What metaphors are found in the poem Old Ironsides, by Oliver Wendell Holmes?

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Michael Otis | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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Old Ironsides, a poetic meditation on a shattered, sunken warship, by 19th century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, is replete with metaphors. In order they include:

  1. ...many an eye has danced to see/That banner in the sky.                                                                Here the poet likens the movement of the eye watching the ship's fluttering flag ("banner in the sky") to a dance.
  2. The meteor of the ocean air/Shall sweep the clouds no more.                                                           Holmes compares the ship's flag - the "tattered ensign" - to a brilliant meteor rushing across the night sky.
  3. The harpies of the shore shall pluck/The eagle of the sea! 
    In the second stanza of the poem, Holmes piles one metaphor on top of the other. He images the waves crashing onshore as harpies, the crazed and monstrous bird-like beasts of Greek mythology. And these "harpies" destroy the ship, likened, in another avian metaphor, to the noble eagle.
  4. In the same stanza, Holmes personifies Old Ironsides as herself vanquished and vanquisher respectively with the metaphors of feel the victor's tread,/Or know the conquered knee.
  5. Her thunders shook the mighty deep,...
    And give her to the god of storms,
    The lightning and the gale!  
                                       In the final stanza, the poet compares the sound of the ship's cannon to thunder; he continues the storm metaphor in the concluding lines of the poem, where he likens the destruction of the ship to an oblation offered to the god of storms.                                                                          
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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Old Ironsides" is three-stanza poem written as a tribute to the frigate, the USS Constitution. Holmes's poem contributed to the move to prevent the ship from being decommissioned, proving the old adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword." It is now the oldest commissioned ship in the world that is still afloat. There is little question that Holmes's use of metaphors and other figurative language certainly helped to create an emotional response that contributed to the saving of the USS Constitution.

Most of the metaphors, or unstated comparisons, have already been mentioned in the previous post. However, there is the one about the sea as the "grave" for ships in line 20. This metaphor suggests that this important ship would simply rust at the bottom of the ocean where it would be buried from view and forgotten, rather than remaining as a historical monument of America's many victories. This metaphor, therefore, contributes to the persuasive power of the poem that the vessel should be restored and kept as a memorial to the resilience of America to the British.
Another metaphor is the name of "Old Ironsides" that is given to the USS Constitution. This comparison of the ship's construction to the structure of iron connotes strength and indomitable force.

Of course, the entire poem is an extended metaphor, a comparison between two unlike things--the American warship and its being an American icon-- a comparison whose significance continues throughout a series of lines in the poem. 

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