Friday, April 17, 2009

The Deacon's Masterpiece or "The One-Hoss Shay"

The U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan, says in an interview printed in today's local newspaper that she was inspired to become a poet by her grandmother "who had by heart a number of the Victorian chestnuts....I don't think there's anything children like more than high seriousness that rhymes." I have to agree.

One of my favorite childhood books is an edition of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, compiled by Roy J. Cook in 1958. It's full of chestnuts like Field's "The Duel" about "the gingham dog and the calico cat," and particularly rich in poems written in dialect, like Anderson's "Cuddle Doon," Burns' "For A' That and A' That," and Guest's "Home" ("It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home"). The book was given to me when I was ten by my regular babysitter, Miss Everly, beloved for many reasons but not least because she always left us a surprise for the morning after she'd put us to bed. Some of the poems were already familiar to me, from my own reading and from my mother's love of reading narrative poems to us out loud. The thrill of her renditions of Robert Service poems or Noyes' "The Highwayman" was equaled only by the fervor of her performance of Oliver Wendell Holmes' "The One-Hoss Shay."

Have you heard of the wonderful one-horse 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?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five,
Georgius Secundus was then alive,
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
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.

Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot, -
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace,--lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will,--
Above or below, or within or without,--
And that's the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn't wear out.

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, "It'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 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 thins;
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 in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he "put her through."
"There!" said the Deacon, "naow she'll dew!"

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
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

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; -it came and found
The Deacon's masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten;--
"Hahnsum kerridge" they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came;--
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.

Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it.--You're welcome.--No extra charge.)

FIRST of NOVEMBER,--the Earthquake-day--
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn't be,--for the Deacon's art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn't a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thins,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floors
And the whipple-tree neither less nor more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November, 'Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
"Huddup!" said the parson.--Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday's text,--
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the--Moses--was coming next.

All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill,--
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet'n'-house clock--
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,
All at once, and nothing first,
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-boss shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.

The end of the poem always produced a piercing glare from my mother, warning that there would be no doubt about the truth of this story.

Harriet and Florinda have been talking about "landmark" children's books after Seuss, and that's one of the reasons I started thinking about 101 Famous Poems today. As I page through the book, it falls open at Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Hiawatha's Childhood," John Masefield's "Sea Fever," Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," and Alfred Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." It also falls open at poems by Browning, Wordworth, Shelley, and at Shakespearean soliloquys. But what I loved about it was the variety it offered: Milton's sonnet on his blindness followed by Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." Bourdillon's "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" on the page opposite Foss' "The House by the Side of the Road."

Did you have a "landmark" book of verse?


Harriet M. Welsch said...

I had a couple of favorite anthologies well. The ubiquitous Robert Lewis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses was a favorite. We also had an anthology we called "The Special Book." It belonged to my mother and we only got to look at it when we were home sick or on other special occasions. I think it's official name is something like The Treasury of Childhood Literature. It includes many of the poems you mention, as well as some fairy tales, Edward Lear shenanigans, short stories, and excerpts from longer novels that might interest children (I believe David Copperfield is represented!). Also, did you happen to see the essay in the NY Times book review a week or two ago about memorizing poetry (at least, I think that's where I saw it). I wish that I had been made to learn more when younger. It's a lovely thing to be able to speak a poem. I loved hearing about your mother telling poems to you.

Hugh said...

Every since I can remember, my parents have had a copy of the Q-edited Oxford Book of English Verse published sometime in the 20s or 30s on the front desk of the house I grew up in (in which I grew up?) The feel of the bindings and the pages, along with the impossibly-remote medieval "Sumer is icumen in" and "Hymn to the Virgin", were fascinating to me.

On the other end of the universe, my mother had a copy of "Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle" dating, I presume, from her HS English teacher days.

Jeanne said...

Oh yes, A Child's Garden of Verses was a favorite of mine too, at a younger age. I've passed on my inability to sit on the beach without digging a hole and reciting the poem about it ("When I was down beside the sea/a wooden spade they gave to me/to dig the sandy shore/my holes were empty like a cup/ in every hole the sea came up/till it could come no more") That one sticks in the memory so easily!

Jeanne said...

Hugh, if you'd never been exposed to "summer is icumen in" you couldn't have duly appreciated Pound's "winter is icumen in, loud sing goddam" later in life!

Claudia said...

Child's Garden of Verses was one I owned. I like Shel Silverstein and Edward Lear as a kid. I liked silly poetry, poems that didn't take themselves seriously. I've never been able to read much poetry. I prefer a nice long juicy novel.

Jeanne said...

Claudia, both my kids are fans of Shel Silverstein!

Karen said...

Eugene Field's _Poems of Childhood_
I loved the calico cat (and my grandfather's recitation of The Duel) so much that I determined to get one when I was old enough to have a cat of all my own.

I did, too. Her name was Sasha, and she was marvelously worth the wait.

Nowadays I find it's his "Little Boy Blue" that sticks in memory. I didn't know, when I chose it as my poem to memorize when required to memorize one in 6th grade, either
a) that I would still recall it these many years later, or
b) that it was actually about a child's death.

Perhaps the only other poem from that collection that I can still fairly reliably recite is his "Jest 'Fore Christmas". I love that one, too, and (again) it's one my grandfather used to enjoy.

On a cheerier note: I also love Wynken, Blynken and Nod. I almost wish we had a trundle bed.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I should also mention that while working in AJ's school library today, I couldn't help but noticed that more than half the kids who come in on a give day check out books of poetry. This is much higher than I would have expected and I think it's great. Most popular: Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

And if I may continue to monopolize your comments, this post inspired me to dig out my copy of The Special Book, inherited from my grandmother. It turns out to be called The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature. Since today is the 18th of April, I read AJ Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" at breakfast this morning, which we do every year. And he read Wordsworth's "The Daffodils" to me. It was a lovely way to start the day.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, that is more checking out of poetry than I would have expected--yay! And reading something out loud annually is a great tradition.
Karen, I wonder if the new popularity of trundle beds could be partly due to the various baby book editions of Fields' poem I've seen in the past 15 years!