What do the second and third stanzas mean in Old Ironsides by Oliver Wendell Holmes?

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Old Ironsides was the nickname of a famous United States battleship, the USS Constitution, that fought in the War of 1812. Holmes wrote this poem to protest the news that the ship would be decommissioned. To be decommissioned means to be retired from active duty. The poem helped ensure the ship would stay commissioned, which it still is.

In stanza two, Holmes mourns the fact that the ship, which has seen heroic and victorious battle, will never again go to war. He describes those who want to retire it as harpies. A harpy was a mythological beast with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. Harpies were filthy, violent tormentors.

In stanza three, Holmes states his feeling that it would be better for the ship to be sunk in a storm at sea than decommissioned. He thinks sinking Old Ironsides amid wind and lightning would be a more noble and fitting end than retiring the warship. He writes,

And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

This is an emotional poem that uses pathos or emotion to persuade patriotic readers to feel outraged at the ship being decommissioned.

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The poem 'Old Ironsides' refers to the United States Ship Constitution, a battleship that had played a major role in naval battles during the War of 1812. In 1830, when Holmes wrote the poem, the Navy was considering decommissioning and dismantling the Constitution. Holmes was incensed by this possibility and wrote 'Old Ironsides' to express his outrage.

In the second stanza, he recalls the battles she has seen and the warriors who have fought and died on her decks. Using "the eagle of the sea" as a symbol for both the Constitution itself and the United States, he warns that they are in danger of being "plucked" - taken apart, made useless - by the "harpies of the shore" - evil mythological creatures symbolizing those threatening the destruction of the ship.

The third stanza suggests that, if the Constitution must be decommissioned, the rightful end for the noble should be burial at sea. Since "her thunders shook the mighty deep" when her cannons fired in battle, Holmes finds it appropriate that "her shattered hulk should sink beneath the wave" rather than being disassembled on land.

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