Friday, December 26, 2008

Poetry Friday -- Contentment

By Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Man wants but little here below”

Little I ask; my wants are few;
I only wish a hut of stone,
(A very plain brown stone will do,)
That I may call my own;—
And close at hand is such a one,
In yonder street that fronts the sun.

Plain food is quite enough for me;
Three courses are as good as ten;—
If Nature can subsist on three,
Thank Heaven for three. Amen!
I always thought cold victual nice;—
My choice would be vanilla-ice.

I care not much for gold or land;—
Give me a mortgage here and there,—
Some good bank-stock, some note of hand,
Or trifling railroad share,—
I only ask that Fortune send
A little more than I shall spend.

Honors are silly toys, I know,
And titles are but empty names;
I would, perhaps, be Plenipo,—
But only near St. James;
I’m very sure I should not care
To fill our Gubernator’s chair.

Jewels are baubles; ’t is a sin
To care for such unfruitful things;—
One good-sized diamond in a pin,—
Some, not so large, in rings,—
A ruby, and a pearl, or so,
Will do for me;—I laugh at show.

My dame should dress in cheap attire;
(Good, heavy silks are never dear;)—
I own perhaps I might desire
Some shawls of true Cashmere,—
Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.

I would not have the horse I drive
So fast that folks must stop and stare;
An easy gait—two forty-five—
Suits me; I do not care;—
Perhaps, for just a single spurt,
Some seconds less would do no hurt.

Of pictures, I should like to own
Titians and Raphaels three or four,—
I love so much their style and tone,
One Turner, and no more,
(A landscape,—foreground golden dirt,—
The sunshine painted with a squirt.)

Of books but few,—some fifty score
For daily use, and bound for wear;
The rest upon an upper floor;—
Some little luxury there
Of red morocco’s gilded gleam
And vellum rich as country cream.

Busts, cameos, gems,—such things as these,
Which others often show for pride,
I value for their power to please,
And selfish churls deride;—
One Stradivarius, I confess,
Two Meerschaums, I would fain possess.

Wealth’s wasteful tricks I will not learn,
Nor ape the glittering upstart fool;—
Shall not carved tables serve my turn,
But all must be of buhl*?
Give grasping pomp its double share,—
I ask but one recumbent chair.

Thus humble let me live and die,
Nor long for Midas’ golden touch;
If Heaven more generous gifts deny,
I shall not miss them much,—
Too grateful for the blessing lent
Of simple tastes and mind content!

Are you laughing? Are you blushing? Are you still going to go out and spend, spend, spend on more stuff ("but little") so that you can single-handedly save the U.S. economy?

Or are you going to stay home and practice contentment in your hut with your few (fifty score in daily use) books and your one recumbent chair?

Oliver Wendell Holmes did a pretty good job of making fun of us from back in the 1800's when, apparently, things weren't much different than they are now. Just less digital and electronic.

I found this poem by searching the Poetry Foundation archives. You can find more poetry today at the Poetry Friday round up at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

*Buhl is a decorative type of marquetry of patterned inlays of brass or tortoiseshell, or (occasionally) other materials, used on chiefly French furniture, from the 17th century.


  1. Love this poem, Mary Lee! I fight a constant battle against stuff. One of my goals last year was to have "less stuff, but more stuff we love." To get rid of junk, keeping only what we really use and treasure. Still working on that for this year!

  2. Great poem, and yes, I did laugh at myself! On the other hand, I'll probably be keeping my new iPod Touch. :)

  3. Anonymous1:04 PM

    So appropriate for today!! I am trying hard to live with less stuff and look for contentment. After all the snow, though, I may need to get out and see what is happening in the stores.

  4. Anonymous12:41 AM

    I didn't spend spend spend before Christmas/Chanukah, and I'm not doing so after, either.

    My favorite couplet in the poem might be this one:
    Some marrowy crapes of China silk,
    Like wrinkled skins on scalded milk.

    I love that simile. Big-time.


Comment moderation is turned on.