The Last Leaf

Original Text: 
The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ed. H. E. S. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895): 4-5. PS 1955 A1 1895 Robarts Library.
2As he passed by the door,
3    And again
4The pavement stones resound,
5As he totters o'er the ground
6    With his cane.
7They say that in his prime,
8Ere the pruning-knife of Time
9    Cut him down,
10Not a better man was found
11By the Crier on his round
12    Through the town.
13But now he walks the streets,
14And looks at all he meets
15    Sad and wan,
16And he shakes his feeble head,
17That it seems as if he said,
18    "They are gone."
19The mossy marbles rest
20On the lips that he has prest
21    In their bloom,
22And the names he loved to hear
23Have been carved for many a year
24    On the tomb.
25My grandmamma has said --
26Poor old lady, she is dead
27    Long ago --
28That he had a Roman nose,
29And his cheek was like a rose
30    In the snow;
31But now his nose is thin,
32And it rests upon his chin
33    Like a staff,
34And a crook is in his back,
35And a melancholy crack
36    In his laugh.
37I know it is a sin
38For me to sit and grin
39    At him here;
40But the old three-cornered hat,
41And the breeches, and all that,
42    Are so queer!
43And if I should live to be
44The last leaf upon the tree
45    In the spring,
46Let them smile, as I do now,
47At the old forsaken bough
48    Where I cling.

Notes

1] The old man is the grandfather of Herman Melville, Major Thomas Melville (1759-1832).

Holmes writes the following prefatory note:

This poem was suggested by the sight of a figure well known to Bostonians [in 1831 or 1832], that of Major Thomas Melville, "the last of the cocked hats," as he was sometimes called. The Major had been a personable young man, very evidently, and retained evidence of it in

"the monmental pomp of age," --

which had something imposing and something odd about it for youthful eyes like mine. He was often pointed at as one of the "Indians" of the famous "Boston Tea-Party" of 1774. His aspect among the crowds of a later generation reminded me of a withered leaf which has held to its bough while the new growths of spring are bursting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it. I make this explanation for the benefit of those who have been puzzled by the lines,

"The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring."

The way in which it came to be written in a somewhat singular measure was this. I had become a little known as a versifier, and I thought that one or two other writers were following my efforts with imitations, not meant as parodies and hardly to be considered improvements on their models. I determined to write in a measure which would at once betray any copyist. So far as it was suggested by any previous poem, the echo must have come from Campbell's "Battle of the Baltic," with its short terminal lines, such as the last of these two,

"By thy wild and stormy deep,
Elsinore."

But I do not remember any poem in the same measure, except such as have been written since its publication.

The poem as first written had one of those false rhymes which produce a shudder in all educated persons, even in the poems of Keats and others who ought to have known better than to admit them.

The guilty verse ran thus: --

"But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
    So forlorn,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
    `They are gone'!"

A little more experience, to say nothing of the sneer of an American critic in an English periodical, showed me that this would never do. Here was what is called a "cockney rhyme," -- one in which the sound of the letter r is neglected -- maltreated as the letter h is insulted by the average Briton by leaving it out everywhere except where it should be silent. Such an ill-mated pair as "forlorn" and "gone" could not possibly pass current in good rhyming society. But what to do about it was the question. I would keep

"They are gone!"

and I could not think of any rhyme which I could work in satisfactorily. In this perplexity my friend, Mrs. Folsom, wife of that excellent scholar, Mr. Charles Folsom, then and for a long time the unsparing and infallible corrector of the press at Cambridge, suggested the line,

"Sad and wan,"

which I thankfully adopted and have always retained.

Good Abraham Lincoln had a great liking for the poem, and repeated it from memory to Governor Andrew, as the Governor himself told me. I have a copy of it made by the hand of Edgar Allen Poe.

The editor adds the following comment:

[When this poem was issued with an accompaniment of illustration and decoration in 1894, Dr. Holmes wrote to his publishers: --

"I have read the proof you sent me and find nothing in it which I feel called upon to alter or explain.

"I have lasted long enough to serve as an illustration of my own poem. I am one of the very last of the leaves which still cling to the bough of life that budded in the spring of the nineteenth century. The days of my years are threescore and twenty, and I am almost half way up the steep incline which leads me toward the base of the new century so near to which I have already climbed.

"I am pleased to find that this poem, carrying with it the marks of having been written in the jocund morning of life, is still read and cared for. It was with a smile on my lips that I wrote it; I cannot read it without a sigh of tender remembrance. I hope it will not sadden my older readers, while it may amuse some of the younger ones to whom its experiences are as yet only floating fancies."]

Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1831
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.
Rhyme: