The Last Leaf

By OCeallaigh

I saw William a few days ago and had the chance to sort of pass the time of day with him. He told me that he saw me walk by the other morning about 0615. He knew it was me because he heard my cane clicking on the pavement.

The rest of our conversation faded off into the hinterlands because my mind immediately drifted to Holmes’ poem, The Last Leaf.

I saw him once before
As he passed by the door,
And again.

                The pavement stoned resound
As he totters ore the ground,
With his cane…”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., actually a Medical Doctor and Professor, was also a rather prolific New England “versifier” writing over the better part of his life in the 19th century being born in 1809 and living until Sunday, October 7, 1894. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. the famous Jurist, (he was a Supreme Court Justice) said of his father’s death, “His death was as peaceful as one could wish for those one loves. He simply ceased to breathe.”

His poem, referred to above, was completely out of sync with the hierarchy of writers and critics of the day and, in some circles, ridiculed for its rhythm, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, Edgar Allen Poe penned a specific praise on the piece after he hand-copied it. That little note of praise was given to Holmes on the death of Poe and he treasured it for the remainder of his life.

They say that in his prime
Ere the pruning knife of time
Cut him down,

                 Not a better man was found
By the crier on his round,
Through the town.

According to Holmes’ own account, the poem “was suggested by the sight of a figure well know to Bostonians” at the time of its writing, “that of Major Thomas Melville, ‘the last of the cocked hats’… He was often pointed to as one of the “Indians” of the famous Boston Tea Party of 1774.”

But he no longer cut the same figure as in those days.

                “But now he walks the streets
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and Wan,

                And he shakes his feeble head
And it seems as if he said,
They are gone.

                The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has pressed
In their bloom,

(I always tear and choke up a little bit here!)

                 And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many-a-year
On the tomb.

                My Grand-mamma has said,
Poor old lady she is dead,
Long ago,

                That he had a roman nose
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow!

                But now his nose is thin
And it rests upon his chin,
Like a staff.

                And a crook is in his back
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.

                I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here,

                But the old three-cornered hat
And the breeches and all that,
Are so queer!

                And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,

                Let them smile as I do now
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.”

Holmes pictured one stubborn leaf in the spring hanging onto a barren tree. Here he is, in his own words:

His aspect among the crowds of a later generation reminded me of a withered leaf which had held to its stem through the storms of autumn and winter, and finds itself still clinging to its bough while the new growths of spring are bursting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it.”1

When I came to my senses, William was still talking about walking in the early morning hours with my cane making the clicking sound on the street.

I didn’t tell him I hadn’t heard a word he’d said since I was far away up in the chill of a New England Spring looking at one shriveled up old leaf hanging on a barren limb.

I smiled, nodded and chatted briefly about the weather, or something, then waved – parted company and I started off down the street, cane clicking on the pavement – thinking about Major Thomas Melville, alone in a world of strangers, trying to laugh it off with a melancholy crack in his laugh and his thin nose resting on his skinny chin.

I don’t need the cane now, it’s just company!

But soon, I will.

Last red leaf
And not too far hence, I’ll be tottering over the ground, too. And without a doubt I’ll be  holding onto that old bough which has been forsaken by all the other leaves. Then, I, like all others in this world will fit well along side – “The last Leaf.”

  1. Houghton-Mifflin & Co.
    The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MDCCCXCV
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