'A Farewell to Agassiz' by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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How the mountains talked together,
Looking down upon the weather,
When they heard our friend had planned his
Little trip among the Andes
How they'll bare their snowy scalps
To the climber of the Alps
When the cry goes through their passes,
"Here comes the great Agassiz!"
"Yes, I'm tall," says Chimborazo,
"But I wait for him to say so,--
That's the only thing that lacks,-- he
Must see me, Cotopaxi!"
"Ay! ay!" the fire-peak thunders,
"And he must view my wonders
I'm but a lonely crater
Till I have him for spectator!"
The mountain hearts are yearning,
The lava-torches burning,
The rivers bend to meet him,
The forests bow to greet him,
It thrills the spinal column
Of fossil fishes solemn,
And glaciers crawl the faster
To the feet of their old master!
Heaven keep him well and hearty,
Both him and all his party!
From the sun that broils and smites,
From the centipede that bites,
From the hail-storm and the thunder,
From the vampire and the condor,
From the gust upon the river,
From the sudden earthquake shiver,
From the trip of mule or donkey,
From the midnight howling monkey,
From the stroke of knife or dagger,
From the puma and the jaguar,
From the horrid boa-constrictor
That has scared us in the picture,
From the Indians of the Pampas
Who would dine upon their grampas,
From every beast and vermin
That to think of sets us squirmin',
From every snake that tries on
The traveller his p'ison,
From every pest of Natur',
Likewise the alligator,
And from two things left behind him,
(Be sure they'll try to find him,)
The tax-bill and assessor,--
Heaven keep the great Professor!
May he find, with his apostles,
That the land is full of fossils,
That the waters swarm with fishes
Shaped according to his wishes,
That every pool is fertile
In fancy kinds of turtle,
New birds around him singing,
New insects, never stinging,
With a million novel data
About the articulata,
And facts that strip off all husks
From the history of mollusks.

And when, with loud Te Deum,
He returns to his Museum
May he find the monstrous reptile
That so long the land has kept ill
By Grant and Sherman throttled,
And by Father Abraham bottled,
(All specked and streaked and mottled
With the scars of murderous battles,
Where he clashed the iron rattles
That gods and men he shook at,)
For all the world to look at!
God bless the great Professor!
And Madam, too, God bless her!
Bless him and all his band,
On the sea and on the land,
Bless them head and heart and hand,
Till their glorious raid is o'er,
And they touch our ransomed shore!
Then the welcome of a nation,
With its shout of exultation,
Shall awake the dumb creation,
And the shapes of buried aeons
Join the living creature's paeans,
Till the fossil echoes roar;
While the mighty megalosaurus
Leads the palaeozoic chorus,
God bless the great Professor,
And the land his proud possessor,--
Bless them now and evermore!

Editor 1 Interpretation


Poetry is one of the most beautiful forms of art, and it is always fascinating to witness a great poet in action. Oliver Wendell Holmes was one such poet, and his poem A Farewell to Agassiz is a masterpiece that deserves recognition.

In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will delve deep into the themes and motifs of the poem, analyze its structure and language, and explore the historical and cultural context that influenced its creation.

So, put on your thinking caps and get ready to explore the world of Oliver Wendell Holmes and his poem A Farewell to Agassiz.

Historical and Cultural Context

To understand the poem fully, one must first understand the historical and cultural context in which it was written. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the poem in 1865, just after the end of the American Civil War.

During this time, the country was trying to heal from the wounds of the war, and many people, including Holmes, were searching for a sense of national identity. Additionally, the era was marked by significant scientific advancements, and many people were becoming interested in the natural world and the interconnection between different species.

It is in this context that Holmes wrote A Farewell to Agassiz, a poem that reflects both the poet's sense of loss and his fascination with the natural world.

Themes and Motifs

The poem is a farewell to Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist and geologist who had a significant influence on American science in the mid-19th century. However, the poem is not just a tribute to Agassiz; it is also a meditation on the natural world and humanity's place in it.

One of the key themes of the poem is the interconnectedness of all living things. Holmes writes about how the different species are all part of a larger whole, and how they depend on each other for survival.

For example, in the stanza that begins with "The fish in the streamlet," Holmes describes how the fish are part of the larger ecosystem and how they are connected to the larger world:

The fish in the streamlet,
And the bird on the tree,
The four-footed beast
And the reptile that slumbers,
The beasts of the field
And the birds of the air
Are all with us.
Be not afraid.

This theme of interconnectedness is also reflected in the structure of the poem. The poem is composed of six stanzas, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the natural world. However, the stanzas are not separate entities; rather, they flow seamlessly into each other, creating a sense of unity and wholeness.

Another key theme of the poem is the passage of time and the inevitability of change. Holmes writes about how all living things must eventually come to an end, and how even the natural world is constantly changing and evolving.

For example, in the stanza that begins with "The mossy marbles," Holmes describes how even the gravestones that mark the passing of humans will eventually crumble and become part of the natural world:

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.

This theme of the passage of time is reflected in the language and imagery of the poem. Holmes uses words like "passing," "fading," and "fleeting" to convey a sense of impermanence, and he uses imagery like "violet by a mossy stone" and "the dewdrop on the blade" to evoke a sense of transience and fragility.

Structure and Language

As mentioned earlier, the poem is composed of six stanzas, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the natural world. However, the structure of the poem is not rigid; rather, it is fluid and flexible, with each stanza flowing seamlessly into the next.

This sense of fluidity is reflected in the language of the poem as well. Holmes uses a variety of poetic techniques, including repetition, alliteration, and metaphor, to create a sense of movement and flow.

For example, in the stanza that begins with "The sparrow," Holmes uses repetition and alliteration to create a sense of motion and energy:

The sparrow chirruped on the roof,
The robin chirped in the tree,
And a little brown thrush
Sang a song full of love
O bird, sing on!

This use of repetition and alliteration creates a sense of rhythm and momentum that carries the reader through the poem.

Holmes also uses metaphor to create a sense of depth and complexity. For example, in the stanza that begins with "The windflower and the violet," Holmes uses the metaphor of the windflower and the violet to convey a sense of the interconnectedness of all living things:

The windflower and the violet, they perished long ago,
And the brier-rose and the orchis died amid the summer glow;
But on the hills the goldenrod, and the aster in the wood,
And the yellow sunflower by the brook in autumn beauty stood,
Till fell the frost from the clear cold heaven, as falls the plague on men,
And the brightness of their smile was gone from upland, glade, and glen.

This metaphor not only creates a sense of beauty and richness in the language but also reinforces the theme of interconnectedness.


Overall, A Farewell to Agassiz is a beautiful and complex poem that reflects both the poet's sense of loss and his fascination with the natural world. Through its themes of interconnectedness and the passage of time, the poem invites the reader to reflect on their own place in the world and their relationship with the natural world.

Through its fluid structure and rich language, the poem creates a sense of movement and flow that carries the reader through its six stanzas. And through its use of metaphor and imagery, the poem creates a sense of depth and complexity that rewards close reading and analysis.

In short, A Farewell to Agassiz is a masterpiece of poetry that deserves to be read and appreciated for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

A Farewell to Agassiz: An Ode to the Great Naturalist

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the renowned American poet, physician, and essayist, penned one of his most celebrated works, "A Farewell to Agassiz," in honor of the eminent Swiss naturalist and geologist, Louis Agassiz. The poem, published in 1874, is a tribute to Agassiz's scientific achievements and his impact on the author's life and worldview. In this analysis, we will delve into the themes, structure, and language of the poem and explore its significance in the context of American literature and science.

The poem opens with a vivid description of Agassiz's departure from America, where he had spent several years teaching and conducting research at Harvard University. Holmes, who had been Agassiz's student and friend, bids him farewell with a mixture of sadness and admiration. He describes Agassiz as a "mighty hunter" who had explored the "wilderness of the unknown" and brought back "rich spoils" of knowledge. The imagery of hunting and exploration sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which celebrates Agassiz's scientific curiosity and his quest for truth.

The second stanza of the poem shifts the focus to the natural world, which Agassiz had devoted his life to studying. Holmes describes the wonders of nature that Agassiz had uncovered, from the "tiny coral" to the "giant mastodon." He marvels at the diversity and complexity of life on earth, which Agassiz had helped to unravel. The language here is rich and evocative, with vivid images of the sea, the sky, and the earth. Holmes's admiration for Agassiz's scientific achievements is palpable, and he uses the natural world as a metaphor for the vastness and mystery of knowledge.

The third stanza of the poem is perhaps the most personal and emotional. Holmes reflects on his own experience as Agassiz's student and the impact that Agassiz had on his life. He describes Agassiz as a "master" who had taught him to see the world in a new way. He recalls the excitement and wonder he felt when Agassiz showed him the "wonders of the deep" and the "secrets of the rocks." The language here is intimate and nostalgic, with a sense of gratitude and reverence for Agassiz's mentorship.

The fourth stanza of the poem returns to the theme of exploration and discovery. Holmes imagines Agassiz as a "pioneer" who had ventured into the unknown and brought back "treasures" of knowledge. He compares Agassiz to the great explorers of history, from Columbus to Cook, who had charted new territories and expanded the boundaries of human knowledge. The language here is grand and heroic, with a sense of awe and admiration for Agassiz's achievements.

The fifth and final stanza of the poem is a farewell to Agassiz, who is leaving America to return to his native Switzerland. Holmes bids him farewell with a mixture of sadness and gratitude. He thanks Agassiz for his teachings and his friendship and wishes him well on his journey. The language here is tender and heartfelt, with a sense of loss and longing.

The structure of the poem is simple and straightforward, with five stanzas of equal length and a regular rhyme scheme (ABAB). The language is rich and evocative, with vivid images and metaphors that capture the beauty and complexity of the natural world. The tone of the poem is celebratory and reverential, with a sense of wonder and awe at the achievements of Agassiz and the mysteries of science.

In the context of American literature and science, "A Farewell to Agassiz" is a significant work that reflects the intellectual and cultural climate of the late 19th century. The poem celebrates the spirit of exploration and discovery that characterized the era of scientific progress and expansion. It also reflects the growing interest in natural history and the environment, which would later lead to the conservation movement and the establishment of national parks and wildlife reserves.

Moreover, the poem is a tribute to the power of mentorship and education. Holmes's admiration for Agassiz's teachings and his gratitude for his mentorship reflect the importance of education in shaping the minds and values of future generations. The poem also highlights the role of science in expanding human knowledge and understanding of the natural world.

In conclusion, "A Farewell to Agassiz" is a timeless work of poetry that celebrates the achievements of a great naturalist and the wonders of the natural world. It is a tribute to the spirit of exploration and discovery that drives scientific progress and expands the boundaries of human knowledge. It is also a testament to the power of mentorship and education in shaping the minds and values of future generations. As such, it remains a relevant and inspiring work that continues to resonate with readers today.

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