THE HOLMES-POLLOCK LETTERS
By GEOFFREY W. RUSSELL
ABOOK whose publication must be regarded in all legal and all literary circles as a notable event has just appeared in the United States. It consists of letters exchanged between one of the greatest of British and one of the greatest of American lawyers, ' Sir Frederick Pollock and Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the Supreme Court of the United States, son of the poet-essayist, over a period of close on 6o years—from 1874 to 1932. Both men were much more than lawyers. Both had wide interests and wide knowledge. Hence the singular value of their correspondence, which, far from concen- trating on legal technicalities or legal principles, ranges over life in all its aspects. The letters are written as from friend to friend. They are wholly free from self-consciousness, and never once is there anything to raise a suspicion that the writer was look- ing in the glass as he wrote or thinking "this is a good letter ; let me be careful, for it will (I hope and believe) be printed and read by posterity." These two men stood supreme in character, intellect and attainment. Neither of them was hampered by want of health, money, recognition or place. Each of them enjoyed to the end vigour and high spirits, each of them gladly would learn and gladly teach, and each of them had a mastery of the English language and a ready pen.
The friendship and the correspondence began as between two lawyers. Both men spent their lives in the law, and for the most part in the sunny open places of the law. Holmes, after fighting all through the Civil War, turned to the law, and rose step by step till in 1902 he took his place on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, remaining one of its most distinguished figures for thirty years. He was Pollock's equal in legal learning, which is as high praise as could be given to any man of his profession. Mr. Justice Cardozo (I have read somewhere) once said to Pollock "I don't know what your opinion is, Sir Frederick, but I consider Holmes the greatest of judges " ; and, after a long silence, Pollock answered "None greater." Pollock's own distinctions as scholar, fellow, writer of text-books, including (in verse) Leading Cases Done into English by An Apprentice of Lincoln's Inn, editor of the Law Reports, would be too long for the supply of paper in this war-time. He practised little at the Bar, and Lord Wright once wrote that no working lawyer could possibly have combined with his practice the study needed to acquire the equipment for Pollock's manifold activities. A silk gown had to be offered to him, for he did not, as the practice is, apply for it, and that was done by Lord Birkenhead.
If the early letters are mainly legal the wider interests of both writers soon break through. When Pollock was about 34 he wrote: "It is an open secret to the few who know it, but a mystery and a stumbling-block to the many, that science and poetry are own sisters: insomuch that in those branches of scientific enquiry which are most abstract, most formal, and most remote from the grasp of the ordinary sensible Imagination, a higher power of imagination, akin to the creative insight of the poet, is most needed and most fruitful of lasting work." There is nothing in the present volume to show that Holmes ever read that—it is not in the letters and the book that contains the passage is only mentioned in a foot- note—but he, himself a great scholar, knew what he wanted, and towards the end Pollock was to him more scholar and poet than lawyer. Pollock's enormous range of subject gave Holmes more than law, even Pollock's law, had to give.
Their learning and their judgement were of the deep, but they write to each other about all men and things ; not only about all the lawyers, poets and philosophers down to William James and Bergson and Santayana, and their dealings and say- ings, but about Bertrand Russell, Wells, Shaw, Theobald Mathew's Forensic Fables, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, T. E. Lawrence, Wodehouse, Hemingway, H. W. Fowler, The Spirit of Man (which one of them admired and the other didn't), Lytton Strachey—to make a short list almost at random. Two younger men in whom they were much interested were Felix Frankfurter and Harold Laski. Life in the world went on to the end for them both ; neither was, from beginning to end, a recluse.
There is so much meat in these two volumes that slow • chewing and slow digestion are called for; digestion is made easy by the quality of the salt (with some pepper), but it takes time, and for a critical examination a well-stocked library, as well as sound mind and memory, is requisite. But one verdict imposes itself immediately. As a record of a friendship between two great and lovable men the book (admir- ably edited by Dr. Mark de Wolfe Howe) is invaluable—and possibly unique.
There are, as yet, very few copies of it in England: this is a pity just now, for it illustrates the strength of the affectionate regard that the best people in either country have for the people of the other, and in particular how the thoughts of the two peoples on whatsoever things are good—peace, law and government—have travelled together and, especially, did travel together during the last great war. "I am ashamed to speak of anything else while your struggle is on, and as to that can utter little more than an ejaculation. If I had the religious gifts of the German Emperor I should give up books for my knees and pray all the time between meals "—wrote Holmes to Pollock, in August, 1914, and that is the spirit throughout.
John Newton put at the end of his correspondence with Lord Dartmouth, "Haec res et jungit functos et servat amicos," and "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" It is no small privilege for the ordinary reader to have the respondent hearts of these two great men thus unveiled.