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The poem “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes has three stanzas that are separated into octaves or groups of eight lines. When read aloud, it has a unique and engaging tone. It was written as an homage to the USS Constitution, a ship from the eighteenth century that was about to be decommissioned.
As a result of its widespread circulation after its September 1830 publication in the Boston Daily Advertiser, the ship avoided being decommissioned. It is currently the oldest operational ship that is still afloat in existence.
About the poet
American physician, poet, and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. lived in Boston. He was a significant medical reformer who became well-known for his “Breakfast-Table” series. He received his medical degree from Harvard in 1836 and first taught at Dartmouth Medical School before going back to Harvard.
Holmes promoted medical innovations and made terminology like “Boston Brahmin” and “anaesthesia” commonplace. After leaving Harvard in 1882, he continued to write until he died in 1894. He received honorary degrees and was surrounded by Boston’s intellectual elite. His work, which frequently honored his beloved Boston region, was regarded as innovative for his time.
Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! Long has it waved on high? And many an eye has danced to see That banner in the sky; Beneath it rung the battle shout, And burst the cannon’s roar;— The meteor of the ocean air Shall sweep the clouds no more!
The speaker’s claims that the USS Constitution ought to be decommissioned and his account of the ship’s history. The speaker implies that the ship should be retired because of its lengthy and intricate history.
Additionally, he claims that the ship should be demolished because of its turbulent history, which included conflicts and guns that sent “meteors” into the air. However, the speaker is displaying the ship so that everyone can realize how valuable it is to preserve.
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood Where knelt the vanquished foe, When winds were hurrying o’er the flood And waves were white below, No more shall feel the victor’s tread, Or know the conquered knee;— The harpies of the shore shall pluck The eagle of the sea!
The poem’s second stanza explores the history of the Constitution, which is about to be either retired or destroyed. By presenting those who perished on the ship’s deck as “heroes” and their blood as the “vanquished foe” who knelt in after being victorious, the poet romanticizes the history of the ship. The sea will no longer be protected by the ship, allowing the “harpies of the shore” to take anything they want from the sea. This story is so idealized that it is a tragedy.
O, better that her shattered hulk Should sink beneath the wave; Her thunders shook the mighty deep, And there should be her grave; Nail to the mast her holy flag, Set every thread-bare sail, And give her to the god of storms,— The lightning and the gale!
The speaker proclaims in the poem’s concluding stanza that the ship needs to be destroyed. He paints a somber picture of the ship’s tomb, showing how her “holy flag” was fastened to the mast. This contrasts with the potent imagery of the second stanza when the ship has been abandoned by the “god of storms” and the conflicts are ended. The “lightning and the gale” will gradually destroy the ship until nothing is left.