Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The overall theme of “Old Ironsides” is implied rather than stated because of the ironic structure Holmes used. Thus, his meaning results from the emotional experience readers feel as Holmes recounts the ship’s history. Many readers in Boston would have been quite familiar with the USS Constitution, one of the first three frigates built for the United States Navy, as it had been constructed in Boston Harbor by local workmen. Launched in 1797, it had outmaneuvered and sailed faster than enemy ships, earning new respect for its country. The nickname “Old Ironsides” referred to the ship’s strong oak sides that had proven nearly impenetrable to enemy cannonballs; the actual use of iron as a material for strengthening the sides of ships would not be achieved for many years to come.
In 1830, when Holmes read of the planned demolition, the ship had seen heavy service and was considered old and outdated. After quickly composing his poem during a single morning, Holmes sent it to the newspaper in which he had read the demolition notice. It was soon published by the paper and rapidly attracted support from patriotic Americans anxious to save the ship, first in Boston and subsequently in other locales as newspapers up and down the East Coast reprinted the poem. Holmes was only twenty-one years old at the time.
The stature of the poem derives largely from the manner in which it celebrates the dead who had manned the ship and fought on...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
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