- Historic Sites
That Wonderful One-hoss Shay
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous Supreme Court justice, was not only a renowned professor of anatomy at Harvard but by popular acclaim the genial poet laureate of Boston, which he preferred to call “the hub of the solar system.” Despite his usual good humor, Holmes was an aggressive Unitarian and spent much time assaulting the Puritan theology of his forebears. He was also fond of horses and carriages; and when, in 1858, he sat down to write a burlesque of the relentless logic by which such a divine as Jonathan Edwards had defended orthodox Calvinism, he decided to make a “one-horse chaise” the vehicle of his satire.
The result, which appeared in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly , was “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or, the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay: a Logical Story.” The poem has been popular ever since, and at least until recent times was a favorite with elementary school teachers, who found that children liked its clip-clop rhythm and its humor even if they failed to absorb the theological implications. There was something very funny about “the wonderful one-hoss shay,/That was built in such a logical way/It ran a hundred years to a day,/And then, of a sudden, it …”—but you had to read to the end of the poem to find out what it did all of a sudden.
Along the way, from stanza to stanza, there were delightful touches as Holmes described the Deacon’s meticulous choice of materials and his construction of the marvellous shay, which was finished in 1755:
The Deacon’s theory, simply put, was that all previous chaises had a weak spot somewhere:
The solution was equally simple:
So the very best of everything went into the one-hoss shay, without a single detail skimped on:
And do she did, for a whole century, while “Deacon and deaconess dropped away,/Children and grandchildren—where were they?/But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay/As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake day! ”