Old Ironsides (poem)

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"Old Ironsides" is a poem written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., on September 16, 1830, as a tribute to the eighteenth-century frigate USS Constitution. Thanks in part to the poem, she was saved from being decommissioned and is now the oldest commissioned ship in the world still afloat.


Aye 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.

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!

Oh, 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 threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!'

Background[edit]

USS Constitution in Boston, 2005

"Old Ironsides" was the nickname given to the 18th century frigate, USS Constitution during the War of 1812 after its naval battle with the HMS Guerriere. The Constitution was one of the original six frigates of the United States Navy, commissioned by the Naval Act of 1794. The Constitution was the third of four ships with 44 guns and was granted its name by President George Washington.[1] The ship saw action during the Quasi-War, the First Barbary War, the Battle of Tripoli Harbor, and the Battle of Derne before earning her famous nickname during the War of 1812.

Composition and publication history[edit]

Holmes had recently abandoned his studies of law and began writing poetry for fun.[2] In September 1830, he read an article in the Boston Daily Advertiser about the Navy's plans to dismantle the historic USS Constitution.[3] Startled by this, he was moved to write "Old Ironsides" to express his opposition of the scrapping. The poem was published in the Advertiser the next day and was soon reprinted by papers in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.[4]

Response[edit]

The poem brought Holmes immediate national attention,[5] and the poem would remain among his most well-known.[6] Additionally, the poem generated enough public sentiment that the historic ship was preserved as a monument. Today, Constitution is well known by its nickname "Old Ironsides" and is the oldest commissioned ship in the world still afloat.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy. W. W. Norton, 2006: 61. ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5.
  2. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 38. ISBN 0-688-03429-2.
  3. ^ Novick, Sheldon M. Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989: 4. ISBN 0-316-61325-8.
  4. ^ Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Improper Bostonian: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. New York: Morrow, 1979: 42. ISBN 0-688-03429-2.
  5. ^ Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001: 6. ISBN 0-374-19963-9.
  6. ^ Small, Miriam Rossiter. Oliver Wendell Homes. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962: 36–37.

External links[edit]