Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table by
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Every Man His Own Boswell
"All generous minds have a horror of what are commonly
called 'facts.' They are the brute beasts of the
intellectual domain. Who does not know fellows that
always have an ill-conditioned fact or two that they lead
after them into decent company like so many bulldogs,
ready to let them slip at every ingenious suggestion, or
convenient generalisation, or pleasant fancy? I allow
no 'facts' at this table."
I continued, for I was in the talking vein, "This business
of conversation is a very serious matter. There are
men that it weakens one to talk with an hour more than
a day's fasting would do. They are the talkers that have
what may be called jerky minds. After a jolting half-hour
with one of these jerky companions talking with a
dull friend affords great relief. It is like taking the cat
in your lap after holding a squirrel."
"Do not dull people bore you?" said one of the lady
"Madam," said I, "all men are bores except when
we want them. Talking is like playing on the harp; there
is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop the
vibrations as in twanging them to bring out the music.
There is this, too, about talking," I continued; "it shapes
our thoughts for us; the waves of conversation roll them
as the surf rolls the pebbles on the shore. Writing or
printing is like shooting with a rifle; you may hit your
reader's mind, or miss it, but talking is like playing at a
mark with the pipe of an engine—if it is within reach,
and you have time enough, you can't help hitting it."
The company agreed that this last illustration was of
The Ageing of Ideas
"I want to make a literary confession now, which I
believe nobody has made before me. I never wrote a
'good' line in my life, but the moment after it was written
it seemed a hundred years old. The rapidity with
which ideas grow old in our memories is in a direct ratio
to the squares of their importance. A great calamity,
for instance, is as old as the trilobites an hour after it
has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves
we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot
of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning."
I wish I had not said all this then and there. The pale
schoolmistress, in her mourning dress, was looking at me
with a wild sort of expression; and all at once she melted
away from her seat like an image of snow; a sling shot
could not have brought her down better. God forgive
The Confusion of Personality
"We must remember that talking is one of the fine
arts—the noblest, the most important, and the most difficult.
It is not easy at the best for two persons talking
together to make the most of each other's thoughts, there
are so many of them."
The company looked as if they wanted an explanation.
"When John and Thomas, for instance, are talking
together," I continued, "it is natural that among the six
there should be more or less confusion and misapprehension."
Our landlady turned pale. No doubt she thought there
was a screw loose in my intellect, and that it involved the
probable loss of a boarder. Everybody looked up, and
the old gentleman opposite slid the carving-knife to one
side, as it were, carelessly.
"I think," I said, "I can make it plain that there are
at least six personalities distinctly to be recognised as
taking part in that dialogue between John and Thomas.
1. The real John; known only to his Maker.
2. John's ideal John; never the real one, and often
very unlike him.
3. Thomas's ideal John; never the real John, nor John's
John, but often very unlike either.
1. The real Thomas.
2. Thomas's ideal Thomas.
3. John's ideal Thomas.
"It follows that until a man can be found who knows
himself as his Maker knows him, or who sees himself
as others see him, there must be at least six persons engaged
in every dialogue between two. No wonder two
disputants often get angry when there are six of them
talking and listening all at the same time."
A very unphilosophical application of the above remarks
was made by a young fellow, answering to the
name of John, who sits near me at table. A certain
basket of peaches, a rare vegetable, little known to
boarding-houses, was on its way to me viā this unlettered
Johannes. He appropriated the three that remained in
the basket, remarking that there was just one apiece for
him. I convinced him that his practical inference was
hasty and illogical—but in the meantime he had eaten the
More on Books
"Some of you boarders ask me why I don't write a
novel, or something of that kind. Well, there are several
reasons against it. In the first place I should tell all my
secrets, and I maintain that verse is the proper medium
for such revelations. Again, I am terribly afraid I
should show up all my friends, and I am afraid all my
friends would not bear showing up very well. And
sometimes I have thought I might be too dull to write
such a story as I should wish to write. And, finally, I
think it is very likely I shall write a story one of these
"I saw you smiled when I spoke about the possibility
of my being too dull to write a good story. When one
arrives at the full and final conclusion that he or she is
really dull, it is one of the most tranquillising and blessed
convictions that can enter a mortal's mind.
"How sweetly and honestly one said to me the other
day, 'I hate books!' I did not recognise in him inferiority
of literary taste half so distinctly as I did simplicity
of character, and fearless acknowledgment of his
inaptitude for scholarship. In fact, I think there are a
great many who read, with a mark to keep their place,
that really 'hate books,' but never had the wit to find it
out, or the manliness to own it."
I am so pleased with my boarding-house that I intend
to remain here, perhaps for years.
"Do thoughts have regular cycles? Take this: All at
once a conviction flashes through us that we have been
in the same precise circumstances as at the present instant
once or many times before."
When I mentioned this the Schoolmistress said she
knew the feeling well, and didn't like to experience it;
it made her think she was a ghost, sometimes.
The young fellow whom they call John said he knew
all about it. He had just lighted a cheroot the other day
when a tremendous conviction came over him that he
had done just that same thing ever so many times
"How do I account for it? Well, some think that one
of the hemispheres of the brain hangs fire, and the small
interval between the perceptions of the nimble and the
sluggish half seems an indefinitely long period, and
therefore the second perception appears to be the copy
of another, ever so old."
The Race of Life
"Nothing strikes one more in the race of life than to
see how many give out in the first half of the course.
'Commencement day' always reminds me of the start
of the 'Derby.' Here we are at Cambridge and a class
is first 'graduating.' Poor Harry! he was to have been
there, but he has paid forfeit.
"Ten years gone. First turn in the race. A few
broken down; two or three bolted. 'Cassock,' a black
colt, seems to be ahead of the rest. 'Meteor' has pulled
"Twenty years. Second corner turned. 'Cassock'
has dropped from the front, and 'Judex,' an iron-grey,
has the lead. But look! how they have thinned out!
Down flat—five—six—how many? They will not get up
again in this race be very sure!
"Thirty years. Third corner turned. 'Dives,' bright
sorrel, ridden by the fellow in a yellow jacket, begins to
make play fast—is getting to be the favourite with many.
But who is that other one that now shows close up to
the front? Don't you remember the quiet brown colt
'Asteroid,' with the star in his forehead? That is he;
he is one of the sort that lasts. 'Cassock' is now taking
it easily in a gentle trot.
"Forty years. More dropping off, but places much as
"Fifty years. Race over. All that are on the course
are coming in at a walk; no more running. Who is
ahead? Ahead? What! and the winning-post a slab of
white or gray stone standing out from that turf where
there is no more jockeying, or straining for victory!
Well, the world marks their places in its betting-book;
but be sure that these matter very little, if they have
run as well as they knew how!
"I will read you a few lines, if you do not object,
suggested by looking at a section of one of those chambered
shells to which is given the name of Pearly
THE CHAMBERED NAUTILUS
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim, dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
Year after year beheld the silent toilThat spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!
Sensibility and Scholarship
"Every person's feelings have a front-door and a side-door
by which they may be entered. The front-door is
on the street. The side-door opens at once into the
sacred chambers. There is almost always at least one
key to this side-door. This is carried for years hidden
in a mother's bosom. Be very careful to whom you
entrust one of these keys of the side-door. Some of
those who come in at the side-door have a scale of your
whole nervous system, and can play on all the gamut of
your sensibilities in semi-tones. Married life is the
school in which the most accomplished artists in this
department are found. Be very careful to whom you
give the side-door key.
"The world's great men have not commonly been
great scholars, nor its great scholars great men. The
Hebrew patriarchs had small libraries, if any; yet they
represent to our imaginations a very complete idea of
manhood, and I think if we could ask Abraham to dine
with us men of letters next Saturday we should feel
honoured by his company."
A Growing Romance
"I should like to make a few intimate revelations relating
especially to my early life, if I thought you would
like to hear them."
The schoolmistress turned in her chair and said, "If
we should like to hear them—we should love to."
So I drew my chair a shade nearer her, and went on
to speak of voices that had bewitched me.
"I wish you could hear my sister's voice," said the
"If it is like yours it must be a pleasant one," said I.
Lately she has been walking early and has brought
back roses in her cheeks. I love the damask rose best
of all flowers.
Our talk had been of trees, and I had been comparing
the American and the English elms in the walk we call
the Mall. "Will you walk out and look at those elms with
me after breakfast?" I said to the schoolmistress.
I am not going to tell lies about it, and say that she
blushed. On the contrary, she turned a little bit pale,
but smiled brightly, and said, "Yes, with pleasure." So
she went to fetch her bonnet, and the old gentleman
opposite followed her with his eyes, and said he wished
he was a young fellow.
"This is the shortest way," she said, as we came to the
"Then we won't take it," said I.
When we reached the school-room door the damask
roses were so much heightened in colour by exercise that
I felt sure it would be useful to her to take a stroll like
this every morning.
I have been low-spirited and listless lately. It is coffee,
I think. I notice that I tell my secrets too easily when
I am downhearted. There are inscriptions on our hearts
never seen except at dead low-tide. And there is a
woman's footstep on the sand at the side of my deepest
I am not going to say which I like best, the seashore
or the mountains. The one where your place is, is the
best for you; but this difference there is—you can
domesticate mountains. The sea is feline. It licks your
feet, its huge flanks purr very pleasantly for you; but it
will crack your bones and eat you for all that, and wipe
the crimsoned foam from its jaws as if nothing had
happened. The mountains have a grand, stupid, lovable
tranquillity; the sea has a fascinating, treacherous intelligence.
"If I thought I should ever see the Alps!" said the
"Perhaps you might some time or other," I said.
"It is not very likely," she answered.
Tableau. Chamouni. Mont Blanc in full view. Figures
in the foreground, two of them standing apart; one
of them a gentleman—oh—ah—yes!—the other a lady,
leaning on his shoulder. (The reader will understand
this was an internal, private, subjective diorama, seen for
one instant on the background of my own consciousness.)
I can't say just how many walks she and I had taken
together. I found the effect of going out every morning
was decidedly favourable on her health. I am afraid
I did the greater part of the talking. Better too few
words from the woman we love than too many; while
she is silent, Nature is working for her; while she talks
she works for herself. Love is sparingly soluble in the
words of men, therefore they speak much of it; but one
syllable of woman's speech can dissolve more of it than
a man's heart can hold.
Nature's Patient Advance
I don't know anything sweeter than the leaking in of
Nature through all the cracks in the walls and floors of
cities. You heap a million tons of hewn rocks on a
square mile or so of earth which was green once. The
trees look down from the hill-tops and ask each other,
as they stand on tiptoe, "What are these people about?"
And the small herbs look up and whisper back, "We
will go and see." So the small herbs pack themselves
up in the least possible bundles, and wait until the night
wind steals to them and whispers, "Come with me."
Then they go softly with it into the great city—one to a
cleft in the pavement, one to a spout on the roof, one to
a seam in the marble over a rich gentleman's bones, and
one to the grave without a stone, where nothing but a
man is buried—and there they grow, looking down on
the generations of men from mouldy roofs, looking up
from between the less-trodden pavements, looking out
through iron cemetery railings.
Listen to them when there is only a light breath stirring,
and you will hear them saying to each other, "Wait
awhile." The words run along the telegraph of those
narrow green lines that border the roads leading from
the city, until they reach the slope of the hills, and the
trees repeat in low murmurs, "Wait awhile." By and
by the flow of life in the streets ebbs, and the old leafy
inhabitants—the smaller tribes always in front—saunter
in, one by one, very careless seemingly, but very tenacious,
until they swarm so that the great stones gape
from each other with the crowding of their roots, and
the feldspar begins to be picked out of the granite to find
them food. At last the trees take up their solemn line
of march, and never rest until they have camped in the
market-place. Wait long enough, and you will find an
old doting oak hugging in its yellow underground arms
a huge worn block that was the cornerstone of the State-house.
Oh, so patient she is, this imperturbable Nature!
The Long Path
It was in talking of life that the schoolmistress and I
came nearest together. I thought I knew something
about that. The schoolmistress had tried life, too. Once
in a while one meets with a single soul greater than all
the living pageant that passes before it. This was one
of them. Fortune had left her, sorrow had baptised her.
Yet as I looked upon her tranquil face, gradually regaining
a cheerfulness that was often sprightly, as she became
interested in the various matters we talked about
and places we visited, I saw that eye and lip and every
shifting lineament were made for love.
I never addressed a word of love to the schoolmistress
in the course of these pleasant walks. It seemed as if we
talked of everything but love on that particular morning.
There was, perhaps, a little more timidity and hesitancy
on my part than I have commonly shown among our
people at the boarding-house. In fact, I considered myself
the master at the breakfast-table; but somehow I
could not command myself just then so well as usual.
The truth is, I had secured a passage to Liverpool in the
steamer which was to leave at noon—with the condition
of being released if circumstances occurred to detain me.
The schoolmistress knew nothing about this, of course,
It was on the Common that we were walking. The
boulevard of the Common, you know, has various
branches leading from it in different directions. One of
these runs across the whole length of the Common. We
called it the "long path," and were fond of it.
I felt very weak indeed—though of a tolerably robust
habit—as we came opposite to the head of this path on
that morning. I think I tried to speak twice, without
making myself distinctly audible. At last I got out the
question, "Will you take the long path with me?"
"Certainly," said the schoolmistress, "with much pleasure."
"Think," I said, "before you answer. If you
take the long path with me now, I shall interpret it that
we are to part no more."
The schoolmistress stepped back with a sudden movement,
as if an arrow had struck her. One of the long
granite blocks used as seats was hard by—the one you
may still see close by the gingko-tree. "Pray sit down,"
"No, no," she answered softly; "I will walk the long
path with you!"
The old gentleman who sits opposite met us walking,
arm-in-arm, about the middle of the long path, and said
very charmingly to us, "Good-morning, my dears!"