Delivered on Memorial Day, May 30, 1895, at a Meeting Called by the Graduating
Class of Harvard University. President Theodore Roosevelt's admiration for this
speech was a factor in Holmes' nomination to the US Supreme Court. The most
quoted line of this speech is "We have shared the incommunicable experience of
war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top."]
Any day in Washington Street [in Boston], when the throng is greatest and
busiest, you may see a blind man playing a flute. I suppose that some one hears
him. Perhaps also my pipe may reach the heart of some passer in the crowd.
I once heard a man say, "Where Vanderbilt sits, there is the head of the
table. I teach my son to be rich." He said what many think. For although the
generation born about 1840, and now governing the world, has fought two at least
of the greatest wars in history, and has witnessed others, war is out of
fashion, and the man who commands attention of his fellows is the man of wealth.
Commerce is the great power. The aspirations of the world are those of commerce.
Moralists and philosophers, following its lead, declare that war is wicked,
foolish, and soon to disappear.
The society for which many philanthropists, labor reformers, and men of
fashion unite in longing is one in which they may be comfortable and may shine
without much trouble or any danger. The unfortunately growing hatred of the poor
for the rich seems to me to rest on the belief that money is the main thing (a
belief in which the poor have been encouraged by the rich), more than on any
other grievance. Most of my hearers would rather that their daughters or their
sisters should marry a son of one of the great rich families than a regular army
officer, were he as beautiful, brave, and gifted as Sir William Napier. I have
heard the question asked whether our war was worth fighting, after all. There
are many, poor and rich, who think that love of country is an old wife's tale,
to be replaced by interest in a labor union, or, under the name of
cosmopolitanism, by a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most
enjoyment may be had at the least cost.
Meantime we have learned the doctrine that evil means pain, and the revolt
aginst pain in all its forms has grown more and more marked. From societies for
the prevention of cruelty to animals up to socialism, we express in numberless
ways the notion that suffering is a wrong which can be and ought to be
prevented, and a whole literature of sympathy has sprung into being which points
out in story and in verse how hard it is to be wounded in the battle of life,
how terrible, how unjust it is that any one should fail.
Even science has had its part in the tendencies which we observe. It has
shaken established religion in the minds of very many. It has pursued analysis
until at last this thrilling world of colors and passions and sounds has seemed
fatally to resolve itself into one vast network of vibrations endlessly weaving
an aimless web, and the rainbow flush of cathedral windows, which once to
enraptured eyes appeared the very smile of God, fades slowly out into the pale
irony of the void.
And yet from vast orchestras still comes the music of mighty symphonies. Our
painters even now are spreading along the walls of our Library glowing symbols
of mysteries still real, and the hardly silenced cannon of the East proclaim
once more that combat and pain still are the portion of man. For my own part, I
believe that the struggle for life is the order of the world, at which it is
vain to repine. I can imagine the burden changed in the way it is to be borne,
but I cannot imagine that it ever will be lifted from men's backs. I can imagine
a future in which science shall have passed from the combative to the dogmatic
stage, and shall have gained such catholic acceptance that it shall take control
of life, and condemn at once with instant execution what now is left for nature
to destroy. But we are far from such a future, and we cannot stop to amuse or to
terrify ourselves with dreams. Now, at least, and perhaps as long as man dwells
upon the globe, his destiny is battle, and he has to take the chances of war. If
it is our business to fight, the book for the army is a war-song, not a
hospital-sketch. It is not well for soldiers to think much about wounds. Sooner
or later we shall fall; but meantime it is for us to fix our eyes upon the point
to be stormed, and to get there if we can.
Behind every scheme to make the world over, lies the question, What kind of
world do you want? The ideals of the past for men have been drawn from war, as
those for women have been drawn from motherhood. For all our prophecies, I doubt
if we are ready to give up our inheritance. Who is there who would not like to
be thought a gentleman? Yet what has that name been built on but the soldier's
choice of honor rather than life? To be a soldier or descended from soldiers, in
time of peace to be ready to give one's life rather than suffer disgrace, that
is what the word has meant; and if we try to claim it at less cost than a
splendid carelessness for life, we are trying to steal the good will without the
responsibilities of the place. We will not dispute about tastes. The man of the
future may want something different. But who of us could endure a world,
although cut up into five-acre lots, and having no man upon it who was not well
fed and well housed, without the divine folly of honor, without the senseless
passion for knowledge outreaching the flaming bounds of the possible, without
ideals the essence of which is that they can never be achieved? I do not know
what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of
doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man
who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the
faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in
obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in
a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does
not see the use.
Most men who know battle know the cynic force with which the thoughts of
common sense will assail them in times of stress; but they know that in their
greatest moments faith has trampled those thoughts under foot. If you wait in
line, suppose on Tremont Street Mall, ordered simply to wait and do nothing, and
have watched the enemy bring their guns to bear upon you down a gentle slope
like that of Beacon Street, have seen the puff of the firing, have felt the
burst of the spherical case-shot as it came toward you, have heard and seen the
shrieking fragments go tearing through your company, and have known that the
next or the next shot carries your fate; if you have advanced in line and have
seen ahead of you the spot you must pass where the rifle bullets are striking;
if you have ridden at night at a walk toward the blue line of fire at the dead
angle of Spottsylvania, where for twenty-four hours the soldiers were fighting
on the two sides of an earthwork, and in the morning the dead and dying lay
piled in a row six deep, and as you rode you heard the bullets splashing in the
mud and earth about you; if you have been in the picket-line at night in
a black and unknown wood, have heard the splat of the bullets upon the trees,
and as you moved have felt your foot slip upon a dead man's body; if you have
had a blind fierce gallop against the enemy, with your blood up and a pace that
left no time for fear --if, in short, as some, I hope many, who hear me, have
known, you have known the vicissitudes of terror and triumph in war; you know
that there is such a thing as the faith I spoke of. You know your own weakness
and are modest; but you know that man has in him that unspeakable somewhat which
makes him capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul,
unaided, able to face anniliation for a blind belief.
From the beginning, to us, children of the North, life has seemed a place
hung about by dark mists, out of which comes the pale shine of dragon's scales
and the cry of fighting men, and the sound of swords. Beowolf, Milton, Durer,
Rembrandt, Schopenhauer, Turner, Tennyson, from the first war song of the race
to the stall-fed poetry of modern English drawing rooms, all have had the same
vision, and all have had a glimpse of a light to be followed. "The end of wordly
life awaits us all. Let him who may, gain honor ere death. That is best for a
warrior when he is dead." So spoke Beowolf a thousand years ago.
Not of the sunlight,
Not of the moonlight,
Not of the starlight!
O Young Mariner,
Down to the haven.
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas.
And, ere it
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.
So sang Tennyson in the voice of the dying Merlin.
When I went to the war I thought that soldiers were old men. I remembered a
picture of the revolutionary soldier which some of you may have seen,
representing a white-haired man with his flint-lock slung across his back. I
remembered one or two examples of revolutionary soldiers wom I have met, and I
took no account of the lapse of time. It was not long after, in winter quarters,
as I was listening to some of the sentimental songs in vogue, such as--
Farewell, Mother, you may never
See your darling boy again,
that it came over me that the army was made up of what I should
now call very young men. I dare say that my illusion has been shared by some of
those now present, as they have looked at us upon whose heads the white shadows
have begun to fall. But the truth is that war is the business of youth and early
middle age. You who called this assemblage together, not we, would be the
soldiers of another war, if we should have one, and we speak to you as the dying
Merlin did in the verse which I have just quoted. Would that the blind man's
pipe might be transformed by Merlin's magic, to make you hear the bugles as once
we heard them beneath the morning stars! For you it is that now is sung the Song
of the Sword:--
The War-Thing, the Comrade,
Father of Honor,
And Giver of kingship,
The fame-smith, the song master.
Of his marriage with victory
Clear singing, clean slicing;
Making death beautiful
Life but a coin
To be staked in a pastime
Whose playing is more
Than the transfer of being;
Arch-anarch, chief builder,
Prince and evangelist,
I am the Will of God:
I am the Sword.
War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when
time has passed that you see that its message was divine. I hope it may be long
before we are called again to sit at that master's feet. But some teacher of the
kind we all need. In this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it, that
we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things,
but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed
streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger. We need it
in this time of individualist negations, with its literature of French and
American humor, revolting at discipline, loving flesh-pots, and denying that
anything is worthy of reverence--in order that we may remember all that buffoons
forget. We need it everywhere and at all times. For high and dangerous action
teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting
minds are slow to find words of proof. Out of heroism grows faith in the worth
of heroism. The proof comes later, and even may never come. Therefore I rejoice
at every dangerous sport which I see pursued. The students at Heidelberg, with
their sword-slashed faces, inspire me with sincere respect. I gaze with delight
upon our polo players. If once in a while in our rough riding a neck is broken,
I regard it, not as a waste, but as a price well paid for the breeding of a race
fit for headship and command.
We do not save our traditions, in our country. The regiments
whose battle-flags were not large enough to hold the names of the battles they
had fought vanished with the surrender of Lee, although their memories inherited
would have made heroes for a century. It is the more necessary to learn the
lesson afresh from perils newly sought, and perhaps it is not vain for us to
tell the new generation what we learned in our day, and what we still believe.
That the joy of life is living, is to put out all one's powers as far as they
will go; that the measure of power is obstacles overcome; to ride boldly at what
is in front of you, be it fence or enemy; to pray, not for comfort, but for
combat; to keep the soldier's faith against the doubts of civil life, more
besetting and harder to overcome than all the misgivings of the battlefield, and
to remember that duty is not to be proved in the evil day, but then to be obeyed
unquestioning; to love glory more than the temptations of wallowing ease, but to
know that one's final judge and only rival is oneself: with all our failures in
act and thought, these things we learned from noble enemies in Virginia or
Georgia or on the Mississippi, thirty years ago; these things we believe to be
"Life is not lost", said she,
"for which is bought Endless renown."
We learned also, and we still believe, that love of country is
not yet an idle name.
Deare countrey! O how dearly deare
Ought thy rememberance, and perpetuall band
thy foster child, that from thy hand
Did commun breath
and nouriture receave!
How brutish is it not to
How much to her we owe, that all us gave;
That much to her we owe, that all us gave;
That gave unto us all, whatever good we have!
As for us, our days of combat are over. Our swords are rust. Our
guns will thunder no more. The vultures that once wheeled over our heads must be
buried with their prey. Whatever of glory must be won in the council or the
closet, never again in the field. I do not repine. We have shared the
incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of
life to its top.
Three years ago died the old colonel of my
regiment, the Twentieth Massachusetts. [Web note: Col. William Raymond Lee] He gave the regiment its soul. No man could falter who heard his
"Forward, Twentieth!" I went to his funeral. From a side door of the church a
body of little choir- boys came in alike a flight of careless doves. At the same
time the doors opened at the front, and up the main aisle advanced his coffin,
followed by the few grey heads who stood for the men of the Twentieth, the rank
and file whom he had loved, and whom he led for the last time. The church was
empty. No one remembered the old man whom we were burying, no one save those
next to him, and us. And I said to myself, The Twentieth has shrunk to a
skeleton, a ghost, a memory, a forgotten name which we other old men alone keep
in our hearts. And then I thought: It is right. It is as the colonel would have
it. This also is part of the soldier's faith: Having known great things, to be
content with silence. Just then there fell into my hands a little song sung by a
warlike people on the Danube, which seemed to me fit for a soldier's last word,
another song of the sword, but a song of the sword in its scabbard, a song of
oblivion and peace.
A soldier has been buried on the battlefield.
And when the wind in the tree-tops roared,
soldier asked from the deep dark grave:
"Did the banner flutter then?"
"Not so, my hero," the wind replied.
"The fight is done, but the banner won,
Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,
Have borne it in triumph hence."
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
"I am content."
Then he heareth the lovers laughing pass,
the soldier asks once more:
"Are these not the voices of them that love,
That love--and remember me?"
"Not so, my hero," the lovers say,
are those that remember not;
For the spring has come and the earth has
And the dead must be forgot."
Then the soldier spake from the deep
"I am content."
[Link here to Holmes' 1884 Memorial
Day speech:"In our Youths Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire"]
Source: Posner, Richard "The Essential
Holmes: Selections From the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other
Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
(c) 1998-2007 by Bob Dame.