Holmes, John

John Holmes
John Holmes

John Holmes (January 6, 1904-June 22, 1962), a poet and critic, was a teacher of literature and modern poetry at Tufts University for 28 years. He wrote seven volumes of poetry and the lyrics to several Unitarian Universalist hymns.

John Albert Holmes, Jr. was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, son of John A. Holmes, Sr. and Mary Florence (Murdock) Holmes. His father was an engineer who specialized in building dams and bridges. John attended Somerville public schools. His parents were members of the West Somerville Universalist Church and he was a member of its boys’ class, taught by the minister Alfred S. Cole, who was later a faculty colleague at Tufts University. “Perhaps in a small way,” Cole wrote, “the discussions of these Sunday gatherings may have helped to shape some of the ideas that John Holmes embedded in his fine poetry which is so expressive of the best insights of liberal religion.”

While a student at Western Junior High School John was the editor of its publication, The Western Star. His worried mother discussed his interest in poetry with her minister. “She said he was such a dreamy lad,” Cole remembered, “and could not make a decent living with poetry. I tried my best to soothe her feelings and told her not to worry about John for he would give a very good account of himself.”

At his high school graduation in 1925 Holmes’s class poem impressed the commencement speaker, John Albert Cousens, then president of Tufts College and a prominent Universalist lay leader. He urged Holmes to consider Tufts and offered him special assistance. Some of the poetry Holmes wrote at Tufts, which distilled his experience of studying there, was printed by the college as Along the Row, 1929.

After graduation in 1929, Holmes taught in the English Department at Tufts, while pursuing additional studies at Harvard University. He was an instructor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, 1930-32. Also teaching there was his friend, the poet Theodore Roethke, whom he had met at Harvard. In Easton he met his first wife, Sarah Frances Ludlow. They were married in 1934 and had one son, John.

When his post expired Holmes returned to live in Somerville. Unable at first to secure another academic post because of the Great Depression, he wrote poems for magazines. In 1934 he became an instructor at Tufts. He worked there the rest of his life, rising to full professor in 1960. Holmes’s students admired him. “When he taught,” wrote Jerome Barron, “something magical happened. He made you want to write and understand poetry. He didn’t lecture; he encouraged. Simplicity, and writing that went from the inside out, this is what he was after.”

Also in 1934, Holmes started work for the American Poetry Journal, serving as a Contributing Editor and later as Assistant Editor. He was poetry editor for the Boston Evening Transcript, 1935-42. Later he reviewed books on a regular basis for the Saturday Review and the New York Times Book Review. By that time his own poems were regularly appearing in the Atlantic, New Yorker, Poetry, Yale Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other magazines.

Address to the Living, 1937, was Holmes’s first major book. His friend Robert Frost declared that the poems, in book form, “hold their own” and herald “a new and attractive poet.” In “Address to the Living,” Holmes confronted the problem of living fully in the face of death:

We live, we are elected now by time,
Few out of many not yet come to birth,
And many dead, to use the daylight now,
To stand up under the sun upon the earth.
Then break the silence with a voice of praise;
Open the door that opens toward the sky;
Press mind and body hard against this world,
Before we fall asleep, before we die.

His next book, Fair Warning, 1939, was a collection of humorous and whimsical verse. The long poem that gave the title to the subsequent Map of My Country, 1943, is autobiographical. “Living for poetry, I live in light,” he wrote in that poem, “The darkness driven back by words I write.” Holmes defined poetry as “what sight would be to the blind, speech to the dumb, walking to the crippled, and life to the condemned.” In his book of poetry analysis, The Poet’s Work, 1939, he put it this way: “The poet’s work is to find words for the sense of life which he learns more and more surely to recognize in himself.”

In 1945 Holmes gave a reading at a meeting of the Evening Alliance of the First Parish in Cambridge (Unitarian). He borrowed some denominational literature from his friend, the Unitarian minister Herbert Hitchen, and began attending First Parish. Soon after he participated in a three-day conference of the Unitarian Ministers’ Association of Vermont and New Hampshire. He wrote a member of the First Parish that in addition to sharing the ideals of Unitarianism he also observed that “the fine people I have known . . . inevitably turned out to be Unitarians.” After minister Beach Miller, whom he had known and admired at Tufts, was called to the Cambridge church, Holmes joined.

In 1948 Holmes wrote a hymn for the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association, “O God of Stars and Sunlight.” He was delighted when asked if it could be included in the forthcoming revision of Hymns of the Spirit. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s first hymnbook, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, 1964, incorporated four of his hymns, including “The People’s Peace” (taken from a poem in Map of My Country). Conrad Wright, editor of A Stream of Light A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism, 1975, adapted lines from one of these, “Now Give Heart’s Onward Habit Brave Intent” (itself taken from “Address to the Living”) as chapter headings. Two of Holmes’s hymns were retained in Singing the Living Tradition, 1993.

At the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston in the 1950s, minister Kenneth Patton and his congregation compiled their own hymnbook, Hymns of Humanity. It included two of Holmes’s poems which Patton had arranged as hymns. Later, in Services and Songs for the Celebration of Life, 1967, Patton used hymns by Holmes in several worship services. Carl Seaburg‘s Great Occasions: Readings for the Celebration of Birth, Coming-of-Age, Marriage, and Death included five of Holmes’s poems. Between 1944 and 1961 The Christian/Unitarian Register, The Christian/Universalist Leader, and The Liberal Context published some of his poems. He gave poetry readings at numerous Unitarian and Universalist conferences and churches.

In 1947 Holmes’s wife Sarah, who had long suffered from mental illness, took her own life. This plunged him into despair and a painful struggle with depression. He found his balance again through writing and meeting Doris Vivian Kirk, a recent addition to the English Department at Tufts. They were married in 1948 and had a son and daughter, Evan and Margaret.

Holmes published three more poetry collections: The Double Root, 1950; The Symbols, 1955; and The Fortune Teller, 1961. The latter was nominated for the National Book Award and is considered by critics his most mature work. One of a number of poems in The Fortune Teller with explicit religious content is “Holiday, with Gods”:

Walking up Edison Avenue, the short street where I live,
I nod to Mr. Calvin, and say, Good morning John. He nods.
It is a holiday in November, we are at home from work.
But he works, washing his house windows, responsible.
Industrious, substantiating the kingdom of God on earth.
I look down, looking for something I have not lost. . . .

My wife, who lives in a free gift of grace
In the best possible of two worlds, accepts all neighbors . . .
She has come into the house before me, and is re-arranging
Leaves like large handprints of the daily gods—
Our dining-room table is a scatter of different leaves,
Of maple four, the sugar, the Norway, the sycamore, the white;
Of the oak two; of catalpa, willow, and honey locust, one.
This is this world, the kingdom I was looking for.

During this decade, as critic Peter Davison observed, Holmes was “the most assiduous and generous teacher of young poets in Boston.” Besides teaching at Tufts, he taught a night course for poets at the Boston Center for Adult Education, had a poetry program on WGBH-TV (with Philip Booth and Donald Hall), participated in the University of New Hampshire Writers Conference, was Director of the Chautauqua Writers Workshop, 1947-52, and was in charge of the Tufts University Writers Workshop, 1952-62. Among his students were poets John Ciardi, Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck.

Holmes brought to Tufts some of the best of the contemporary poets, who talked and read their works both to his classes and to the entire student body. The most popular of these visitors was his friend Robert Frost. After these lectures Holmes invited people back to his house for further conversation with the poet. As the Tufts student newspaper noted: “He was no mere classroom professor, for his home . . . also proved to be an extracurricular classroom, where students gained additional inspiration from his personality.” Indeed the paper declared that this quiet, tall, pipe-smoking teacher “took fierce pride in the literary achievements of his students.”

He was also busy with the activities of the New England Poetry Club. In 1938 the New England Poetry Club had given Holmes its special Golden Rose Award. At his death he was its president. In his honor the Club now awards an annual prize to a young student poet, enrolled at and attending a Massachusetts college.

Holmes was the Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1956, an honor he had earlier received from Tufts, Brown University, and the College of William and Mary. (In his Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, “The Eleventh Commandment,” Moses brings the tablets of the Law down from the mountain, but adds “The word that gave them all words: Listen.”) In 1958 he received The Saturday Review‘s William Rose Benet Prize and in 1962 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Holmes died of cancer at 58. A memorial service was held on the Tufts campus. Earlier that month at its Commencement the university had given him an honorary Doctor of Literature degree in absentia. Three years later the Unitarian Universalist Beacon Press published his Selected Poems with an introduction by John Ciardi, who observed that “he is there in the good life of his poems.”


The John Holmes Collection at the Tisch Library, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, is the major repository for his papers. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts has related material in the First Parish, Cambridge, Mass., Records and the Alfred S. Cole Papers and Correspondence. For bibliographical information consult Alan Seaburg, “John Holmes: A Bibliography,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, (May 1967) and Gabor Erdelyi, “John Holmes: A Bibliography of Published and Unpublished Writings in the Special Collections of the Tufts University Library,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, (June 1969). In 1944 an enlarged edition of Along the Row was published illustrated by pictures of the campus taken by the college photographer, Professor Melville Munro. Two of Holmes’s books not mentioned above are The World Is One (1935) and Writing Poetry (1960). He edited A Complete College Reader (1950) [with Carroll S. Towle and William H. Hildreth] and A Little Treasury of Love Poems: from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas (1950). The Collected Poems of John A. Holmes is available on-line at the Tufts Digital Library; the collection reflects all of his poetry in the Tufts
University Archives. See also Who Was Who in America, v. 4 1961-1968; George Marshall, “A Memorial Tribute to John Holmes,” Tufts Alumni Bulletin (Summer 1962); Peter Davison, The Fading Smile Poets in Boston, 1955-1960 from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath (1994); and Daniel Smythe, Robert Frost Speaks (1964).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted March 1, 2005