The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes is a bit of an anomaly in the poetry world, and even the literary world in general. Holmes was a Supreme Court justice who was known for his brilliance with which he wrote about and explained the court’s decision. Despite his brilliance in law, Holmes chose to use his intelligence to brighten the world through poetry. He wrote many poems in the Romanticism style, but they don’t all necessarily fall under one specific sub-category of the style. His poems were about human nature mostly and comparing life as we know it to nature, but he also has some Dark aspects in his writing also.

“The Last Leaf” is about a younger man, who in my mind is Holmes, sitting on his porch watching an old man, who is well known throughout the town, walk down the sidewalk against the wind (Holmes). The young man is comparing what he sees in the old man to what he has heard from his grandmother, who knew him as he once was when he was the young man’s age (Holmes). He has heard that he was once very good looking and the most popular man in the area (Holmes). Holmes has also heard that his whole family is now dead and buried in the cemetery and the old man is simply hanging on to his life just to hang on (Holmes).

While watching this old man, Holmes has a small smile upon his face because he is looking on at the old man with a mocking countenance but he knows that someday he too will be an old man, struggling to walk down the road against the wind (Holmes). This poem is about realizing what is in store for everyone in the future. We will all die but the future or afterlife depends on a person’s religious, or lack thereof, beliefs. Holmes does a good job describing what happens to everyone when old age catches up with them. He describes it as the last leaf that is stubbornly hanging on to withering bough of some tree (Holmes). We all hope to be this stubborn when our own time comes.

Holmes claims no sub-category of Romanticism besides the title of “Fireside Poet.” In this work Holmes uses some taunting ideas to the human mind like Hawthorne did in all of his works (Huff). He also uses the physical to play with the reader, just like Poe did (Huff). The mental aspect comes from when Holmes talks about how someday he will end up like the old man that he is watching and the physical aspect is how weak the old man is and the windy weather, along with the old man’s gestures (Huff). I would personally be a bit scared to grow old after seeing the man that Holmes has described. Another spooky concept is how the old man is like the last leaf on a tree in spring, because in spring everything is supposed to be blooming and plentiful (Holmes). I believe that the tree is supposed to represent the old man’s family tree.

On the flip side, Holmes uses a bit from the Transcendentalism movement. He talks about how nature is acting against the leaf, so he is almost using Transcendentalism to be Dark Romantic (Holmes). It all intertwines and that is okay because while different they are the same. It is all about Nature, the human capacity for emotion, and the human mind (Huff). Holmes does a great job of blending these traits for an entertaining poem that also teaches a life lesson. The lesson is that no matter how invincible you think you are when you are young; watch out, because in the end you will still grow old like every other person on the Earth.

Works Cited


Holmes, Oliver Wendell. "The Last Leaf." Ibiblio - The Public's Library and Digital Archive. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/owh/ll.html.

Huff, Randall. "'The Last Leaf'." The Facts On File Companion to American Poetry, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= CPAP0232&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 11, 2010).