That Wonderful One-hoss Shay

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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:

That was the year when Lisbon-town Saw the earth open and gulp her down, And Braddock’s army was done so brown, Left without a scalp to its crown. It was on the terrible Earthquake-day That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

The Deacon’s theory, simply put, was that all previous chaises had a weak spot somewhere:

 

And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt, That a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

The solution was equally simple:

But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do, With an “I dew vum, ” or an “I tell yeou, ”) He would build one shay to beat the taown ’N’ the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’; It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown: “Fur,” said the Deacon, ”’t’s mighty plain Thut the weakes’place mus’ stan’ the strain; ’N’ the way t’fix it, uz I maintain, Is only jest T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest. ”

So the very best of everything went into the one-hoss shay, without a single detail skimped on:

… the Deacon inquired of the village folk Where he could find the strongest oak, That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke,— That was for spokes and floor and sills; He sent for lancewood to make the thills; The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees; The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese, But lasts like iron for things like these; The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,”— Last of its timber,—they couldn’t sell ‘em, Never an axe had seen their chips, And the wedges flew from between their lips, Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips; Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw, Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too, Steel of the finest, bright and blue; Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide; Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide Found m the pit when the tanner died. That was the way he “put her through. ” ” There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”

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! ”