Text of the 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,     5
     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,     10
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     15
     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;     20
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
     Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
     The lightning and the gale!


  1. Rather than allowing the unpatriotic “harpies” to scrap the ship, Holmes says that it would be better for the U.S.S. Constitution to be sunk “beneath the wave” than to suffer the ignominy of being decommissioned. As a result, the poem—perhaps unexpectedly—ultimately seems to comment on the inevitability of death and the need to let nature run its course.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. A “gale” is a strong wind, which is typical in the sea storms that the U.S.S. Constitution would have faced.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. From Greek mythology, Harpies are half-human, half-bird monsters that were initially considered to be wind spirits. While harpies are occasionally portrayed as beautiful maidens with wings, most writers describe them as hideous and vulgar monsters that steal victims’ food and carry evildoers off to be punished by the Erinyes.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. The “eagle of the sea” is a metaphor for Old Ironsides. However, the eagle is also the national emblem of the United States of America; therefore, applying it as a metaphor for Old Ironsides strongly suggests that those who wish to decommission her are unpatriotic.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. This line uses alliteration, or the repetition of consonants, in the words “waves,” “were,” and “white.” The rapid repetition of the soft “w” consonant mirrors the sound of the ocean and reinforces the poem’s steady rhythm.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The words “burst” and “roar” are examples of onomatopoeia, a literary device in which a word mimics the actual sound of the thing it represents. In this context, onomatopoeia reinforces the intense imagery of the scene by appealing to the reader’s senses.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Holmes uses uses assonance, or the repetition of vowels, in the words “And,” “many,” “an,” “has,” and “danced.” Assonance helps to create the poem’s steady rhythm. Holmes also uses synecdoche, which is the representation of a whole by one of its parts, when he refers to the ship’s onlookers as “many an eye.” In this context, Holmes uses synecdoche to suggest unity and patriotism; it is a unified nation, not a group of individuals, that proudly watches “that banner in the sky.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. The pronoun “her” refers to the title of the poem, “Old Ironsides,” which alludes to the U.S.S. Constitution, a former frigate of the United States Navy and the oldest commissioned naval ship in the world. It was launched in 1797 to protect American merchant ships during the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and to fight pirates in the First Barbary War (1801–1805). Ships were normally decommissioned after ten or fifteen years, but the U.S.S. Constitution was involved in multiple military victories throughout the 1810s and became a symbol of national pride. When rumors spread that the ship was being “scrapped” in 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes published the poem “Old Ironsides” and stirred such public outrage that the ship received $157,000 in repairs.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. In this context, the noun “ensign” is a flag flown on a ship, usually to indicate nationality. Ensigns may also be used to identify military vessels.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor