Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1655

Given that there does not seem to be anything tricky or complex about Oliver Wendell Holmes’s love poem to an old battle ship, it hardly makes sense that “Old Ironsides” has lasted as long as it has in the standard corpus of American literary classics. However, the poem (as well as the ship that is its focus) has proven to be indestructible. This is unique. It upsets all expectations of how things generally go. It isn’t a very good poem by conventional measures, nor is the ship useful, and yet both have stayed with us, capturing the imaginations of new audiences year after year. We are left to reconsider what it is that a poem should do, what a war vessel is good for, and why these two have been able to survive nearly two centuries when anything similar has long since passed from anyone’s concern.

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When Holmes wrote this poem, the Constitution was old, not necessarily ready to be taken out of commission but being considered for it, along with most of the navy’s other ships. It may well have been of more use to the country’s defense for the timbers that would have been salvaged from it (no, it did not actually have iron sides). If it had any further use as a fighting vessel, its days were certainly numbered, having had a good long run for a wooden battleship and having taken on its share of enemy fire and navigation accidents. The Naval board that planned to decommission the Constitution certainly had no idea that any sort of controversy would arise from it. Every tool becomes obsolete eventually.

Historical preservation was not then and still is not a prominent trait of the American psyche. In this country we are resistant to giving too much attention to an object’s historical significance, and are usually willing to consider the ways that preservation is not economically viable. Venerable buildings that serve for a time as a source of civic pride are often demolished, even in spite of opposing protests. New buildings are raised on the sites of old ones—this is close to the heart of the American way of thought. It is not necessarily the way in older countries, where history has taught the benefits of being aware of cultural heritage and buildings have survived, often refurbished when necessary, for a century or two or more. America’s history is short, and was even more so during Holmes’s childhood, and this country’s strength is economic, not cultural. Leaving things the way they are impedes economic growth. There is no shame in this: The American character, based on the almost endless resources available for most of our history, has had a tradition of renewal, not reflection. And yet, even with these prevalent attitudes, the country has insisted on keeping the Constitution, now docked in Boston, even though it is more than a hundred and fifty years past its expiration date.

At the risk of sounding callous about a national treasure, one of the things that favors keeping the Constitution around is that it is relatively inexpensive. The ship has only been used for ceremonial purposes for the past hundred and fifty years, and has only been out on the open ocean once since the 1880s. It has been supported by private donations, such as the admission charge for boarding it or the fees for renting it for corporate functions, or the “Pennies” campaign in the 1920s that collected nearly $31,000 from schoolchildren around the nation for the ship’s upkeep. Under a 1954 law, the Secretary of the Navy is authorized to use public funds to maintain the Constitution in her original condition, but not for active service. Still, the nation is not in need of the ship’s raw materials, and the space that it takes to keep a boat dockside is minimal, and it can be moved to a less expensive place if necessary. Compared to the cost of maintaining a landmark...

(The entire section contains 1655 words.)

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