Old Ironsides

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Old Ironsides

by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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!

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!

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!


This poem is dedicated to a ship. From Wiki:

Old Ironsides” is a poem written by American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. on September 16, 1830, as a tribute to the 18th-century USS Constitution. The poem was one reason that the frigate was saved from being decommissioned, and it is now the oldest commissioned ship in the world that is still afloat.

Yes, friends, there was once a time in our country when famous writers penned tribute poetry to Naval vessels. It was a great time to be an American. The poem encourages the ship to be decommissioned, but does so in such a passionate way that saving the ship is obviously the real goal. The effort succeeded. At the time the poem was first published, the USS Constitution was not yet 35 years old, having only been launched 33 years prior in 1797. The poem is approaching 200 years old now, and the ship is still floating.

USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, is a three-masted wooden-hulled heavy frigate of the United States Navy. She is the world’s oldest ship still afloat.  She was launched in 1797, one of six original frigates authorized for construction by the Naval Act of 1794 and the third constructed. The name “Constitution” was among ten names submitted to President George Washington by Secretary of War Timothy Pickering in March of 1795 for the frigates that were to be constructed. Joshua Humphreys designed the frigates to be the young Navy’s capital ships, and so Constitution and her sister ships were larger and more heavily armed and built than standard frigates of the period. She was built at Edmund Hartt‘s shipyard in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts. Her first duties were to provide protection for American merchant shipping during the Quasi-War with France and to defeat the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War.

Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom, when she captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five smaller British warships: HMS Guerriere, Java, Pictou, Cyane, and Levant. The battle with Guerriere earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides” and public adoration that has repeatedly saved her from scrapping. She continued to serve as flagship in the Mediterranean and African squadrons, and she circled the world in the 1840s. During the American Civil War, she served as a training ship for the United States Naval Academy. She carried American artwork and industrial displays to the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Constitution was retired from active service in 1881 and served as a receiving ship until being designated a museum ship in 1907. 

The poem is twenty-four lines, broken into three eight line octaves (stanzas). The first stanza’s rhyme scheme is ABCB,DEFE. The second stanza’s rhyme scheme is ABAB, CDED. The third stanza is ABCB, DEFE.

Old Ironsides” is one of the most well-loved works of poetry in the history of the United States and it remains popular with many even today. Embedded below is a performance of the piece, read by Bing Crosby, set to music.