‘Old Ironsides’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a three stanza poem which is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. The poem does not follow a specific or consistent rhyming pattern. Instead, each stanza follows its own rhyme scheme, resulting in a varied and interesting tone when read aloud.
Before reading this piece it is important for a reader to understand the context in which it was written. ‘Old Ironsides’ was composed by Holmes as a tribute to the USS Constitution, an eighteenth-century ship which was on the verge of being decommissioned. The ship was given its nickname, “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812 after battling the HMS Guerriere
‘Old Ironsides’ became one of Holmes’ most well-known pieces after it was published in the Boston Daily Advertiser in September of 1830. Due to its popularity the ship was saved from decommissioning. It is currently the world’s oldest commissioned ship still afloat.
Summary of Old Ironsides
The poem begins with the speaker agreeing that the ship should be decommissioned. He asks that the “ensign” be torn down and eventually nailed to the mast of the ship. The Constitution has sailed for too long and seen too much. It is time for the battles of the past to be put to rest and for the ship to find a grave on the bottom of the sea.
While the speaker’s words seem passionate, it is clear the poet has the opposite goal in mind. He is actually, through the honouring of the ship, campaigning for its preservation and continuation in the service.
By the end of the piece, a reader should come to the same conclusion; that the ship’s history is too important to ignore and that it must be allowed to remain on the sea.
Analysis of Old Ironsides
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!
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by asserting that the ship which is the main subject of the poem, the USS Constitution, should be decommissioned. A reader will soon realize that his statements have a double meaning. His words, while on the surface simply glorifying a ship with a powerful past, are really advocating for its preservation.
It is through these grand statements and the speaker’s retelling of the ship’s history that the poem had the impact it did. Those who read it were convinced that the USS Constitution should not be decommissioned or sunk to the bottom of the sea as the speaker suggests later on. See the introduction for more regarding the historical impact of this poem.
In the first lines the speaker says that yes, they should “Tear her tattered ensign down!” He suggests that it has “waved” for a long time “on high” and it is time for it to retire. This is emphasized with the following line which describes how “many an eye” has seen it “dance” about in the sky. It has a long and complicated history.
The second part of the stanza gets into the reasoning behind the speaker’s argument. He states that the ship has led a life that included battles roaring beneath its banner and cannons flying like “meteors” through the air. These things which were once so powerful and even moving should be torn down.
By this point in the poem, the reader should fully understand that the poet means the opposite of what his speaker is saying. He is putting the ship on display so that all will see it is worth preserving.
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!
In the second stanza, the ship’s history is further outlined. There are no specific details about those who served on this ship or battles it engaged in. Instead, the poet has chosen to romanticize its history to suit his purposes. Those who died on its deck did so as “heroes.” It was their “blood” the “vanquished foe” knelt in after being defeated.
These scenes occurred against a backdrop of “winds” and “waves” which were “white below” the ship.
The Constitution, which is now on the verge of either being simply retired, or destroyed, will never experience these moments again. While in a rational way this a good thing, on the other hand, the narrative the speaker has painted is so idealized that one cannot help but feel that this is a shame.
The sea will no longer be protected by the ship. This will allow the “harpies of the shore” to pick off anything they want to from the sea.
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!
In the final stanza of the poem the speaker declares that since these events will no longer occur, it is better that the ship is destroyed. It should be sunk “beneath the wave.” All of “Her” history should be wiped away and forgotten. As with the previous sections, it is clear the poet does not actually mean for this to happen.
He describes the ship’s grave mournfully. “She” will rest on the bottom of the ocean with her “holy flag” nailed to “the mast.” This sight should be contrasted against the powerful imagery which was present in the second stanza.
The battles are done, and now the ship has been given over to the “god of storms.” She will be steadily destroyed by the “lightning and the gale” until nothing is left.