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The Poem That Saved Old Ironsides

Old Ironsides


Olver Wendell Holmes was just 21 when he penned his most memorable poem. It certainly saved the USS Constitutioni, but that salvation took 100 years. One of the nation's best loved patriotic poems first appeared in 1830 when the victorious frigate was only 33 years old and headed for the scrap heap.



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Holmes Was Not Born Old

Oliver Wendell HolmesWe tend to picture 19th century American writers as old men. Imagine Twain, Longfellow, Tennyson, Whitman, Holmes and you get a composite image of some pale bearded Zeus on a cloudy pedestal. America preferred its poets stuffy back then, and photographs came along just in time to freeze that image.

But Oliver Wendell Holmes was just 21 when he wrote "Old Ironsides" in 1830. Other than a few comic poems for his Harvard newspaper, Holmes had published little else. In the nine-volume edition of Holmes’ collected works, "Old Ironsides" appears on page one. He knocked off the three short stanzas one afternoon while procrastinating at law school, yet it remains his best-known work today. We’ll never know what other early gems he might have produced since Holmes consigned most of his other early work to the trash.

Should We Thank Abiel Holmes?

Holmes explained in his own footnotes how he came to write the poem. He says he came home from law school and happened to read an article in the September 14 Boston Advertiser about Navy plans to scrap the old frigate USS Constitution. He dashed off the 143-word poem that same day. It appeared the next day in the same newspaper. It was picked up, over the week, by major papers all across the still small country. In an era before copyright protection, printers duplicated the stirring verse and passed it around in leaflet form. .

Holmes approach was brilliantly effective. Rather than protest, he used reverse psychology. "Go ahead," the poem seems to say. "Tear the old ship apart! It's only the symbol of American freedom. No one will miss it." The poem struck such a nerve in young America, that the Secretary of the Navy shifted his position, and ordered the USS Constitution refit for active duty. From that moment on "Old Ironsides" had a bulletproof image.

But Catherine Drinker Bowen, noted for exhaustive historical research, has a different version. As she tells the story, young "Wendie" came home to find his father, a respected Cambridge minister, in a depressed state. According to Bowen, the good son, was unable to console his father, who had read the snippet about the ship in the newspaper and took the news very hard. The Holmes family was of proper Boston Brauhmin stock, and Ironsides was a Boston-built ship. Father Abiel had been writing a letter of protest when his son burst in the door.

The five-foot-five inch student leaped to action, ran upstairs, sat in a western window, and using a pen (others say a lead pencil) composed the classic poem at one sitting. Then he ran downstairs to find his father still in the same condition. After reading the poem, the elder Holmes reportedly looked at his son, his hands trembling and his eyes filled with tears.

The Doctor Gets Lead Poisoning

It was right after the success of "Old Ironsides" that Holmes decided to dump his law career and become a doctor. His biographers describe the enormous fame that followed the uncanny success of his first widely published poem.

Holmes eventually became a famous traveling lecturer and often told audiences of his instant success with this poem. It was, he explained, his first attack of "lead poisoning" brought on by wielding a lead pencil. Once writing gets in your blood, he told those who came to hear him speak, you will never be the same.

But Holmes did not profit from the experience financially. Neither the Advertiser, nor any of the other papers that borrowed the poem, or those who bound and sold it in the streets paid Holmes a cent. His fame too, may have been limited except in Boston and Cambridge. Although the poem was instantly popular, the anonymous author had signed his masterpiece only with the letter "H".

The Other Oliver Wendell Holmes

Holmes himself is a confusing character. Although he published many volumes of prose and poetry, he was also a noted Boston doctor, an early advocate of the microscope, and a formal robe-wearing Professor of Anatomy at Harvard, the most formal of American schools during its most formal times. By most accounts, including his own, Holmes loved being famous. Annie Fields, whose husband worked with Holmes in the early days of the Atlantic Monthly literary magazine, reported that no topic interested Mr. Holmes more than Mr. Holmes. Holmes was asthmatic and did not have a particularly strong speaking voice, yet he seemed able to captivate his audiences.

There was another Olver Wendell Holmes as well. The other, more famous today, was his son the brilliant Supreme Court Justice. Because of his father's literary and scholarly connections, the younger Wendell grew up with the most famous Bostonians at the family table. His mother was a staunch Abolitionist and around the time of his Civil War service, Justice Holmes became enamoured of a young woman whose father was a famous Abolitionist senator. The father was John P. Hale of Dover, New Hampshire and his daughter was none other than our own Lucy Hale, who later dated Robert Todd Lincoln and became secretly engage to assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Did Holmes Ever See the Ship?

Many patriotic Americans today assume that the USS Constitution was built during the American Revolution. It wasn't. Ironsides was constructed decades later in 1797 and came through victorious in conflict after conflict. In another ironic Seacoast connection, Portsmouth-born Tobias Lear , once Secretary to George Washington, spent a good deal of time aboard the USS Constitution. After Washington’s death Lear became Ambassador to Algeria in an era when the Barbary pirates were harassing American merchant ships. Lear technically paid bribes to the Algerian leader to keep the pirates away from our ships. Not only was Lear on hand for the famous signing of the Treaty of Tripoli, but he honeymooned aboard the famous frigate USS Constitution. Lear's third wife Frances may hold the distinction of being the first woman ever to sail on "Old Ironsides."

But back to Dr. Holmes who was, himself, nearly as old as Ironsides. Holmes was born in 1809, only twelve years after the ship that made him famous was launched. He was a baby during its service in the War of 1812. Despite its winning record against enemy ships, Ironsides was in pretty bad shape and ready for a standard retirement by 1830. But Americans were not ready to let her go. The ship’s undefeated record in battle made her a symbol that typified the evolving American attitude. Just a half century after the Revolution, Americans were beginning to get a sense of their own destiny and history. Ironsides made the ideal icon.

It is likely that Holmes never saw "Old Ironsides." During his life the frigate traveled the world, while Holmes preferred mostly to stick home in Cambridge. Ironsides first came to Portsmouth, NH in the mid 1850s for another of many complete refits. By this time every school child in America knew Holmes' poem and many could recite it by heart. When the frigate returned to America's oldest naval shipyard in Portsmouth Harbor again in the 1880s and 1890s, Holmes apparently, did not stop by for a visit.

At least, no record of their meeting around here has surfaced. Holmes reportedly frequented an inn in Rye, NH, near Portsmouth. He knew local poets Sarah Orne Jewett and our "Island Poet" Celia Thaxter in his later years. Had he attended Celia’s artistic salon at the Isles of Shoals, Dr. Holmes would have sailed right by the poor hulking USS Constitution that hunkered for years along the Kittery, Maine side of the Piscataqua River.

Neither the USS Constitution Museum in Charleston nor the keepers of the Holmes Collection at his alma mater at Phillips Andover Academy were able to shed light on the question – did Holmes see Ironsides? We know that a group of aged veterans threw a big party aboard the USS Constitution in Portsmouth in 1891. They apparently invited the elderly doctor, then in his eighties, to come aboard. Rotting and adapted into a dormitory ship for young navy recruits, "Old Ironsides" then looked more like an ocean-going motel than a mighty warship. Still, weaned on Holmes poetry, Piscataqua families were proud to have the famous ship in port. It appears in all the Portsmouth tourist books of the time. There were plans to restore the ship here, plans but no funds.

Goodbye, Goodbye

When Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes died, aged 85, on October 7, 1894, the ship that set his literary career afloat was moored in Portsmouth Harbor and taking on water badly. In Portsmouth, The Morning Chronicle filled half the front page with the report "Holmes Passes to the Other Shore," but never mentioned the USS Constitution just across the river in Kittery. In Thursday's paper, Holmes was "Borne to His Narrow Home" while The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics eulogized him as "nearer the popular heart" than his friends Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, or Whittier. Only the Portsmouth States and Union focused on how Holmes came to write his epic "Old Ironsides". But again, there was no mention that the frigate was in town, just across from the famous "red light" district at what is now Prescott Park.

In 1897, the tall ship made famous by a short poem turned 100. Three years after Holmes death Old Ironsides was towed from Portsmouth Harbor back to its home port in nearby Charleston. It had spent roughly two decades in use and under repair here. Little notice was made locally of the ignominious departure, but in Massachusetts cheering crowds gathered to welcome Old Ironsides back. Fireworks flared, cannon saluted and school children sang. A Boston judge -- to honor Oliver Wendell Holmes -- rose to the podium and reverently read aloud the poem written more than sixty years before. Members of the crowd silently mouthed the words, as familiar as The Lord's Prayer.

And still Ironsides was not saved. In fact, it was almost used for target practice by the Navy. But as always, the power of the popular poem formed a shield around the ship. It took millions of pennies raised by children and a national conscription to raise funds for the restoration. It was not until 1930, a century after "Old Ironsides" was first published, that the USS Constitution was rebuilt. After a lengthy world tour, beginning at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ironsides took up permanent residence as a Boston museum. The poet, with a few spare words written in haste, had finally steered his ship safely home.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. Originally published in 1998. All rights reserved. Research assistance by Mike Huxtable and Richard Winslow

* Letters and Friends by Annie Fields, 1898
* Biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes by Horace Scudder, 1894
* Life and Letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes,by John T. Morse, Jr, 1896
* Honorable Justice, by Sheldron M. Novick, 1989
* Yankee From Olympus,by Catherine Drinker Bowen, 1944
* The Improper Bostonian, Edwin P. Hoyt, 1979
Portsmouth Newspapers from the latter 1890s

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