The Flâneur

Boston Common, December 6, 1882 during the Transit of Venus

Original Text: 
The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ed. H. E. S. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895): 284-86. PS 1955 A1 1895 Robarts Library.
2From flowers that glow to stars that shine;
4All curious things, above, below,
5Hold each in turn my wandering eyes:
6I claim the Christian Pagan's line,
8And is not human life divine?
9When soft the western breezes blow,
10And strolling youths meet sauntering maids,
11I love to watch the stirring trades
13Our much-enduring elms bestow;
14The vender and his rhetoric's flow,
15That lambent stream of liquid lies;
16The bait he dangles from his line,
18I halt before the blazoned sign
19That bids me linger to admire
20The drama time can never tire,
21The little hero of the hunch,
22With iron arm and soul of fire,
23And will that works his fierce desire, --
25My ear a pleasing torture finds
28Whom I erewhile, perchance, have known,
31But most I love the tube that spies
32The orbs celestial in their march;
33That shows the comet as it whisks
34Its tail across the planets' disks,
35As if to blind their blood-shot eyes;
36Or wheels so close against the sun
37We tremble at the thought of risks
38Our little spinning ball may run,
39To pop like corn that children parch,
40From summer something overdone,
41And roll, a cinder, through the skies.
42Grudge not to-day the scanty fee
43To him who farms the firmament,
45Who holds the wondrous crystal key,
47That Science to her sons has lent;
48Who takes his toll, and lifts the bar
49That shuts the road to sun and star.
50If Venus only comes to time,
51(And prophets say she must and shall,)
52To-day will hear the tinkling chime
53Of many a ringing silver dime,
54For him whose optic glass supplies
55The crowd with astronomic eyes, --
57Dimly the transit morning broke;
58The sun seemed doubting what to do,
59As one who questions how to dress,
61And halts between the old and new.
62Please Heaven he wear his suit of blue,
63Or don, at least, his ragged cloak,
64With rents that show the azure through!
65I go the patient crowd to join
66That round the tube my eyes discern,
67The last new-comer of the file,
68And wait, and wait, a weary while,
69And gape, and stretch, and shrug, and smile,
70(For each his place must fairly earn,
71Hindmost and foremost, in his turn,)
72Till hitching onward, pace by pace,
73I gain at last the envied place,
75The sun and I are face to face;
76He glares at me, I stare at him;
77And lo! my straining eye has found
78A little spot that, black and round,
79Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb's rim.
81Well named for her whom earth adores, --
82The Lady of the dove-drawn car, --
84But veiled in black, a rayless spot,
85Blank as a careless scribbler's blot,
86Stripped of thy robe of silvery flame, --
87The stolen robe that Night restores
88When Day has shut his golden doors, --
89I see thee, yet I know thee not;
90And canst thou call thyself the same?
91A black, round spot, -- and that is all;
92And such a speck our earth would be
93If he who looks upon the stars
94Through the red atmosphere of Mars
95Could see our little creeping ball
96Across the disk of crimson crawl
97As I our sister planet see.
98And art thou, then, a world like ours,
99Flung from the orb that whirled our own
100A molten pebble from its zone?
101How must thy burning sands absorb
102The fire-waves of the blazing orb,
103Thy chain so short, thy path so near,
104Thy flame-defying creatures hear
106And is thy bosom decked with flowers
107That steal their bloom from scalding showers?
108And hast thou cities, domes, and towers,
109And life, and love that makes it dear,
110And death that fills thy tribes with fear?
111Lost in my dream, my spirit soars
112Through paths the wandering angels know;
113My all-pervading thought explores
115I leave my mortal self below,
116As up the star-lit stairs I climb,
117And still the widening view reveals
118In endless rounds the circling wheels
120New spheres, new suns, new systems gleam;
121The voice no earth-born echo hears
122Steals softly on my ravished ears:
124A mortal's voice dissolves my dream:
125My patient neighbor, next in line,
126Hints gently there are those who wait.
127O guardian of the starry gate,
128What coin shall pay this debt of mine?
129Too slight thy claim, too small the fee
130That bids thee turn the potent key
132Forgive my own the small affront,
133The insult of the proffered dime;
134Take it, O friend, since this thy wont,
135But still shall faithful memory be
136A bankrupt debtor unto thee,
137And pay thee with a grateful rhyme.


1] transit: the passing of a planet, here Venus, across the sun's disk. Back to Line
3] the penny show: cheap entertainment at fairs and carnivals, such as Punch-and-Judy shows (cf. line 24). Back to Line
7] `nothing human': from Terence's Heauton Timoroumenos "Homo sum; humani nihila me alienum puto" (`I am a man; I count nothing human as alien to me'). Back to Line
12] Vallombrosa: village in Tuscany. Back to Line
17] gudgeon: small carp-like freshwater fish. Back to Line
24] Punch: the puppet husband who fights with his puppet wife Judy in the "penny show" (3). Back to Line
26] sibyl: prophetess or fortune-teller. Back to Line
27] dame sans merci: `lady without pity' -- the dangerous enchantress described in John Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci." Back to Line
29] Orleans: Louis Philippe, king of France (1830-48). Back to Line
30] Seine: French river running through Paris. Back to Line
44] Milky Way: our own galaxy, viewed sideways, as a broad band of stars and light across the night sky. Back to Line
46] Open Sesame: the sure key to success, from Ali Baba's command opening the robbers' door in the rock in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, an oriental tale associated with the Arabian Nights. Back to Line
56] Galileo (1564-1642), builder of the refracting telescope in 1609.
Mall: public promenade or walking area. Back to Line
60] doublets: man's snug jacket.
press: closet. Back to Line
74] exiguous: small, of little value. Back to Line
80] evening star: Venus. Back to Line
83] simar: woman's light garment. Back to Line
105] photosphere: the sun's outer surface. Back to Line
114] lucent: shining. Back to Line
119] horologe: a timekeeping device. Back to Line
123] "singing as they shine": from Joseph Addison's "Ode" (1712), "For ever singing, as they shine, /`The Hand that made us is Divine'". Back to Line
131] the Tuscan: Galileo (1564-1642), builder of the refracting telescope in 1609. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
also in Before the Curlew (1888)
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.