Oliver Wendell Holmes

To a Blank Sheet of Paper by Oliver Wendell Holmes

‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes talks about the power of a blank sheet of paper that can make one happy or sad depending on what a writer writes on it. It’s like an element used in creating a new world. A writer can understand the value of it, hence he or she can use it to portray manifold themes. However, the overall theme of the poem is the process of writing and creativity. And, Oliver Wendell Holmes presents it beautifully.

To a Blank Sheet of Paper by Oliver Wendell Holmes


Summary of To a Blank Sheet of Paper

‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a poem meditating upon the “wan-visaged” sheet of paper on which the poet is going to write.

The poem introspects on the future of a blank sheet of paper. The poetic persona is trying to write a poem or a tale on paper. According to him, none can tell on which theme the poet is going to write. The poet can write a love lyric or an elegy that can make one sad. He may write a satirical piece or a horror story. Moreover, the writing can vary according to the poet’s mood. However, at last, the poet expresses the significance of the blank paper. The poet says it can bring fame but it’s temporary. 


Structure of To a Blank Sheet of Paper

‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ contains a total of eleven quatrains. The poet employs the form of the ballad stanza. Hence, in each stanza, the second and fourth lines rhyme. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABCB and it goes on like this. The syllable count of each stanza is 8-8-8-6. Mostly, the poem is composed of four-stressed lines. For this reason, the poem is written in iambic tetrameter and the last line of each stanza is in iambic trimeter. However, there are a few trochaic variations in the poem.


Literary Devices in To a Blank Sheet of Paper

‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ presents several literary devices. The most important literary device of the poem is personification. At first, the poet personifies the blank sheet of paper as if it can hear what the poet is saying. Thereafter, the poet uses the metaphor “virgin leaf” to compare it with the blank paper. In the second stanza, the poet uses allusion to the prophet “Seer or Sibyl” and in the following stanza, there is an allusion to “Eden-breathing plumes”. Thereafter, in “Time’s slow-moving scythe” there is a personification and a metaphor as well. Apart from that, the poet also uses anaphora, hypallage, simile, and alliteration in the poem. However, the last stanza of the poem contains irony.


Analysis of To a Blank Sheet of Paper

Stanza One

WAN-VISAGED thing! thy virgin leaf

To me looks more than deadly pale,

Unknowing what may stain thee yet,–

A poem or a tale.

Oliver Wendell Holmes begins the poem with the description of the blank sheet of paper. It is wan-visaged and looks more than “deadly pale”. So, without any writing on it, the paper seems like the face of a dead person. It looks at the poet paler than a dead man. The poet can’t anticipate what may stain the paper, a beautiful poem, or a tale. So, the process of writing isn’t a predicted task. It is a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion that comes directly from the heart of a writer.


Stanza Two

Who can thy unborn meaning scan?

Can Seer or Sibyl read thee now?

No,– seek to trace the fate of man

Writ on his infant brow.

In the second stanza of ‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ the poet asks two rhetorical questions. The poet wants to say none can scan or deduct the meaning of “unborn” writing. Even the Greek mythological prophets, Seer or Sibyl, having the ability to see beyond the present, can’t read what is on the poet’s mind. It’s next to impossible to see the fate of an infant from his “brow”. Here, the poet uses synecdoche and refers to the forehead of the baby. To sum up, writing is an unpredictable task that is like the “fate of man”.


Stanza Three

Love may light on thy snowy cheek,

And shake his Eden-breathing plumes;

Then shalt thou tell how Lelia smiles,

Or Angelina blooms.

In the third stanza, the poet talks about the theme of love. If the poet selects this theme, the poem may enlighten the “snowy cheek” or the white sheet of paper. In a boastful vein, the poet says that his love lyrics can shake the “Eden-breathing plumes”. Here, the “Eden-breathing plumes” is the symbol of love. Moreover, the poet thinks then the paper can be happy after looking at the smile of Lelia or the blooming or blushing of Angelina. In this way, the poet highlights the power of the art that can light up one’s face if the writer can do so. And, Oliver Wendell Holmes is confident about his art.


Stanza Four

Satire may lift his bearded lance,

Forestalling Time’s slow-moving scythe,

And, scattered on thy little field,

Disjointed bards may writhe.

In the fourth stanza of ‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’, Oliver Wendell Holmes talks about satire. He personifies it and refers to his “bearded lance”. This weapon can forestall “Time’s slow-moving scythe” easily. Here, a comparison is made between time and art as a whole. Here, the poet highlights the timelessness of art. However, in the last two lines, the poet criticizes the contemporary poets who aren’t that gracious as the poet is. The poet thinks if they can understand the poet’s satire, they may writhe on the field of the blank sheet of paper for giving an apt response.


Stanza Five

Perchance a vision of the night,

Some grizzled spectre, gaunt and thin,

Or sheeted corpse, may stalk along,

Or skeleton may grin!

In this stanza, talks about the gothic theme in the fifth stanza. The poet anticipates he may also write a horror story about the “vision of the night”. In the story, one can find ghosts as a “grizzled spectre, gaunt and thin”. There may also be elements such as a “sheeted corpse” and “skeleton”. However, in the last two lines, the poet refers to the stock images of gothic fiction. One can find a sheeted corpse stalking in the plot of the story or can hear the grin of a skeleton. In this way, the poet emphasizes his writing skills. He can write in whatever theme he wants. It depends on the mood of the poet.


Stanza Six

If it should be in pensive hour

Some sorrow-moving theme I try,

Ah, maiden, how thy tears will fall,

For all I doom to die!

In the sixth stanza, it is presented what the poet may write if he is in a pensive mood. Here, pensive means engaged in deep and monotonous thought. In this case, the poet can try some “sorrow-moving theme” to write a poem on. The poem can be so emotional that a maiden will cry after reading it. But, the poet, using hyperbole, says if his poem makes one that sad he isn’t that happy. Then, he wishes to die for the heartache of his readers. In this way, the poet remarks on his bond with his readers.


Stanza Seven

But if in merry mood I touch

Thy leaves, then shall the sight of thee

Sow smiles as thick on rosy lips

As ripples on the sea.

The seventh stanza presents what the poet may write if he is in a “merry mood”. Here, the poet uses the metaphor of “leaves” to compare it with the paper. Moreover, it’s also a symbol of creation and life. However, if the writing of the poet is in a happy mood, it can sow smiles as thick as the “ripples on the sea”. Here, the simile makes a comparison between art and the sea. The liveliness of one’s smile is like the ripples. Moreover, “rosy lips”, a use of synecdoche, refers to a beautiful lady having rosy lips. Along with that, “rosy lips” is an example of metaphor too. Here, the poet compares the redness of a rose to the lips of a lady.


Stanza Eight

The Weekly press shall gladly stoop

To bind thee up among its sheaves;

The Daily steal thy shining ore,

To gild its leaden leaves.

The eighth stanza presents what is going to happen with the paper containing the poet’s writing on it. The weekly press will bind the papers and publish those papers in the form of a book. If the writing is meant for the dailies, the publishers will print the writing in “leaden leaves”. Here, the poet refers to the blank ink using which articles are printed on newspapers. Moreover, the “shining ore” is a reference to the poet’s manuscript. As the ore contains valuable minerals, the original writing is like that. It contains various poetic elements that are like the minerals mentioned before.


Stanza Nine

Thou hast no tongue, yet thou canst speak,

Till distant shores shall hear the sound;

Thou hast no life, yet thou canst breathe

Fresh life on all around.

Thereafter, the ninth stanza presents an interesting epigram. A piece of paper is a lifeless object. Though it doesn’t contain a tongue, it can speak. It speaks what the poet writes on it. The paper is a lively specimen containing a writer’s heartfelt emotions. According to the poet, people living on distant shores can hear its sound. The poet admits the piece of paper has no life. Yet it can breathe the “fresh life” all around. In this way, a poet lives through his writings.


Stanza Ten

Thou art the arena of the wise,

The noiseless battle-ground of fame;

The sky where halos may be wreathed

Around the humblest name.

In the tenth stanza, the poet compares the paper with the “arena of the wise”. It is the “noiseless battle-ground of fame”. Here, the poet wants to say that a wise man doesn’t speak much. His writings speak for him. A simple piece of paper is the battleground of showing one’s intellectual skills. Hence, through one’s writing, one can become famous. It doesn’t matter how humble one’s life is. If that person can express himself or herself exceptionally in the form of writing, the world remembers his or her “humblest name”.


Stanza Eleven

Take, then, this treasure to thy trust,

To win some idle reader’s smile,

Then fade and moulder in the dust,

Or swell some bonfire’s pile.

The last stanza presents a metaphor in “treasure” to compare his writing to it. Here, the poet gives this treasure to the paper’s trust and he tells it to win some idle reader’s smile. It seems as if the blank sheet of paper is a messenger of the poet. Thereafter, the poet anticipates its future. In near future, when a reader finishes reading the words engraved on it, he or she can throw it in the dust. It can also swell some bonfire’s pile. In this way, the poet introduces a paradoxical idea to the readers. It seems that the poet is thinking his writing sometimes isn’t up to the mark. In that case, the piece of paper may encounter such an ending.


Historical Context of To a Blank Sheet of Paper

‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ is a poem that talks about the nature of art and the power of writing. Oliver Wendell Holmes is one of the famous Fireside Poets, together with William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Like other Fireside Poets, Holmes’ writing was characterized as family-friendly and conventional. He was popular for the use of interesting metaphors and homely imagery in his poems. According to Holmes, poetry had “the power of transfiguring the experiences and shows of life into an aspect which comes from the imagination and kindles that of others”. Likewise, in this poem, readers can get this idea more clearly.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘To a Blank Sheet of Paper’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes the following poems similarly talk about poetry and writing.

You can read about 10 of the Most Famous English-Language Poems here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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