Old Ironsides

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!

Summary of Old Ironsides

  • Popularity of “Old Ironsides”: Oliver Wendell Holmes, a great American physician, and poet wrote, “Old Ironsides”. It was first published in 1830. The poem is known as a superb literary piece written about a ship or a frigate. The poem was a tribute to the eighteen-century frigate USS Constitution. The poet glorifies the warship in this poem that battled the war of 1812.
  • “Old Ironsides” As a Representative of Victory: This poem is about the historical ship that won a commendable victory for the United States. According to the poet, this ship has outlived many adversities and stood as a symbol of reassurance for those who depended on it during the war. While commenting on its lost glory, he highlights how it has survived the hostile weather and served as a home for the heroes. As it has fought many historical battles, the best end of this noble ship is to give it to the sea, instead of throwing it away in the scrapyard.
  • Major Themes in “Old Ironsides”: Glory, Victory, and pride are some of the major themes layered in this poem. The poem centers on the holy ship that has served in various battles. Throughout the poem, Oliver Wendell Holmes expresses that the ship’s history and its exemplary services should not be disregarded. Therefore, he calls for the people to give this heroic ship an honorable retirement.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “Old Ironsides”

Literary devices are tools the writers use to create meanings in their texts to enhance the poems or stories and connect the readers with the real message of the text. Oliver has also skilfully employed some literary devices in this poem to make the readers acknowledge the worth of a warship. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.

  1. Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /l/ in “The harpies of the shore shall pluck”.
  2. Personification: Personification is to give human characteristics to inanimate objects. For example, “And many an eye has danced to see” as if the eyes are humans that can dance.
  3. Onomatopoeia: It refers to the word which imitates the natural sounds of the things. For example, “roar” in the first stanza of the poem.
  4. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line such as the sound of /a/ in “And many an eye has danced to see”.
  5. Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down” and “Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood.”
  6. Symbolism: Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings different from their literal meanings. “Sky” symbolizes victory, “god of storm” symbolizes the powerful entity and “tattered ensign” is a symbol of pride.
  7. Synecdoche: A figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole. Poet has used Synecdoche in the third line, “And many an eye has danced to see” where “an eye” represent the whole nation which enjoyed the victory.
  8. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects different in nature. There is only one metaphor used in the second last line of the poem, “And give her to the god of storms.” This is the metaphor of the rough sea.
  9. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /sh/ in “The harpies of the shore shall pluck” and the sound of /w/ in “And waves were white below”.

A careful glimpse of literary analysis shows that Oliver Wendell Holmes has skillfully used these elements in the poem to make it thought-provoking for the readers.

Analysis of Poetic Devices in “Old Ironsides”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are three stanzas in this poem with eight lines in each stanza.
  2. Octave: Octave is an eight-lined stanza in poetry. There are three octaves in this poem.
  3. Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme followed by the first stanza is, ABCBDEFD, in the second stanza, ABABCDED, and ABCBDEFE in the third stanza.
  4. End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make the stanza melodious. End rhyme occurs within the second and third lines and again within the second and fourth lines. The rhyming words are, “high”, “sky”, “roar” and “more.”

 Quotes to be Used

The lines quoted below can be used when teaching history. The words such as, “hero’s blood”, “vanquished foe” and “conquered knee;” indicate that something heroic has been done.

“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!”