Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

About That Shay

The Blogoshere's own God of the Machine, Aaron Haspel casts interesting Olympian lightning bolts against the Brahmin from Olympus, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. - who would, no doubt, have welcomed every electron volt in the Haspel essay. Well worth reading, even if one doesn't end in agreement on a single point.

One quibble. In a literal parenthetical, Aaron - clearly no one-trick pony - notes:

The son is lionized, the father is neglected. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was a physician, poet and essayist, professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School, a pioneer of the bacterial theory of disease, author of the still-entertaining miscellany The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and the greatest poem ever written about engineering, "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," in which more wisdom can be found than in his son's complete works.

I agree that "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" is a wonderful poem. However, I do not agree that it is "about engineering." Indeed, The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay has a very specific reference: it is about the utter perceived collapse of American Calvinist New England Protestantism almost exactly one hundred years after the Lisbon earthquake of Seventeen hundred and fifty-five. Lisbon was widely considered to be the most Godly city in the world, even by Protestants (it didn't hurt that England and Portugal had a close relationship dating back hundreds of years, a relationship which, among other things, helped each against the Spanish - but that's a different story).

In 1755 Lisbon and most of the rest of Portugal was essentially leveled by one of the worst earthquakes in history. This fact resonated through the West. Voltaire said that as a reasonable humanist he "refused to accept" the earthquake. Other people had other reactions - many of them quite interesting, intense and colorful. As the poem puts it:

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,

In America, the New England Protestants had their own interpretation of the earthquake: God was showing the world that what the world thought was "Godly" just didn't measure up to divine standards at all. So the New England Protestants set about redesigning their Calvinist faith:

It was on the terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

By extension, they redesigned their society (the "shay"), methodically:

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way

But a curious thing happened, New England got rich and increasingly sophisticated after the 19th century got going, and the shay began to wear out:

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.

By widespread perception and agreement, the 1755 reforms all fell apart about 100 years after they were initiated:

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?

American Protestantism has never been the same since the middle of the 19th Century (Holmes exaggerates the precision of the date of collapse). Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Unitarianism and many, many other new or revitalized religions emerged from that mid-19th-century religious "Big Bang."

And the religious universe is still expanding.

Others may have their own reactions, but reading such a clever poem makes me feel as dumb as a hoss.

MORE: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. fans may enjoy this new book.

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