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! ”
And then comes the great finale:
Holmes demonstrated in the poem that he knew a great deal about the construction of carriages; but the modern reader is still left to guess at just what the one-horse chaise looked like. Mr. Charles R. Morris, president of the historical society of Milton, Massachusetts, has done some research on this point and has sent us the picture shown on the opposite page—an authentic “reconstruction “of the wonderful one-hoss shay. It seems that a carriage-builders’ trade journal, The Hub , republished Dr. Holmes’s poem in March, 1871, together with this illustration. The editor, George W. Houghton, had sent a preliminary sketch to Holmes for his approval. After some discussion the sketch was made into an engraving for the trade journal, where it drew much interest from professional readers.
Holmes followed this up with a complimentary letter to the editor, which was published on May 15, 1871:
I have often looked over the numbers of The Hub with much interest, and been struck with the intelligence brought to bear, in the literary form, on a calling at first sight belonging to the workshop rather than the editor’s table. The last number you sent me, with the Deacon’s remarkable one-horse vehicle, illustrates still further the taste and skill brought to bear in your publication. I may be pardoned for saying a word in favor of the old “shay,” which is evidently a careful and conscientious study from past fabrics of aspect similar to that which I have described. The parson’s horse is not exactly ewe-necked , as I described him, and is a little below the clerical standard which I had in my head, but I am afraid that very good men have sometimes been drawn by animals not much better to look at, nor much better groomed. …
I am, yours very truly, O. W. H OLMES