THE POET AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE
THE POET AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
In this the third series of Breakfast-Table conversations a slight
dramatic background shows off a few talkers and writers aided by
certain silent supernumeraries. The machinery is much like that of
the two preceding series. Some of the characters must seem like old
acquaintances to those who have read the former papers. As I read
these over for the first time for a number of years I notice one
character; presenting a class of beings who have greatly multiplied
during the interval which separates the earlier and later
Breakfast-Table papers--I mean the scientific specialists. The
entomologist who confines himself rigidly to the study of the
coleoptera is intended to typify this class. The subdivision of
labor which as we used to be told required fourteen different
workmen to make a single pin has reached all branches of knowledge.
We find new terms in all the Professions implying that special
provinces have been marked off each having its own school of
students. In theology we have many curious subdivisions; among the
rest eschatology that is to say the geography geology etc. of
the "undiscovered country;" in medicine if the surgeon who deals
with dislocations of the right shoulder declines to meddle with a
displacement on the other side we are not surprised but ring the
bell of the practitioner who devotes himself to injuries of the left
On the other hand we have had or have the encyclopaedic
intelligences like Cuvier Buckle and more emphatically Herbert
Spencer who take all knowledge or large fields of it to be their
province. The author of "Thoughts on the Universe" has something in
common with these but he appears also to have a good deal about him
of what we call the humorist; that is an individual with a somewhat
heterogeneous personality in which various distinctly human elements
are mixed together so as to form a kind of coherent and sometimes
pleasing whole which is to a symmetrical character as a breccia is
to a mosaic.
As for the Young Astronomer his rhythmical discourse may be taken as
expressing the reaction of what some would call "the natural man"
against the unnatural beliefs which he found in that lower world to
which be descended by day from his midnight home in the firmament.
I have endeavored to give fair play to the protest of gentle and
reverential conservatism in the letter of the Lady which was not
copied from but suggested by one which I received long ago from a
lady bearing an honored name and which I read thoughtfully and with
PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION.
It is now nearly twenty years since this book was published. Being
the third of the Breakfast-Table series it could hardly be expected
to attract so much attention as the earlier volumes. Still I had no
reason to be disappointed with its reception. It took its place with
the others and was in some points a clearer exposition of my views
and feelings than either of the other books its predecessors. The
poems "Homesick in Heaven" and the longer group of passages coming
from the midnight reveries of the Young Astronomer have thoughts in
them not so fully expressed elsewhere in my writings.
The first of these two poems is at war with our common modes of
thought. In looking forward to rejoining in a future state those
whom we have loved on earth--as most of us hope and many of us
believe we shall--we are apt to forget that the same individuality
is remembered by one relative as a babe by another as an adult in
the strength of maturity and by a third as a wreck with little left
except its infirmities and its affections. The main thought of this
poem is a painful one to some persons. They have so closely
associated life with its accidents that they expect to see their
departed friends in the costume of the time in which they best
remember them and feel as if they should meet the spirit of their
grandfather with his wig and cane as they habitually recall him to
The process of scientific specialization referred to and illustrated
in this record has been going on more actively than ever during these
last twenty years. We have only to look over the lists of the
Faculties and teachers of our Universities to see the subdivision of
labor carried out as never before. The movement is irresistible; it
brings with it exactness exhaustive knowledge a narrow but complete
self-satisfaction with such accompanying faults as pedantry
triviality and the kind of partial blindness which belong to
intellectual myopia. The specialist is idealized almost into
sublimity in Browning's "Burial of the Grammarian." We never need
fear that he will undervalue himself. To be the supreme authority on
anything is a satisfaction to self-love next door to the precious
delusions of dementia. I have never pictured a character more
contented with himself than the "Scarabee" of this story.
BEVERLY FARMS MASS. August 1 1891.
O. W. H.
The idea of a man's "interviewing" himself is rather odd to be sure.
But then that is what we are all of us doing every day. 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.
--You don't know what your thoughts are going to be beforehand? said
the "Member of the Haouse" as he calls himself.
--Why of course I don't. Bless your honest legislative soul I
suppose I have as many bound volumes of notions of one kind and
another in my head as you have in your Representatives' library up
there at the State House. I have to tumble them over and over and