Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
many accomplishments, Oliver
Wendell Homes, Sr. is best remembered today as the father of the great Supreme Court
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., he of the impressive mustachio and beneficiary of a bestselling fictionalized biography and an even more fanciful MGM movie. The father, who evidently
did not engage a good press agent, would probably have been
both proud and amused. The famous son, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 29, 1809.
Like his nearly exactly contemporary,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was the son of noted liberal minister and a descendent
of poet Anne Bradstreet.
Unlike Emerson, he felt no call to
Instead, he studied medicine at Harvard and
launched a highly successful practice.
The high regard for his professional abilities was demonstrated
when he was appointed Harvard’s chair of anatomy and physiology.
Holmes’ intellect, however, was broader than the sciences.
He was a revered wit and wide ranging conversationalist. He pursued literature as a second career. In 1857 he co-founded The Atlantic Monthly with
James Russell Lowell. His literary output was marked by amazing versatility.
A collection of his humorous essays The
Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table was published to great success in
1858. Among his contributions
to the American language was Boston
Brahmins to describe the largely Unitarian elite like himself who dominated
the Hub City both culturally
and politically. The first edition of Holmes' hugely popular book of humorous essays, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.
He also wrote
novels, which were popular in their day but are now largely forgotten and scholarly biography. Holmes’
biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1885 is a classic of the genre.
Over his long
life he frequently contributed poetry
to newspapers and journals, which led to his greatest public acclaim. His work ranged from the whimsical, The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the
Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, to transcendental
musings, The Chambered Nautilus, to the unabashedly patriotic, Old Ironsides. The latter
poem was credited with saving
the famous frigate USS
Constitution from the scrap yard.
It floats today in Boston Harbor, a tribute
to the power of Holmes’s words.
on October 7, 1894 in Boston at the age 84.
He is best remembered for Old Ironsides, but his wit is best displayed in another poem. Note that decades before the local color writers supposedly invented it, Holmes was capturing the
old New England accent and attitude of Massachusetts villages. Plates from Holms's Wonderful One-Hoss Shay.
The Deacon’s Masterpiece or the Wonderful One-Hoss
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
was built in such a logical way
ran a hundred years to a day,
then of a sudden it — ah, but stay,
tell you what happened without delay,
the parson into fits,
people out of their wits, –
you ever heard of that, I say?
hundred and fifty-five.
Secundus was then alive, –
old drone from the German hive.
was the year when Lisbon-town
the earth open and gulp her down,
Braddock’s army was done so brown,
without a scalp to its crown.
was on that terrible Earthquake-day
the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.
in building of shaises, I tell you what,
is always a weakest spot, –
hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
pannel or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
screw, bolt, throughbrace, — lurking still,
it somewhere you must and will, –
or below, or within or without, –
that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.
the Deacon swore (as deacons do,
an “I dew vum,” or an I tell yeou”)
would build one shay to beat the taown
the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’;
should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
said the Deacon, “’t's mighty plain
the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain, is only jest
make that place uz strong uz the rest.”
the Deacon inquired of the village folk
he could find the strongest oak,
couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke, –
was for spokes and floor and sills;
sent for lancewood to make the thills;
crossbars were ash, from the the straightest trees
pannels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
lasts like iron for things like these;
hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,” –
of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ‘em,
no axe had seen their chips,
the wedges flew from between their lips,
blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
tire, axle, and linchpin too,
of the finest, bright and blue;
bison-skin, thick and wide;
top, dasher, from tough old hide
in the pit when the tanner died.
was the way he “put her through,”
said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”
I tell you, I rather guess
was a wonder, and nothing less!
grew horses, beards turned gray,
and deaconess dropped away,
and grandchildren — where were they?
there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!
HUNDRED; — it came and found
Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
hindred increased by ten; –
kerridge” they called it then.
hundred and twenty came; –
as usual; much the same.
and forty at last arive,
then come fifty and FIFTY-FIVE.
of all we value here
on the morn of its hundredth year
both feeling and looking queer.
fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
far as I know, but a tree and truth.
is a moral that runs at large;
it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)
OF NOVEMBER, — the Earthquake-day, –
are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
general flavor of mild decay,
nothing local, as one may say.
couldn’t be, — for the Deacon’s art
made it so like in every part
there wasn’t a chance for one to start.
the wheels were just as strong as the thills
the floor was just as strong as the sills,
the panels just as strong as the floor,
the whippletree neither less or more,
the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
the spring and axle and hub encore.
yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
another hour it will be worn out!
of November, fifty-five!
morning the parson takes a drive.
small boys get out of the way!
comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
said the parson. — Off went they.
parson was working his Sunday’s text, –
got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
what the — Moses — was coming next.
at once the horse stood still,
by the meet’n'-house on the hill.
a shiver, and then a thrill,
something decidedly like a spill, –
the parson was sitting upon a rock,
half past nine by the meet’n'-house clock, –
the hour of the earthquake shock!
do you think the parson found,
he got up and stared around?
poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
if it had been to the mill and ground!
see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
it went to pieces all at once, –
at once, and nothing first, –
as bubbles do when they burst.
of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
is logic. That’s all I say.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Note: Adapted from the Biographical
Notes accompanying my reader’s theater piece Four Hundred Years of Unitarian
and Universalist Poetry—From John Milton to Sylvia Plath.