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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