The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Old Ironsides” in ironic agreement with the news that the famous frigate USS Constitution—nicknamed “Old Ironsides” because of its formidable strength—would soon be demolished. The poem exalts the ship to elegiac status in three octaves (stanzas of eight lines), written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter syllabic accents. Holmes composed the now-famous poem immediately upon reading of the planned demolition in the Boston Daily Advertiser. The report he read, drawn from the New York Journal of Commerce, called for the preservation of the ship.

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“Old Ironsides” begins with the word “Ay,” an echo of the traditional “Aye-aye, sir” used by sailors to acknowledge orders from a superior officer. By using “Ay” rather than a simple “Yes,” Holmes sets the tone of the poem, allowing the speaker to appear knowledgeable of sailing matters as well as willing to obey the authority demanding the demolition of the ship. The “Ay” also involves the reader in tacit agreement with the planned demolition. The rest of the line calls upon the destroyers of the ship to tear her “tattered ensign” down. The ensign, or flag, symbolized the power of the United States Navy, especially after “Old Ironsides” defeated the British ship Guerrière in the war of 1812. Holmes also recognizes the length of service the ship had given when he writes of the flag that it had long “waved on high.”

Holmes goes on to describe the joy the ship has created over the years, with “many an eye” dancing to see the ensign waving as a “banner in the sky.” The ensign has overseen battles fought amid shouts and the roar of cannon. Holmes refers respectfully to the ship as a “meteor of the ocean air,” noting that it will no longer “sweep the clouds.” The comparison of the ship with a meteor may have come from Holmes’s own fascination with meteors. In 1830 almost any weather phenomenon or light in the sky would be described as a “meteor,” but Holmes was particularly enamored of comets, writing another poem that same year describing the devastation a comet could bring to earth.

Holmes continues to celebrate the ship’s history of service by portraying the blood of heroes turning the ship’s decks red—amid which the defeated enemy has been forced to kneel. He then enlarges the reader’s view of the ship, placing it among the “hurrying” wind and white waves, a stormy sea that will no longer feel the “tread” of its victory. Holmes uses a reference from classical mythology to describe those who would demolish the ship, calling them “harpies of the shore.” These execrable half-human birds of prey are vile creatures that desire to “pluck” the frigate he characterizes as an ennobled “eagle of the sea.”

Holmes suggests in the last stanza that it would have been better if “Old Ironsides” could have met a more fitting end by being shattered and sunk in the open sea, where she might have a grave in the “mighty deep.” In an extravagant scene he imagines her “holy flag” being nailed to the mast and her worn sails set so that she could sail out into a storm and be given to the lightning and wind, the “god of storms.”

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

The War of 1812
This poem is about the battleship U.S.S. Constitution , which became a symbol of American pride when it was triumphant over the ships of the British fleet during the War of 1812. In a sense, the conclusion of the War of 1812 represented the true moment of independence from Britain for the new country, because it settled issues and lingering grievances that had been left incomplete at the end of the Revolutionary War. When that war ended in 1783, Americans distrusted...

(The entire section contains 2647 words.)

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