Never but once did I enjoy the privilege of meeting the author of “Elsie Venner”—Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was at a dinner given by Mr. Lowell, and of conversation with Dr. Holmes I had very little. He struck me as being wonderfully erect, active, and vivacious for his great age. He spoke (perhaps I should not chronicle this impression)—he spoke much, and freely, but rather as if he were wound up to speak, so to say—wound up, I mean, by a sense of duty to himself and kindness to strangers, who were naturally curious about so well-known a man. In his aspect there was a certain dryness, and, altogether, his vivacity, his ceaselessness, and a kind of equability of tone in his voice, reminded me of what Homer says concerning the old men around Priam, above the gate of Troy, how they “chirped like cicalas on a summer day.” About the matter of his talk I remember nothing, only the manner remains with me, and mine may have been a false impression, or the manner may have been accidental, and of the moment: or, again, a manner appropriate for conversation with strangers, each coming up one after the other, to view respectfully so great a lion. Among his friends and intimates he was probably a different man, with a tone other and more reposeful.
He had a long, weary task before him, then, to talk his way, ever courteous, alert, attentive, through part of a London season. Yet, when it was all over, he seems to have enjoyed it, being a man who took pleasure in most sorts of experience. He did not affect me, for that one time, with such a sense of pleasure as Mr. Lowell did—Mr. Lowell, whom I knew so much better, and who was so big, strong, humorous, kind, learned, friendly, and delightfully natural.
Dr. Holmes, too, was a delightful companion, and I have merely tried to make a sort of photographic “snap-shot” at him, in a single casual moment, one of myriads of such moments. Turning to Dr. Holmes’s popular, as distinct from his professional writings, one is reminded, as one often is, of the change which seems to come over some books as the reader grows older. Many books are to one now what they always were; some, like the Waverley novels and Shakespeare, grow better on every fresh reading. There are books which filled me, in boyhood or in youth, with a sort of admiring rapture, and a delighted wonder at their novelty, their strangeness, freshness, greatness. Thus Homer, and the best novels of Thackeray, and of Fielding, the plays of Moliere and Shakespeare, the poems of—well, of all the real poets, moved this astonishment of admiration, and being read again, they move it still. On a different level, one may say as much about books so unlike each other, as those of Poe and of Sir Thomas Browne, of Swift and of Charles Lamb.
There are, again, other books which caused this happy emotion of wonder, when first perused, long since, but which do so no longer. I am not much surprised to find Charles Kingsley’s novels among them.