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The Poem that Saved
"Old Ironsides"

Few remember that the USS Constitution
was in Portsmouth the day Holmes died

Click here for "Old Ironsides" links

Oliver Wendell Holmes When I'm tense, I study history. Filling in all those old dusty facts calms me like working a good crossword puzzle. Sometimes, though, the crossword puzzle can be as frustrating as life itself. Take, for example, Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Holmes Was Not Born Old

We 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. We liked out 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 collected works of the poet, "Old Ironsides" appears on page 1. He knocked off the three short stanzas quickly one afternoon while procrastinating at law school. Holmes considered most of his other early poems 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, read an article in the September 14 Boston Advertiser about possible plans to scrap the old frigate, and dashed off the 143-word poem that same day. It appeared the next day in the Boston Advertiser. It was picked up, over the week, by major papers all across the still small country. It was copied and passed out as leaflets.

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." 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 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. Authors write about the enormous fame that followed the uncanny success of his first widely published poem.

Holmes eventually became a famous traveling lecturer and, among his popular stories, he talked of his early writing experiences as his first attack of "lead poisoning." 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 less than rumored, except perhaps in Boston and Cambridge. Until this giant success, Holmes had published his humorous student work anonymously. This time, whether in haste or humility, he signed "Old Ironsides" 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.

And to make things even more confusing, there were two Oliver Wendell Holmes. 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 his 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 would date Robert Todd Lincoln and become secretly engage to assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Did Holmes Ever See the Ship?

People who love patriotism more than history will tell you the USS Constitution was built for the Revolutionary War. 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 in its battle against the Barbary pirates who were harassing American ships. Not only was Lear on hand for the famous signing of the Treaty of Tripoli, but he honeymooned aboard the famous frigate. 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 which made him famous was launched. He was alive during its service in the War of 1812. In all honesty, the ship was in pretty bad shape and ready for a typical retirement in 1830. But Americans were not ready to let her go. This was the beginning of the era of historical societies, the rise of the "modern" Industrial Era, and the dawn of American literature. Holmes found his way to the center of each as teacher, doctor and poet.

Yet in all that I've read so far about Holmes, I can't find any indication that he ever saw "Old Ironsides." During his life it traveled the world, while Holmes preferred mostly to stick home in Cambridge. When the now invulnerable frigate first came to Portsmouth in the mid 1850s for another of many complete refits, every school child in America knew Holmes' poem by heart. When it returned to America's oldest naval shipyard in Kittery in the 1880s and 1890s, Holmes is no where to be seen.

He had the opportunity to visit a couple of times in Boston. And I'm told he frequented an inn in Rye, NH, though the dates are in dispute. I've found evidence that Holmes knew both Sarah Orne Jewett and our "Island Poet" Celia Thaxter in his later years. Celia dined with him Longfellow, Hawthorne and Charles Dickens in Boston, but I see yet no evidence that Holmes visited Celia on the Isles of Shoals. If he did, in his dotage, he would have had to sail right past the poor old hulk as it lay tied up in the harbor.

Quick e-mail to the US Constitution Museum in Boston and to the Holmes Collection at his alma mater at Phillips Andover Academy shed no more light on the puzzle. Nor did trips to the Athenaeum or hours on the Internet. We know that a group of aged veterans threw a big party aboard the USS Constitution in 1891, They apparently invited the elderly doctor, then in his eighties, to come aboard. Rotting, cabbed over and turned into a dormitory ship for young navy recruits, "Old Ironsides" 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. There were plans for restoration, plans without 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, no mention that the Constitution was in town, just across from the famous "red light" district at what is now Prescott Park.

So this crossword puzzle remains incomplete. Within three years of Holmes' death, Ironsides was towed ignominiously from Portsmouth to great cheering Massachusetts crowds along the route to Boston, where it was built, and where it has pretty much remained for the last 100 years.

As the USS Constitution, aged 100, arrived in Beantown in 1897, amid fireworks, canon salutes and singing schoolchildren, a Boston judge -- to honor Oliver Wendell Holmes -- rose to the podium and reverently read aloud the short poem written more than sixty years before. Members of the crowd silently mouthed the words, as familiar as The Lord's Prayer. Oliver Wendell Holmes, with just a few spare words, as if by some spiritual remote control, had steered "Old Ironsides" home.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com

Research assistance by Mike Huxtable and Richard Winslow

Sources:

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