Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The overall theme of “Old Ironsides” is implied rather than stated because of the ironic structure Holmes used. Thus, his meaning results from the emotional experience readers feel as Holmes recounts the ship’s history. Many readers in Boston would have been quite familiar with the USS Constitution, one of the first three frigates built for the United States Navy, as it had been constructed in Boston Harbor by local workmen. Launched in 1797, it had outmaneuvered and sailed faster than enemy ships, earning new respect for its country. The nickname “Old Ironsides” referred to the ship’s strong oak sides that had proven nearly impenetrable to enemy cannonballs; the actual use of iron as a material for strengthening the sides of ships would not be achieved for many years to come.

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In 1830, when Holmes read of the planned demolition, the ship had seen heavy service and was considered old and outdated. After quickly composing his poem during a single morning, Holmes sent it to the newspaper in which he had read the demolition notice. It was soon published by the paper and rapidly attracted support from patriotic Americans anxious to save the ship, first in Boston and subsequently in other locales as newspapers up and down the East Coast reprinted the poem. Holmes was only twenty-one years old at the time.

The stature of the poem derives largely from the manner in which it celebrates the dead who had manned the ship and fought on its decks for the honor and preservation of the United States. The brilliant defeat of the Guerrière in 1812 had come at a time when national morale was at a low ebb, and the win was followed by another victory, the destruction of HMS Java. The performance of “Old Ironsides” in the War of 1812 clearly helped to ensure that the United States would remain independent of British hegemony. The poem thus venerates the history of the entire country and appeals to its readers’ patriotism. In a Romantic vein, the poem also celebrates the glory of victory in war.

“Old Ironsides” became a familiar declamation piece as students in nineteenth century schoolrooms recited the poem from memory, often with one arm raised as a gesture of patriotic reverence. In his conclusion, Holmes suggests that it would be better if the ship had shattered and sunk rather than be destroyed at harbor. This vision of a more fitting ending for the famous ship fired the imaginations and hearts of readers and listeners whose sentiment ultimately prevailed. Repeated restorations to maintain the ship have been performed over the more than two hundred years since its launch. The USS Constitution has been permanently moored at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston Harbor since 1934, a part of a National Historic Site at the end of the Freedom Trail.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902

For the most part, this poem evokes pride by evoking battle imagery, which is fitting because it was in battle that the Constitution distinguished itself. The images, even the ones that are drawn from nature, are loud and fierce: “the battle shout,” “the cannon’s roar,” “her thunders shook,” and of course “the lightning and the gale.” All of this activity sets the reader’s heart to racing, as it is commonly said pride does. The second stanza in particular describes the situation in terms of winners and losers: the heroes and the victor, the vanquished and the conquered. Absent here is a sense of the complex causes of the War of 1812 or the compromises that were made to secure peace, which would weaken the sense of pride by making the ship’s military victories seem less necessary. The pride this poem attaches to the Constitution is based in reality, but it is attained by ignoring details and by...

(The entire section contains 1370 words.)

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