Sunday, October 13, 2013

Poetry - Holmes

The following poem is 'Old Ironsides' by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  He wrote it in 1830 when the US Navy planned to destroy their oldest frigate, the U.S.S. Constitution.  Holmes, then 21 years old, helped sway public opinion and saved the ship.  It can still be visited in Boston.

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 bulk
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!

It's an effective poem, certainly.  The warship has a definite place in the world and Holmes articulates it well.  The ship brings joy to those who shear its goals and fear to those that oppose them.  Having served its intended purpose, it becomes a holy object and must be treated with reverence.  As he says, 'better that her shattered bulk/Should sink beneath the wave' than to be simply pried apart and junked.  (I'll admit that when I was young, I was shocked that old wars ships were scrapped and turned into things like razor blades.)
These points are moot, of course, to pacifists.  We don't live in an era that honors warships, or at least the people that judge poetry tend not to.  In other words, if Holmes had written this two centuries later, it would have faded into obscurity.
Is the poetry itself good?  Hmmmm.  I can't find a phrase that is often quoted.  I can't see any particularly clever turn of phrase.  It's not bad at all, but it doesn't really break through into genius either.  It was influential in its day and I'm glad that it worked to save the U.S.S. Constitution but it's not one that I'll probably return to in the future.

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