The Living Temple

Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘The Living Temple’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes describes the relationship between humankind and God’s marvellous natural creation. 


Oliver Wendell Holmes

Nationality: American

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a skilled poet and physician.

He's considered to be one of the preeminent Fireside Poets.

‘The Living Temple’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Holmes has chosen to structure these octaves with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of aabbccdd, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. This pattern of rhyme unifies the text due to the rhythm it creates. A fact that is further enhanced by the metrical pattern. 

Each line of this piece also follows iambic tetrameter. This means that every line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. With both a structured rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, ‘The Living Temple’ reads as well organized. The lines do not diverge from the stated pattern at any point.

 While making the poem more pleasurable to read, this also speaks to the overall theme of the text. The speaker is interested in describing the beauty of God’s creation. Therefore it makes sense that the text is well crafted. The two sides of the poem reflect one another. 

The Living Temple by Oliver Wendell Holmes


Summary of The Living Temple 

‘The Living Temple’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes describes the relationship the speaker sees between humankind and God’s marvelous natural creation.

The poem begins with the speaker describing how one could look to heaven, the earth, and within the human body and still not come to a full understanding of God’s power. He speaks of the “wondrous frame” of humankind and the “Eternal wisdom” of God that lives inside it. 

In the next stanza he goes on to describes how humanity is intrinsically linked to the natural world. The blowing of the winds and the flowing of the rivers bring in and out life and death. They lead to and from the human heart and the “flame” that is God’s power. The speaker moves on to reference a “slave” who is toiling over a body of water. The mundanity of the scene is interrupted by a “crimson jet” overhead, reminding one that God’s will and power are always at play. 

In the final stanzas, the speaker draws the reader’s attention to the sights and sounds of earth and how wonderful they are to the human ear and eye. The poem concludes with a plea for all of humanity and it’s construction. The speaker hopes that God will take the dust that is left behind after death and bring it to Heaven from where it originated. 


Analysis of The Living Temple 

Stanza One 

Not in the world of light alone, 

Where God has built his blazing throne, 

Nor yet alone in earth below, 

With belted seas that come and go, 

And endless isles of sunlit green, 

Is all thy Maker’s glory seen: 

Look in upon thy wondrous frame,— 

Eternal wisdom still the same! 

In the first stanza of ‘The Living Temple’ the speaker begins by stating the variety of places that one is able to see a bit of “God’s…glory.” He knows God is accessible in the “World of light,” or heaven (made clear through the reference to “his blazing throne”). But this is not the only place. Some of God’s glory is here, and another portion is on the “earth below” in the landscapes humans are able to access in life.  The speaker gives two examples of the beauty of the earth. God can be seen through the “belted seas that come and go” and in the “isles of sunlit green.” These are two pristine examples of the earth’s beauty but still, one cannot understand the beauty of God’s works by understanding earth, or even Heaven. 

In the third example of God’s creation, the speaker asks that a reader “Look in upon thy wondrous frame.” This is a reference to one’s own body. There is the mark of God’s design in its parts as well. Even when these three realms are taken into consideration, there is much to learn about the power of God. 


Stanza Two 

Lines 1-4

The smooth, soft air with pulse-like waves

Flows murmuring through its hidden caves,

Whose streams of brightening purple rush,

Fired with a new and livelier blush,

In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to describe the natural world in greater detail. First, he mentions the “smooth, soft air.” It is through this perfect atmosphere that “pulse-like waves” move. The wind is able to penetrate all parts of the earth’s ecosystem. This includes the “hidden caves” in which there are also “streams.” Holmes does everything he can in ‘The Living Temple’ to emphasize the individual elements he is referencing. This means that the waves of air are “pulse-like” and the stream is a “brightening purple rush.” In his eyes, these elements are incredibly vibrant and he wants the reader to see the earth in the same way.

The streams continue to be the main subject of the stanza in the next lines. The “rush” of water is always changing for the positive. Each moment they are “Fired” or reinvigorated with a “livelier blush.” The brightness increases as it flows out of the cave and into the sunlight. 


Lines 5-8

While all their burden of decay

The ebbing current steals away,

And red with Nature’s flame they start

From the warm fountains of the heart.

These fast-flowing and changing bodies of water are also depicted as being able to wipe away the “burden of decay.” The “current” of the water “steals away.” This also speaks to the fluidity of the ecosystem. Everything is working together to make sure that life is created and death is reincorporated into the larger system. 

In the final lines of the second stanza, the speaker relates nature to the human condition. Due to the fact that humankind is part of the same body of God’s work, one should feel its power within one’s heart. It is from the love, glory, and passion of God that “Nature’s flame” burns and flows. 


Stanza Three 

Lines 1-4

No rest that throbbing slave may ask, 

Forever quivering o’er his task, 

While far and wide a crimson jet 

Leaps forth to fill the woven net 

In the third stanza, the speaker goes on to describes in vague terms the life of a “salve”who is “throbbing” and “quivering o’er his task.” There is no further description of who this person is, a fact that allows one to imagine the “slave” as any person on the planet working over something they do not want to be. Whatever they are doing, it lasts “forever.” It is a hard job, something to which there is no end. 

While this person is working, over their head comes a “crimson jet.” This is another element of ‘The Living Temple’ that is not fully defined. It might reference a meteorological event of some kind or another celestial movement, such as a shooting star. Whatever it might be it is a clear reference back to the heaven the speaker sees as watching over earth. It also quickly takes a reader away from the mundane toiling of the slave and to the divine world of God. 


Lines 4-8

Which in unnumbered crossing tides

The flood of burning life divides,

Then, kindling each decaying part,

Creeps back to find the throbbing heart.

In the next lines, the speaker gives a few details which might help a reader picture the slave and his life a bit better. Although one still does not know who this person is, there is a “woven net” nearby. This could be a large fishing net, a fact that is supported by the reference to the “unnumbered crossing tides” in the next line. The light of what might be a meteor is cast down on the waters below, filling the “woven net” set out to catch fish. 

The last lines of this section are as vague as the first, but the speaker does return to the familiar imagery of the heart, fire, and passion, whether on the part of God or humankind. The events of the previous lines, the pain of the “slave” and the beauty of the water, are all part of life. They come together, separate, but eventually return to the “throbbing heart” of humanity. It is all a part of the word God created. The lack of clarity in this section and the one that follows also speaks to the initial statement that one will never be able to understand God’s power, even with a clear picture of earth and Heaven.


Stanza Four 

But warmed with that unchanging flame 

Behold the outward moving frame, 

Its living marbles jointed strong 

With glistening band and silvery thong, 

And linked to reason’s guiding reins 

By myriad rings in trembling chains, 

Each graven with the threaded zone 

Which claims it as the master’s own. 

As stated above, the fourth stanza is just as vague as the third. The speaker begins with the “flame” again. It is something that is “unchanging” and always burning. One can depend on the flame, which can be considered as God’s power, in every circumstance. From the “flame” the “frames” of the world are “outward moving.” This is another way of saying everything one sees comes from God. 

 The frame of the earth, and everything God created, is described physically. It is like “marble” structure that is bound by strong joints. There are “glistening band[s] and silvery thong[s]” holding everything up. These structural elements are attached to ”reason’s guiding reins.” This is a very optimistic view of the earth and humanity. It is described as being inherently reason-based. The “rings” of the structure are “graven” or inscribed with the “master’s own” name. Once again, the speaker is making sure the reader does not forget that the “living temple” is earth and earth belongs to God. 


Stanza Five 

See how yon beam of seeming white 

Is braided out of seven-hued light,

Yet in those lucid globes no ray

By any chance shall break astray.

Hark how the rolling surge of sound,

Arches and spirals circling round,

Wakes the hushed spirit through thine ear

With music it is heaven to hear. 

In the fifth stanza of ‘The Living Temple’, the speaker directly addresses the listener again. He asks that this person take note of the “beam” of light. It seems to be “white” but is in fact “braided out of seven-hued light.” This is a reference to the way in which light is dispersed through water. It causes one to see a rainbow effect in what one might’ve perceived as colourless. This line is a perfect description of what the speaker is attempting to do with the entire poem. One is meant to be inspired to look deeper and see more than they normally would and then thank God for what they are seeing. 

The next couplet also references the light. Here, the speaker wants the onlooker to see how the light is always perfectly organized. The strands of color are vastly different in hue but always align themselves side by side. No part of the rainbow “shall break astray.” 

In the next lines, he moves from sight to sound. In the same way he drew attention to the deeper qualities of light he asks that a listener “hark” or pay attention to the “rolling surge of sound.” It is continually moving around one in varying shapes. It goes up and down in “Arches and spirals.” If one is listening intently the melodious nature of the sound will “Wake…the hushed spirit through thine ear.”


Stanza Six 

Lines 1-4

Then mark the cloven sphere that holds 

All thought in its mysterious folds; 

That feels sensation’s faintest thrill, 

And flashes forth the sovereign will; 

As ‘The Living Temple’ has progressed the speaker has become more and more excited over the sights he is showing the listener. He moves quickly on from the sounds of the world to the “cloven sphere that holds / All thought in its mysterious folds.” While at first vague, it becomes clear the speaker is referring to one’s mind. Just as he moved from Heaven to earth to the body, he now takes the time to analyze what one’s mind can do. 

One should “mark” or pay attention to the “sphere” that is one’s brain. It is “cloven” or split in half and contains mysteries no one can fully understand. The speaker makes a few statements about one’s ability to feel and process the world.

He wants to celebrate the way that one can feel the “faintest thrill” over the most mundane of experiences. The same “sphere” is responsible for the “sovereign will.” This phrase has two different meanings. Firstly, one’s brain is in control of the body. It is “sovereign,” meaning it holds monarchical rule over the rest. One should also consider the religious implications of the statement. The speaker is a firm believer in God’s design of, and control over, the world. This means that any “sovereign rule” comes from him. 


Lines 5-8

Think on the stormy world that dwells

Locked in its dim and clustering cells!

The lightning gleams of power it sheds

Along its hollow glassy threads!

The second half of the stanza asks the reader to reflect on the “stormy world” that is inside one’s brain. Its elements are as varied and chaotic as the world itself. They are contained within the “clustering cells” of the mind and should be celebrated. As is the “power it sheds” out into one’s body and then into the world.


Stanza Seven 

O Father! grant thy love divine 

To make these mystic temples thine! 

When wasting age and wearying strife 

Have sapped the leaning walls of life, 

When darkness gathers over all, 

And the last tottering pillars fall, 

Take the poor dust thy mercy warms, 

And mould it into heavenly forms!

In the final stanza, the speaker turns away from the listener to address God. He refers to God as “Father!” and asks that his love be granted to all earthly forms. The speaker understands that sometime in the future “wasting age and wearing strife” are going to destroy the “walls of life.” He is looking towards this moment and asking that the human world be made into “mystic temples thine!” 

In the last lines, he furthers his predictions and asks that when the “last tottering pillars fall” that the dust is taken into God’s possession once more and “moulded” into “heavenly forms.”

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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