Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Aug 29, 1809 - Oct 7, 1894


The First Fan

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Read At A Meeting Of The Boston Bric-A-Brac Club, February 21, 1877.

When rose the cry Great Pan is dead!
And Jove's high palace closed its portal,
The fallen gods, before they fled,
Sold out their frippery to a mortal.

To whom? you ask. I ask of you.
The answer hardly needs suggestion;
Of course it was the Wandering Jew, --
How could you put me such a question?

A purple robe, a little worn,
The Thunderer deigned himiself to offer;
The bearded wanderer laughed in scorn, --
You know he always was a scoffer.

Vife shillins! 't is a monstrous price;
Say two and six and further talk shun.

Take it, cried Jove; we can't be nice, --
'T would fetch twice that at Leonard's auction.

The ice was broken; up they came,
All sharp for bargains, god and goddess,
Each ready with the price to name
For robe or head-dress, scarf or bodice.

First Juno, out of temper, too, --
Her queenly forehead somewhat cloudy;
Then Pallas in her stockings blue,
Imposing, but a little dowdy.

The scowling queen of heaven unrolled
Before the Jew a threadbare turban:
Three shillings. One. 'T will suit some old
Terrific feminine suburban.

But as for Pallas, -- how to tell
In seemly phrase a fact so shocking?
She pointed, -- pray excuse me, -- well,
She pointed to her azure stocking.

And if the honest truth were told,
Its heel confessed the need of darning;
Gods! low-bred Vulcan cried, behold!
There! that's what comes of too much larning!

Pale Proserpine came groping round,
Her pupils dreadfully dilated
With too much living underground, --
A residence quite overrated;

This kerchief's what you want, I know, --
Don't cheat poor Venus of her cestus, --
You'll find it handy when you go
To -- you know where; it's pure asbestus.

Then Phoebus of the silver bow,
And Hebe, dimpled as a baby,
And Dian with the breast of snow,
Chaser and chased -- and caught, it may be:

One took the quiver from her back,
One held the cap he spent the night in,
And one a bit of bric-a-brac,
Such as the gods themselves delight in.

Then Mars, the foe of human kind,
Strode up and showed his suit of armor;
So none at last was left behind
Save Venus, the celestial charmer.

Poor Venus! What had she to sell?
For all she looked so fresh and jaunty,
Her wardrobe, as I blush to tell,
Already seemed but quite too scanty.

Her gems were sold, her sandals gone, --
She always would be rash and flighty, --
Her winter garments all in pawn,
Alas for charming Aphrodite!

The lady of a thousand loves,
The darling of the old religion,
Had only left of all the doves
That drew her car one fan-tailed pigeon.

How oft upon her finger-tips
He perched, afraid of Cupid's arrow,
Or kissed her on the rosebud lips,
Like Roman Lesbia's loving sparrow!

My bird, I want your train, she cried;
Come, don't let's have a fuss about it;
I'll make it beauty's pet and pride,
And you'll be better off without it.

So vulgar! Have you noticed, pray,
An earthly belle or dashing bride walk,
And how her flounces track her way,
Like slimy serpents on the sidewalk?

A lover's heart it quickly cools;
In mine it kindles up enough rage
To wring their necks. How can such fools
Ask men to vote for woman suffrage?

The goddess spoke, and gently stripped
Her bird of every caudal feather;
A strand of gold-bright hair she clipped,
And bound the glossy plumes together,

And lo, the Fan! for beauty's hand,
The lovely queen of beauty made it;
The price she named was hard to stand,
But Venus smiled: the Hebrew paid it.

Jove, Juno, Venus, where are you?
Mars, Mercury, Phoebus, Neptune, Saturn?
But o'er the world the Wandering Jew
Has borne the Fan's celestial pattern.

So everywhere we find the Fan, --
In lonely isles of the Pacific,
In farthest China and Japan, --
Wherever suns are sudorific.

Nay, even the oily Esquimaux
In summer court its cooling breezes --
In fact, in every clime't is so,
No matter if it fries or freezes.

And since from Aphrodite's dove
The pattern of the fan was given,
No wonder that it breathes of love
And wafts the perfumed gales of heaven!

Before this new Pandora's gift
In slavery woman's tyrant kept her,
But now he kneels her glove to lift, --
The fan is mightier than the sceptre.

The tap it gives how arch and sly!
The breath it wakes how fresh and grateful!
Behind its shield how soft the sigh!
The whispered tale of shame how fateful!

Its empire shadows every throne
And every shore that man is tost on;
It rules the lords of every zone,
Nay, even the bluest blood of Boston!

But every one that swings to-night,
Of fairest shape, from farthest region,
May trace its pedigree aright
To Aphrodite's fan-tailed pigeon.


Illustrated poems of Oliver Wendell Holmes
Copyright 1885
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin And Company
New York: 11 East Seventeenth Street