Flashback Photos

Old Ironsides: The Poem

On Sept. 16, 1830, the Boston Daily Advertiser published the poem “Old Ironsides,” by a 21-year-old student named Oliver Wendell Holmes. Two days earlier, Holmes read in the Advertiser that the Navy would scrap the U.S.S. Constitution.

Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.

Old Ironsides. Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones collection.In a burst of emotion he wrote the Old Ironsides poem in a day and submitted it to the newspaper. The poem was reprinted in newspapers around the country, earning Holmes national fame.

The article was erroneous, actually. The Navy had simply requested estimates for repairing the Constitution. But with the outcry after the poem, it’s doubtful there was any choice but to restore her.

The ship was finally decommissioned in 1881, and towed to Charlestown. Once there, she sank into disrepair. Once again, publicity had to rescue her. The secretary of the Navy injudiciously suggested in 1905 that the Navy tow her to sea and use her for target practice.

That prompted the final, successful campaign to raise money to convert the ship into a museum. The Leslie Jones photo above shows workers raising the anchor on the vessel in the 1930s after her conversion to a museum.

Meanwhile, Holmes did not feel that writing poetry was a productive enough pursuit to make a career of. He went on to medical school and ultimately prove a better doctor than a poet.

Old Ironsides Poem

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 story was updated in 2021.
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