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...

(The entire section is 543 words.)