Oliver Wendell Holmes

(1809-1894 / United States)

Old Ironsides - Poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes

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!

Comments about Old Ironsides by Oliver Wendell Holmes

  • Kim Barney (4/15/2015 8:08:00 AM)

    I couldn't understand why Oliver would feel that way until I read the comment below by Viking Thrice, then it made perfect sense. Thank you, Viking!
    Where can we go to visit the ship today? Anyone know?

    5 person liked.
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  • (4/15/2015 6:47:00 AM)

    Aside from the wonderful story described by Viking below, man, how awesome to see such a delicately worded, beautiful piece of prose from one of our nations greatest men. I did not even know that Oliver was a poet, and have now discovered he was particularly good at it.... How wonderful it could be if all men tasked with sitting in judgment over a nation saw the world with artist's eyes... I should think the very thing that brought such deep meaning to Ironsides, battles and war, should become a forgotten travesty.... (Report)Reply

    (4/15/2015 10:52:00 PM)

    You may have in mind Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was a Supreme Court Justice from 1902 to 1932, when he retired at age 90. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a physician of note and the writer of 'The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table' and a good deal of poetry, including Old Ironsides, The Chambered Nautilus, and others frequently anthologized. He was known as one of the Fireside Poets along with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whitteir, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant. (19th century American poets seem to have required three (usually) multisyllabic names.)

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  • (1/1/2014 1:48:00 AM)

    If I recall correctly, the US Department of the Navy had proposed to destroy the USS Consitution, otherwise known as Old Ironsides. Holmes read about this in a newspaper, and incensed by the report, wrote the poem above in protest. There was a public outcry as a result, and the government decided to scuttle its plans to, well, scuttle the ship. The poem retains great power, doesn't it? (Report)Reply

    8 person liked.
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  • (3/12/2006 9:05:00 PM)

    This is my great uncle. No kidding. (Report)Reply

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    3 person did not like.
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Read poems about / on: ocean, red, sea, sky, god, hero, dance, wind

Poem Submitted: Thursday, January 1, 2004

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