The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

“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...

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The War of 1812
This poem is about the battleship U.S.S. Constitution, which became a symbol of American pride when it...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Without doubt “Old Ironsides” was composed as a protest, somewhat comparable to a letter to the editor. It is written as a dramatic monologue in which one speaker conveys a persuasive message to all. The poem is also an example of “occasional” poetry—a form in which the poem celebrates or discusses a specific event. Holmes had already established himself as a writer of occasional poems, reading his entertaining verses before audiences at school and publishing them in the Harvard student magazine. In “Old Ironsides” the occasion is the plan to scrap the ship. Holmes wrote to point out the gallant service of the ship to its country and to scorn plans to end her career in an ignoble way.

The meter of the poem is established through alternating lines of four and then three stresses. Holmes, who was a physician as well as a writer and teacher, later suggested that verse stresses may well be in keeping with the individual body’s pulse and respiration, thus accounting for the differences in rhythms and line length used by different poets. “Old Ironsides” is written in a steady rhythm, an appealing quality as illustrated by the popularity of lullabies, rhythmic games, and modern musical forms such as rock and roll and rap. Rhythmic verse is also very much a part of the oral tradition in which long passages of poetry are memorized for recitation.

Rhyme is another appealing poetic element that Holmes uses, in this case adapting a...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“Old Ironsides” is written in three, eight-line stanzas, but each stanza really consists of two quatrains (four-line units of verse)...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1830: The U.S.S. Constitution is mentioned in a newspaper article as one being considered for decommission, having served the...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Think of an object that you are familiar with and try to write a poem about its history. Mention the people who have used it, the events it...

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Spoken Arts has produced an audiocassette entitled Anthology of 19th Century American Poets (1989).

Imperial Productions...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Around the World in Old Ironsides: The Voyage of U.S.S. Constitution, 1844-1846 is an illustrate and meticulously researched book...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

“Holmes’ Poems,” in The North American Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 94, January, 1837, pp. 275-7.


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