Old Ironsides

by Oliver Wendell Holmes   1/5/14

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!

[Suggested by Kung Fu Zu]

Holmes wrote the poem when he heard the Navy was thinking of scrapping the vessel. The poem became very popular and possibly saved the ship for posterity. In eighth or ninth grade English, we had to memorize and recite a poem. I chose this one. Much the same with “The Raven” and “If ” in later grades.
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One Response to Old Ironsides

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    My 11th grade (American literature) reader includes this, but I didn’t mark it as I did other items I had to read that year (such as Holmes’s “The Ballad of the Oysterman” and “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”). At some point I did read it, and the annotation in the reader (which credits the poem with saving the ship, which is still around, and I think even still officially in commission, in Boston harbor).

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