Thursday, September 20, 2007

Old Ironsides by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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!

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!
--Oliver Wendell Holmes

This poem was written in the 1830's when the USS Constitution was about to be decommissioned and broken up. Evidently, public opinion was very much against such an ignoble end to the country's most famous ship, even if she was unfit for service, and this poem represented that sentiment in a very public way. The navy, bowed to the pressure and paid for a refit. She saw service in various roles after that, as a training ship, patrolling the Southern coast looking for slavers before the Civil War, as a barracks (with a funny house built on top), and as a transport. In the 20th century, again saved from the wrecker's yard by public opinion, she began her service as a sort of museum and public relations vessel. In the 1950's an Act of Congress made the Secretary of the Navy responsible for her upkeep. She's currently the oldest commissioned ship afloat (the HMS victory is older, but in drydock).

Fans of Patrick O'Brian's work will recognize her as the ship that took the Java at the start of Fortune of War (as well as the Guerriere earlier). She was the best known of the "Heavy American Frigates" built out of the oak trees that America still had plenty of, while England had few left. The British were shocked to find that their cannon balls seemed to bounce right off planks of solid oak seven inches thick, and nicknamed her Old Ironsides (which is where the title of the poem comes from). I was also interested to learn that she was involved in the wars America fought against the Barbary Pirate states, and that Paul Revere forged many of her copper spikes and bolts, and the copper sheathing for her hull.

I really like the tone of affectionate respect in this poem. It's a feeling we have for many of our heroes--both military and non--that isn't easy to put into words. We feel as if their victories are our victories, and that somehow letting them be defeated or tossed aside as no longer useful would be letting the same thing happen to a part of us. Far better to go out in a blaze of glory.


  1. I just noticed within this poem the title to a book/movie that I loved as a kid: "Banner in the Sky." (aka "Third Man on the Mountain"- climbing the Matterhorn). I really enjoy it when I - usually accidentally like this - discover the source of a title. I wonder if there is a website dedicated to that? Hummm....

  2. I liked the 4th dimensional resolution to the paradox in that article.