Lines 1-4: The first stanza meditates on the ship’s “ensign,” or the naval flag that flies upon its mast, as a symbol of the Constitution herself. Though not invented by Holmes, “Old Ironsides” is a metaphorical nickname—ironclad vessels did not come into use until the Civil War—and like the “tattered” flag, the ship has survived much adversity. Also like the flag (“Long has it waved on high”), the ship occupies a lofty position—not physically, of course, but in the imagination. Because of its role in history, the Constitution is in the national consciousness a symbol for the “higher” virtues for which the republic is thought to stand. One such virtue is freedom, and in the early days of the United States the concept of freedom was closely associated with the two wars against Britain. Thus the ship is an important symbol to the many Americans whose eyes have “danced to that banner in the sky.”
Lines 5-8: In lines 5 and 6 the flag aloft is contrasted with sounds of battle below. These sounds are conveyed through the use of alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds as in “beneath,” “battle” and “burst.” By using this sonic device, Holmes appeals directly to the senses, helping the reader not only to understand but to feel the contrast between the symbolically significant flag and the visceral reality of those battles that helped preserve the nation. Having done this, Holmes appeals to the reader’s emotions, lamenting the passing of the symbol: the flag “shall sweep the clouds no more!”
Lines 9-16: Again note the alliteration in lines 11 and 12. As in the first stanza, the device is used here to convey the sounds and feel of the sea: the “winds” and the “waves … white below.” But while in the first stanza the poet employs sound to enhance a philosophical contrast, in these lines the intent of both sound and image is primarily emotional. The images presented are highly romanticized—the “heroes’ blood,” the “vanquished knee,” the “victor’s tread”—and their appeal is directly to the reader’s patriotic heart. Philosophy here barely invades the domain of sentimentality and only in the most simplistic way: Holmes compares a past full of glory with a future in which that glory will be “no more.” Finally, the poet takes direct and emotional aim at those officials behind the proposed scrapping of the Constitution, calling them “harpies of the shore,” (foul malevolent creatures from Greek mythology that are part women and part bird) who wish to “pluck the eagle of the sea.” Since the eagle was at that time and is still a symbol of the United States, and since to “pluck” a bird is to rob it of its grandeur, the implication of lines 9 and 10 is that those who want to dismantle the Constitution are in fact unpatriotic. This is intended to raise the reader’s indignation as well as to give that indignation a specific target.
Lines 17-24: In these lines the poem takes a romantic twist. Rather than suggest that “Old Ironsides” be preserved, as the reader might expect, Holmes proposes that a fitting “grave” for the ship is the sea itself, the “mighty deep” that the Constitution’s “thunder shook.” In this manner the poem takes on a more universal theme: since death is inevitable, it is better to die as one lived rather than to have life prolonged by artificial or unnatural means. This philosophy seems to have reached beyond Holmes’s poetry: as a noted physician and medical essayist, he later opposed the overuse of drugs to keep patients alive and advocated letting nature run its course. In the final lines, the poem shifts to the imperative and takes on a spiritual resonance. Holmes commands the reader to “nail to the mast her holy flag” and to “give her to the god of storms.” The implication is that the manner of death, like the manner in which we live life, is a combination of divine intent and free will, the former demanding faith but the latter requiring action.