The Sound of Justice Holmes’s Voice On His 90th Birthday

October 12th, 2015

holmesYears ago, I came across a recording of Justice Holmes’s voice on his 90th Birthday. I remember playing it for my students at Penn State in 2010. But then, the link stopped working, and the file vanished from the internet. (Paul Horwitz linked to it here back in 2007). Now, via a Terry Teachout article in the WSJ, I see that the Harvard Law School Library has uploaded it once again in the Real Player format. Holmes sounds exactly as he looks. It’s remarkable to listen to. To ensure this remarkable file remains online forever–and in a format people can use–I uploaded it to SoundCloud.

The origin of the broadcast is recounted in a biography of Holmes by G. Edward White.


Here is a my transcription of the speech.

In this symposium my part is only to sit in silence. To express one’s feelings as the end draws near is too intimate a task. But one thought that comes to me as a listener-in. The riders in the race do not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to oneself that the work is done. But just as one says that, the answer comes: The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains. The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be while you still live, but to live is to function. That is all there is. And so I end with a line from a Latin poet, who uttered the message more than fifteen-hundred years ago, “Death, death, plucks my ear, and says, ‘Live. I am coming.'”

According to White, this Latin line comes Virgil’s “The Syrian Dancing Girl,” as quoted in Medieval Latin Lyrics by Helen Waddell. Alger Hiss, who clerked for Holmes during the OT 1929 term, gave the Justice a copy of that book. White also relayed that the New York Times called Holmes’s performance “perfect.” It’s almost as cool as Learned Hand singing.