaters, and want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down before; they always did, they always will; and if you don't make it of wood, you must make it of words
  • Knowledge—it excites prejudices to call it science—is advancing as irresistibly, as majestically, as remorselessly as the ocean moves in upon the shore.
  • We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious fears which were early implanted in his imagination; no matter how utterly his reason may reject them, he will still feel as the famous woman did about ghosts, Je n'y crois pas, mais je les crains,—"I don't believe in them, but I am afraid of them, nevertheless".

Quotes about

  • Right now I'm reading Mark Twain's Autobiography, which I like very much. There is a part where he talks about his love for Oliver Wendell Holmes's writing. Twain tells of how he was accused of plagiarism because once he took a quotation from Holmes and used it as his own. He says that plagiarism does not exist in literature, and I agree. Literature is made of many pieces, of a reinterpretation of similar themes, of a recycling of materials. Only the mask exists, and the writer wears it to interpret the manifold possibilities of humanity that exist around him. He learns to be a writer when he can take someone else's mask and make it a part of himself and talk from that mask.
    • Rosario Ferré interview in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out by Donna Marie Perry (1993)
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