In 1830, the U.S. Navy made plans to scrap the 44-gun frigate Constitution, the nation’s most celebrated warship. Launched in 1797, “Old Ironsides” had earned her nickname during the War of 1812, defeating a number of fabled British vessels including the HMS Guerièrre. Though the war as a whole ended indecisively, from it the young republic drew many symbols of its recent independence. One such symbol was “The Star Spangled Banner,” written in 1814 to memorialize the shelling of Fort McHenry. Another symbol profound to many Americans was the Constitution itself, which represented the nation’s freedom on the seas, an issue that had initially sparked the conflict with the British. When the young Holmes read a Boston newspaper account of the proposed dismantling of the Constitution in 1830, he penned “Old Ironsides,” a sentimental poem remembered mostly for its role in saving the frigate from decommission. In the poem, Holmes offers emotional reminiscences of the ship’s past glory, of her deck “red with heroes’ blood” and of her “victor’s tread.” In the last stanza, which makes the leap to the universal theme of death, Holmes insists that the frigate’s most fitting grave is “beneath the waves,” that she should be given “to the god of storms” rather than suffer the ignoble fate of the scrapheap. Although the present-day reader might find the poem’s patriotic tone a bit maudlin, “Old Ironsides” still provides a good example of poetry’s ability to sway public sentiment: the Constitution was preserved in 1830 and again several times subsequently, and today students of poetry and history alike can find her docked just north of Boston, the U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned vessel.
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