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Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

          To a Blank Sheet of Paper

    WAN-VISAGED thing! thy virgin leaf
           To me looks more than deadly pale,
    Unknowing what may stain thee yet,—
           A poem or a tale.

    Who can thy unborn meaning scan?
           Can Seer or Sibyl read thee now?
    No,—seek to trace the fate of man
           Write on his infant brow.

    Love may light on thy snowy cheek,
           And shake his Eden-breathing plumes;
    Then shalt thou tell how Lelia smiles,
           Or Angelina blooms.

    Satire may lift his bearded lance,
           Forestalling Time's slow-moving scythe,
    And, scattered on thy little field,
           Disjointed bards may writhe.

    Perchance a vision of the night,
           Some grizzled spectre, gaunt and thin,
    Or sheeted corpse, may stalk along,
           Or skeleton may grin!

    If it should be in pensive hour
           Some sorrow-moving theme I try,
    Ah, maiden, how thy tears will fall,
           For all I doom to die!

    But if in merry mood I touch
           Thy leaves, then shall the sight of thee
    Sow smiles as thick on rosy lips
           As ripples on the sea.

    The Weekly press shall gladly stoop
           To bind thee up among its sheaves;
    The Daily steal they shining ore,
           To gild its leaden leaves.

    Thou has no tonuge, yet thou canst speak,
           Till distant shores shall hear the sound;
    Thou hast no life, yet thou canst breathe
           Fresh life on all around.

    Thou art the arena of the wise,
           The noiseless battle-ground of fame;
    The sky where halos may be wreathed
           Around the humblest name.

    Take, then, this treasure to thy trust,
           To win some idle reader's smile,
    Then fade and moulder in the dust,
           Or swell some bonfire's crackling pile!


In addition to writing poetry and essays, Oliver Wendell Holmes was also a Professor of Anatomy and Physiology and dean of the Harvard medical school. His son (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.) was appointed to the supreme court by Theodore Roosevelt.

The above poem can be found in:

  • Holmes, Oliver Wendell. The Early Poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Henry Ketcham, ed. New York: A.L. Burt Publishers, 1900.