The Deacon's Masterpiece or, the Wonderful "One-hoss Shay": A Logical Story

The Deacon's Masterpiece or, the Wonderful "One-hoss Shay": A Logical Story

Original Text
The Complete Poetical Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ed. H. E. S. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895; PS 1955 A1 1895 Robarts Library): 158-60.
2That was built in such a logical way
3It ran a hundred years to a day,
4And then, of a sudden, it -- ah, but stay,
5I'll tell you what happened without delay,
6Scaring the parson into fits,
7Frightening people out of their wits, --
8Have you ever heard of that, I say?
9Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
11Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
13Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
15Left without a scalp to its crown.
16It was on the terrible Earthquake-day
17That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.
18Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
19There is always somewhere a weakest spot, --
21In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
23Find it somewhere you must and will, --
24Above or below, or within or without, --
25And that's the reason, beyond a doubt,
26A chaise breaks down, but does n't wear out.
27But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
28With an "I dew vum," or an "I tell yeou")
29He would build one shay to beat the taown
30'N' the keounty 'n' all the kentry raoun';
31It should be so built that it could n' break daown:
32"Fur," said the Deacon, "'t 's mighty plain
33Thut the weakes' place mus' stan' the strain;
34'N' the way t' fix it, uz I maintain,
35    Is only jest
36T' make that place uz strong uz the rest."
37So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
38Where he could find the strongest oak,
39That could n't be split nor bent nor broke, --
40That was for spokes and floor and sills;
42The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees,
43The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese,
44But lasts like iron for things like these;
46Last of its timber, -- they could n't sell 'em,
47Never an axe had seen their chips,
48And the wedges flew from between their lips,
49Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
50Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
51Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
52Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
53Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
54Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
55Found in the pit when the tanner died.
56That was the way he "put her through."
57"There!" said the Deacon, "naow she'll dew!"
58Do! I tell you, I rather guess
59She was a wonder, and nothing less!
60Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
61Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
62Children and grandchildren -- where were they?
63But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
64As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!
65EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; -- it came and found
66The Deacon's masterpiece strong and sound.
67Eighteen hundred increased by ten; --
68"Hahnsum kerridge" they called it then.
69Eighteen hundred and twenty came; --
70Running as usual; much the same.
71Thirty and forty at last arrive,
72And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.
73Little of all we value here
74Wakes on the morn of its hundreth year
75Without both feeling and looking queer.
76In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth,
77So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
78(This is a moral that runs at large;
79Take it. -- You're welcome. -- No extra charge.)
80FIRST OF NOVEMBER, -- the Earthquake-day, --
81There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
82A general flavor of mild decay,
83But nothing local, as one may say.
84There could n't be, -- for the Deacon's art
85Had made it so like in every part
86That there was n't a chance for one to start.
87For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,
88And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
89And the panels just as strong as the floor,
90And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
91And the back crossbar as strong as the fore,
92And spring and axle and hub encore.
93And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
94In another hour it will be worn out!
95First of November, 'Fifty-five!
96This morning the parson takes a drive.
97Now, small boys, get out of the way!
98Here comes the wonderful one-horse shay,
101The parson was working his Sunday's text, --
102Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
103At what the -- Moses -- was coming next.
104All at once the horse stood still,
105Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
106First a shiver, and then a thrill,
107Then something decidedly like a spill, --
108And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
109At half past nine by the meet'n-house clock, --
110Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
111What do you think the parson found,
112When he got up and stared around?
113The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
114As if it had been to the mill and ground!
115You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
116How it went to pieces all at once, --
117All at once, and nothing first, --
118Just as bubbles do when they burst.
119End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
120Logic is logic. That's all I say.


1] "`The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay' is a perfectly intelligible conception, whatever material difficulties it presents. It is conceivable that a being of an order superior to humanity should so understand the conditions of matter that he could construct a machine which should go to pieces, if not into its constituent atoms, at a given moment of the future. The mindmay take a certain pleasure in this picture of the impossible. The event follows as a logical consequence of the presupposed condition of things.

There is a practical lesson to be got out of the story. Observation shows us in what point any particular mechanism is most likely to give way. In a wagon, for instance, the weak point is where the axle enters the hub or nave. When the wagon breaks down, three times out of four, I think, it is at this point that the accident occurs. The workman should see to it that this part should never give way; then find the next vulnerable place, and so on, until he arrives logically at the perfect result attained by the deacon." [Holmes' comment, prefacing "an illustrated edition."]

one-hoss shay: one-horse-drawn chaise or carriage. Back to Line

10] Georgius Secundus: George II, king of England (1683-1760). Back to Line
12] Lisbon-town: the Lisbon earthquake took place November 1, 1755, and took as many as 60,000 lives. Back to Line
14] Braddock: Edward Braddock (1695-1755), British general killed by a French and Indian army near Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania. Back to Line
20] felloe: wheel-rim. Back to Line
22] thoroughbrace: leather braces connecting the front and back C-springs of the coach and holding it up. Back to Line
41] thills: pair of shafts attaching the horse to the vehicle. Back to Line
45] Settler's ellum: the original elms harvested by the settlers? Back to Line
99] bay: brown horse. Back to Line
100] Huddup: giddap, "get up." Back to Line
Publication Start Year
Publication Notes
The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858)
RPO poem Editors
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition
RPO 1998.