The Deacon's Masterpiece "The Wonderful One-hoss Shay"

Oliver Wendell Holmes

"The Wonderful One-hoss Shay"

Context: This poem, which Holmes subtitles "A Logical Story," has been read as a subtle satire on the collapse of Calvinism. The edifice of Calvinism, like the deacon's "one-hoss shay," was constructed with masterful logic, but it wore out and disintegrated. On the day of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, "the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay." Usually "a chaise breaks down, but doesn't wear out," for it always has "somewhere a weakest spot." But the Deacon builds it so "that it couldn' break daown" by making the weakest spot "uz strong uz the rest." Time passes; the Deacon and his children and grandchildren die. But "the stout old one-hoss shay" is still as good as new. It lasts a century. Then in 1855, on the day of the hundredth anniversary of the earthquake, "the parson takes a drive" in the shay, composing a sermon as he rides along. But in the middle of his sermon, the shay collapses at "Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!" The chaise had not broken down; it had worn out. "It went to pieces all at once," so uniformly that it looked as if it had been ground at the mill. "End of the wonderful one-hoss shay./ Logic is logic. That's all I say," Holmes quips. He describes the marvelous quality of the shay and its hundred-year decay:

Have you heard of 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–ah, but stay,
I'll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits,–
Have you ever heard of that, I say?