What does the ship in Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Old Ironsides" represent?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Oliver Wendell Holmes read in the newspaper that the frigate, USS Constitution was going to become scrap metal.  The navy was going to dispose of the ship that was one of the six original frigates built for service. The Constitution’s career was distinguished, and Holmes was incensed and felt that the ship did not deserve such an end.

Holmes immediately wrote the poem “Old Ironsides” using her nickname for the title of the poem.  The poem was published in 1830. The public outcry based on the poem saved the Constitution. “Old Ironsides” prompted the preservation of the frigate who had served well in the War of 1812. The Constitution was triumphant over the ships of the British fleet earning her nickname.  Then, the U.S. Congress passed an act making her an historical landmark.

The United States Navy's three-masted frigate USS Constitution has now become the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat. She sits in Boston Harbor as a beacon for all of the battles fought for freedom by the United States Navy. To understand the historical value of the ship, Paul Revere forged the copper spikes and bolts that held the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protected the hull.

Holmes’ twenty-four line poem awoke the passions of the public. The poem uses a sarcastic tone when challenging those in charge of the ship’s fate.  It is also recollection of the historical ship whose efforts helped maintain the freedom of the U.S.  In the beginning of the poem, Holmes evokes a battle scene. 

Using phrases like “the battle shout” and the cannon’s roar,” the poem evokes a sense of pride as the ship conquers the opposition.  The heroes of the battle represent the freedom and permanence provided by the great ship. 

Employing a reference to Greek mythology, the poet compares those that wanted the ship unceremoniously dismantled to the harpies who destroyed whatever came in their way. Holmes felt that it would be better to sink the ship to the bottom of the ocean than to dismantle her and use her for scrap metal.  The value of the ship was far beyond that distasteful end:

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;

The great ship deserved a permanent home.  By publishing his poem, Holmes urged the public to save the Constitution and as Holmes labeled it “the eagle of the sea” should stand as a focus for the value of American history that deserves dignity not disservice.  Has any poem had a greater impact on American history than Holmes’ “Old Ironside”?

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