Old Ironsides: Summary & Poem Analysis

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  • 0:01 Synopsis
  • 2:40 Analyzing 'Old Ironsides'
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

'Old Ironsides' was once known by heart by a majority of American schoolchildren, but you might not have had the same experience. Not to worry; you can find this brief but famous poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes summarized and analyzed in this lesson!

Synopsis of 'Old Ironsides' by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometimes, we might get annoyed with people and find that we respond to their words or actions with sarcasm. If we're particularly perturbed, that sarcasm might very well have a sharp edge to it, such as responding, 'Sure, I'd love to get into a car accident today!' when asked if you'd like to go for a ride with a friend who's not especially a good driver. This sort of biting sarcasm is exactly the tone Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes set for his most famous work, 'Old Ironsides', which is a poem written in 1830 to commemorate a frigate named the U.S.S. Constitution.

The first stanza of the poem reads:

'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.'

The first of only three stanzas in this laments the ship's decommissioned flag (ensign). The narrator notes its long service, during which it witnessed much mayhem and stood as a symbol of reassurance to those looking for it in the fray. With the ship on its way to the scrap yard, though, that once proud banner 'shall sweep the clouds no more!'

The second stanza reads:

'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 narrator recounts the ship's previous glory, recalling the enemy blood spilled on her decks. Even in the midst of hostile weather and forces, the ship never faltered and is characterized as a home to heroes and a fierce 'eagle' that is being terrorized by 'harpies.'

The third and final stanza reads:

'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!'

In the poem's closing lines, the narrator says he'd rather see the ship lost at sea with its ensign nailed to the mast than see it harassed. He notes that her reverberating cannon fire has made her known in the sea's depths, and so that should be her rightful resting place. In the end, even setting her adrift at full-sail and offering her to the 'god of storms' would be a better fate than having this once proud vessel of war dishonored with decommission.

Analyzing 'Old Ironsides'

The subject of this poem, the U.S.S. Constitution, was first commissioned along with five other frigates in 1794 when Congress wished to protect merchant fleets from pirates and British and French interference. The most pivotal moment in its long and storied career occurred during the War of 1812, when the ship engaged a British man-of-war off the coast of Nova Scotia. During the fray, both ships fired heavily on one another, but the shots from the British craft appeared to bounce off the sides of 'Constitution' as though they were made of iron rather than wood - hence the nickname 'Old Ironsides.'

After almost 40 years of active duty, the Navy considered scrapping 'Constitution' in 1830. What they hadn't planned for, though, was the growing public attachment to the vessel as a symbol of American freedom and endurance. A large public outcry was heard in favor of preserving the ship, and among those voices was that of Oliver Wendell Holmes. However, even though 'Old Ironsides' might look to be just an appeal to preserve this historic vessel, Dr. Holmes looked deeper into the ship's symbolic meaning to find the true reason for its preservation.

U.S.S. Constitution firing guns on 4 July 2014.
Photo of U.S.S. Constitution

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