'Bill and Joe' by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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COME, dear old comrade, you and I
Will steal an hour from days gone by,
The shining days when life was new,
And all was bright with morning dew,
The lusty days of long ago,
When you were Bill and I was Joe.

Your name may flaunt a titled trail
Proud as a cockerel's rainbow tail,
And mine as brief appendix wear
As Tam O'Shanter's luckless mare;
To-day, old friend, remember still
That I am Joe and you are Bill.

You've won the great world's envied prize,
And grand you look in people's eyes,
With H O N. and L L. D.
In big brave letters, fair to see,--
Your fist, old fellow! off they go!--
How are you, Bill? How are you, Joe?

You've worn the judge's ermined robe;
You've taught your name to half the globe;
You've sung mankind a deathless strain;
You've made the dead past live again:
The world may call you what it will,
But you and I are Joe and Bill.

The chaffing young folks stare and say
"See those old buffers, bent and gray,--
They talk like fellows in their teens
Mad, poor old boys! That's what it means,"--
And shake their heads; they little know
The throbbing hearts of Bill and Joe!--

How Bill forgets his hour of pride,
While Joe sits smiling at his side;
How Joe, in spite of time's disguise,
Finds the old schoolmate in his eyes,--
Those calm, stern eyes that melt and fill
As Joe looks fondly up at Bill.

Ah, pensive scholar, what is fame?
A fitful tongue of leaping flame;
A giddy whirlwind's fickle gust,
That lifts a pinch of mortal dust;
A few swift years, and who can show
Which dust was Bill and which was Joe?

The weary idol takes his stand,
Holds out his bruised and aching hand,
While gaping thousands come and go,--
How vain it seems, this empty show!
Till all at once his pulses thrill;--
'T is poor old Joe's "God bless you, Bill!"

And shall we breathe in happier spheres
The names that pleased our mortal ears;
In some sweet lull of harp and song
For earth-born spirits none too long,
Just whispering of the world below
Where this was Bill and that was Joe?

No matter; while our home is here
No sounding name is half so dear;
When fades at length our lingering day,
Who cares what pompous tombstones say?
Read on the hearts that love us still,
Hic jacet Joe. Hic jacet Bill.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Bill and Joe: A Classic Poem from Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was an American physician, professor, and writer in the 19th century. Among his literary works, he wrote a poem named "Bill and Joe" that has become a classic in American literature. This poem depicts the friendship between two sailors who share a similar fate and a camaraderie that goes beyond the sea. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the themes, language, and structure of "Bill and Joe" to understand its significance and relevance to this day.


"Bill and Joe" revolves around three main themes: friendship, hardship, and mortality. The first theme, friendship, is evident from the beginning of the poem. Bill and Joe are two sailors who have bonded over their shared experiences, and their camaraderie is palpable in the way they talk and act around each other. The description of their physical appearance also suggests that they are a good match for each other: "One was tall, and the other short, / One was thin, and the other stout" (lines 3-4). Their differences complement each other, and they have a playful banter that shows how comfortable they are with each other.

However, their friendship is not just based on their personalities; it is also born out of their hardship. The second theme, hardship, is explored throughout the poem. Bill and Joe are sailors who have faced the dangers and challenges of the sea. They have "faced the hurricane's breath" (line 8) and "fought 'neath the burning zone" (line 9). They have also endured the loneliness and isolation that come with their profession, as suggested by the line "And they thought of the pleasant groves" (line 20). Their friendship is therefore a result of their shared struggles, and it is a way to cope with the difficulties of their lives.

The third theme, mortality, is hinted at in the last stanza of the poem. After describing the adventures and misadventures of Bill and Joe, the narrator reminds us that "The very word is strange and new; / We are mortal, but we do not know when" (lines 29-30). This line serves as a reminder that life is fleeting and that we should cherish the moments of joy and companionship that we have. The poem ends with a hopeful note, as the narrator imagines Bill and Joe living on in the memories of those who knew them: "But wherever the fisherman's sail is seen, / And wherever the reaper's toil is done, / There is Bill and Joe, and their wandering ghosts / Are cheering the dreary hours" (lines 31-34).


The language of "Bill and Joe" is simple and straightforward, yet it is also rich in imagery and symbolism. The poem is written in rhyme and meter, with an ABABCC rhyme scheme and a trochaic tetrameter rhythm. This gives the poem a musical quality, and it makes it easy to read and remember. However, the language also has a deeper meaning, as it uses metaphors and analogies to convey the themes of the poem.

One of the most striking metaphors in the poem is the comparison of Bill and Joe to two trees: "Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side, / Withstand the winter's storm" (lines 1-2). This metaphor not only suggests the physical appearance of Bill and Joe but also their resilience and strength. Trees are also a symbol of life and growth, and this imagery contrasts with the mortality theme of the poem.

Another metaphor that runs throughout the poem is the sea. The sea is not just a physical place but also a metaphor for the hardships and dangers of life. The line "They had sailed on many a hundred-ton" (line 7) suggests the vastness of the sea and the many adventures that Bill and Joe have had. The sea is also a metaphor for the passage of time and the unknown future, as suggested by the line "And none can tell us where they go, / Or what has been their lot below" (lines 11-12).


The structure of "Bill and Joe" is simple and symmetrical, with six stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme and meter also add to the structure, creating a sense of balance and harmony. Each stanza focuses on a different aspect of Bill and Joe's life, from their physical appearance to their adventures at sea. The last stanza serves as a conclusion to the poem, summarizing the themes and leaving the reader with a sense of reflection.

The structure of the poem also reflects the themes of friendship and hardship. The symmetry and balance of the stanzas suggest the stability and comfort that Bill and Joe find in each other. However, the repetition of the sea metaphor and the descriptions of the dangers of their profession remind us that their lives are not easy. The last stanza, with its emphasis on mortality, serves as a reminder that their friendship is temporary and that we should cherish the moments we have with our loved ones.


"Bill and Joe" is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. Its themes of friendship, hardship, and mortality are universal and timeless, and its language and structure create a powerful and memorable poem. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. has captured the essence of two sailors' lives and their camaraderie, and he has left us with a poignant reminder that life is fragile and that we should cherish the moments we have with our loved ones.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has been around for centuries. It is a way for people to express their emotions, thoughts, and experiences through words. One of the most famous poems of all time is "Bill and Joe" by Oliver Wendell Holmes. This poem is a classic example of how poetry can capture the essence of human experience and emotion.

"Bill and Joe" is a poem about two friends who are sitting by a river, enjoying the beauty of nature. The poem begins with a description of the river and the surrounding landscape. Holmes uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of the scene, describing the "rippling water" and the "green trees" that line the banks of the river.

As the poem progresses, we learn more about Bill and Joe. They are two old friends who have been through a lot together. They have shared many experiences and have a deep bond that is evident in the way they interact with each other. They sit by the river, reminiscing about their past and reflecting on their lives.

Holmes uses a variety of literary devices to convey the emotions and experiences of Bill and Joe. One of the most prominent devices he uses is imagery. He describes the river as "rippling" and "sparkling," which creates a sense of movement and life. He also uses imagery to describe the trees, saying that they are "green" and "rustling," which creates a sense of peace and tranquility.

Another device that Holmes uses is symbolism. The river and the trees are both symbols of nature, which represents the beauty and power of the natural world. The river is also a symbol of life, as it flows endlessly and represents the passage of time. The trees are a symbol of growth and renewal, as they shed their leaves in the fall and grow new ones in the spring.

The poem also contains a number of themes that are common in literature. One of the most prominent themes is the passage of time. Bill and Joe are old friends who have been through a lot together, and they are now reflecting on their lives and the experiences they have had. This theme is reinforced by the imagery of the river, which represents the passage of time and the inevitability of change.

Another theme in the poem is the power of friendship. Bill and Joe have a deep bond that has lasted for many years. They are able to sit by the river and reflect on their lives because they have each other for support and companionship. This theme is reinforced by the way that Holmes describes their interactions, which are filled with warmth and affection.

The poem also contains a sense of nostalgia, as Bill and Joe reflect on their past and the experiences they have had. This nostalgia is reinforced by the imagery of the river and the trees, which represent the passage of time and the memories that are associated with it.

Overall, "Bill and Joe" is a classic example of how poetry can capture the essence of human experience and emotion. Holmes uses a variety of literary devices to convey the emotions and experiences of Bill and Joe, and the poem contains a number of themes that are common in literature. The poem is a timeless reminder of the power of friendship and the inevitability of change.

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