'A Familiar Letter' by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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YES, write, if you want to, there's nothing like trying;
Who knows what a treasure your casket may hold?
I'll show you that rhyming's as easy as lying,
If you'll listen to me while the art I unfold.

Here's a book full of words; one can choose as he fancies,
As a painter his tint, as a workman his tool;
Just think! all the poems and plays and romances
Were drawn out of this, like the fish from a pool!

You can wander at will through its syllabled mazes,
And take all you want, not a copper they cost,--
What is there to hinder your picking out phrases
For an epic as clever as "Paradise Lost"?

Don't mind if the index of sense is at zero,
Use words that run smoothly, whatever they mean;
Leander and Lilian and Lillibullero
Are much the same thing in the rhyming machine.

There are words so delicious their sweetness will smother
That boarding-school flavor of which we're afraid,
There is "lush"is a good one, and "swirl" is another,--
Put both in one stanza, its fortune is made.

With musical murmurs and rhythmical closes
You can cheat us of smiles when you've nothing to tell
You hand us a nosegay of milliner's roses,
And we cry with delight, "Oh, how sweet they do smell!"

Perhaps you will answer all needful conditions
For winning the laurels to which you aspire,
By docking the tails of the two prepositions
I' the style o' the bards you so greatly admire.

As for subjects of verse, they are only too plenty
For ringing the changes on metrical chimes;
A maiden, a moonbeam, a lover of twenty
Have filled that great basket with bushels of rhymes.

Let me show you a picture--'t is far from irrelevant--
By a famous old hand in the arts of design;
'T is only a photographed sketch of an elephant,--
The name of the draughtsman was Rembrandt of Rhine.

How easy! no troublesome colors to lay on,
It can't have fatigued him,-- no, not in the least,--
A dash here and there with a haphazard crayon,
And there stands the wrinkled-skinned, baggy-limbed beast.

Just so with your verse,-- 't is as easy as sketching,--
You can reel off a song without knitting your brow,
As lightly as Rembrandt a drawing or etching;
It is nothing at all, if you only know how.

Well; imagine you've printed your volume of verses:
Your forehead is wreathed with the garland of fame,
Your poems the eloquent school-boy rehearses,
Her album the school-girl presents for your name;

Each morning the post brings you autograph letters;
You'll answer them promptly,-- an hour isn't much
For the honor of sharing a page with your betters,
With magistrates, members of Congress, and such.

Of course you're delighted to serve the committees
That come with requests from the country all round,
You would grace the occasion with poems and ditties
When they've got a new schoolhouse, or poorhouse, or pound.

With a hymn for the saints and a song for the sinners,
You go and are welcome wherever you please;
You're a privileged guest at all manner of dinners,
You've a seat on the platform among the grandees.

At length your mere presence becomes a sensation,
Your cup of enjoyment is filled to its brim
With the pleasure Horatian of digitmonstration,
As the whisper runs round of "That's he!" or "That's him!"

But remember, O dealer in phrases sonorous,
So daintily chosen, so tunefully matched,
Though you soar with the wings of the cherubim o'er us,
The ovum was human from which you were hatched.

No will of your own with its puny compulsion
Can summon the spirit that quickens the lyre;
It comes, if at all, like the Sibyl's convulsion
And touches the brain with a finger of fire.

So perhaps, after all, it's as well to he quiet
If you've nothing you think is worth saying in prose,
As to furnish a meal of their cannibal diet
To the critics, by publishing, as you propose.

But it's all of no use, and I'm sorry I've written,--
I shall see your thin volume some day on my shelf;
For the rhyming tarantula surely has bitten,
And music must cure you, so pipe it yourself.

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Familiar Letter by Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Have you ever come across a poem that just speaks to you on a personal level? A poem that feels like it was written just for you? That's the feeling one gets when reading Oliver Wendell Holmes' "A Familiar Letter." This poem is not just a masterpiece of American literature, but also an intimate and relatable piece that touches the hearts of many. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will take a closer look at the different elements that make up this fantastic poem.

Background Information

Before we dive into the poem, let's take a moment to learn more about the author. Oliver Wendell Holmes was an American physician, poet, and essayist who lived from 1809 to 1894. He was one of the Fireside Poets, a group of 19th-century American poets who wrote poetry meant to be read aloud by the fire. His work is known for its wit, humor, and nostalgic themes.

"A Familiar Letter" was published in 1830 in Holmes' book "Poems." The poem is written in the form of a letter from Holmes to a friend, discussing various topics such as nature, love, and friendship.

Form and Structure

The poem is written in free verse, meaning there is no set rhyme or meter. This allows Holmes to focus on the content of the poem without being constrained by a specific structure. The lack of rhyme and meter also gives the poem a conversational tone, as if the reader is listening in on a personal conversation between two friends.

The poem is split into two sections, each with a different focus. The first section is focused on nature and the beauty of the natural world. The second section shifts to a more personal tone, discussing love and friendship.

Themes and Interpretation


The first section of the poem focuses on nature and the beauty of the natural world. Holmes uses vivid imagery and descriptive language to paint a picture of the world around us. He describes the "rosy cloudlets" and "dewy grass" in the morning, and the "crimson sunset" and "starry skies" at night.

Holmes' appreciation for nature is evident in the way he describes it. He sees the beauty in the smallest things, like the "tiny flowers" and "humble mosses." This appreciation for nature is a common theme in American literature, and it speaks to the idea of the American wilderness as a place of beauty and freedom.

Love and Friendship

The second section of the poem shifts to a more personal tone, discussing love and friendship. Holmes writes, "I cannot paint with common hues the love, the joy, I feel." This line speaks to the idea that love is something that cannot be fully expressed in words.

Holmes also touches on the idea of friendship, writing, "I prize the love that will not die, my friend, when I am gone." This speaks to the idea of loyal and lasting friendships, which are an important part of life.

Time and Mortality

Throughout the poem, there is a sense of the passing of time and the inevitability of death. Holmes writes, "Oh, if I thought we ne'er should meet, as I have loved to meet thee!" This line speaks to the fear of losing someone and the sense of loss that comes with it.

The idea of mortality is also present in the poem when Holmes writes, "The leaves will wither from the trees, and the flowers will fade away." This speaks to the fleeting nature of life and the idea that everything eventually comes to an end.


"A Familiar Letter" is a beautiful and intimate poem that speaks to the universal themes of nature, love, and friendship. Holmes' use of vivid imagery and conversational tone make the poem relatable and easy to connect with. The themes of time and mortality also add a sense of depth and meaning to the poem, giving it a lasting impact on the reader.

If you haven't had a chance to read "A Familiar Letter," I highly recommend it. It's a timeless piece of American literature that still resonates with readers today.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry has always been a medium of expression for the human soul. It is a form of art that transcends time and space, and speaks to the deepest emotions and thoughts of the human heart. One such poem that has stood the test of time is "A Familiar Letter" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. This poem is a masterpiece of its time, and its relevance still holds true today. In this article, we will analyze and explain this classic poem in detail.

The poem "A Familiar Letter" is a letter written by the speaker to his friend, who is away from home. The speaker begins by expressing his longing for his friend and how much he misses him. He then goes on to describe the beauty of the season, the autumn, and how it reminds him of his friend. The speaker then talks about the changing colors of the leaves and how they symbolize the changing nature of life. He also mentions the passing of time and how it affects everything in life.

The poem is written in a conversational tone, as if the speaker is talking directly to his friend. The use of the first-person point of view makes the poem more personal and relatable. The speaker's emotions are palpable, and the reader can feel his longing for his friend. The use of imagery is also prominent in the poem. The speaker describes the autumn season in vivid detail, using words like "crimson," "gold," and "russet" to paint a picture of the changing leaves. The use of imagery helps to create a sense of nostalgia and longing in the reader.

The poem also has a deeper meaning. The changing colors of the leaves symbolize the changing nature of life. The speaker talks about how everything in life is temporary and how time passes quickly. He says, "The leaves are falling, falling as from far, / As distant gardens withered in the sky." This line suggests that everything in life is fleeting, and we must cherish the moments we have with our loved ones. The poem is a reminder to appreciate the present and not take it for granted.

The poem also has a sense of melancholy. The speaker talks about how he misses his friend and how he wishes he could be with him. He says, "I miss you more and more, each day that goes, / Than if you were a thousand miles away." This line shows the depth of the speaker's longing for his friend. The poem is a reflection of the human condition, where we long for companionship and connection with others.

The poem also has a sense of timelessness. Although it was written in the 19th century, its themes are still relevant today. The poem speaks to the universal human experience of longing for connection and the fleeting nature of life. The poem is a reminder that we are all connected, and we must cherish the moments we have with our loved ones.

In conclusion, "A Familiar Letter" by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a masterpiece of its time. The poem is a reflection of the human condition, where we long for companionship and connection with others. The use of imagery and the conversational tone make the poem personal and relatable. The poem's themes of the changing nature of life and the importance of cherishing the present are still relevant today. The poem is a reminder to appreciate the present and not take it for granted.

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