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Following links from another SE site, I ended up on the Wikipedia page for the poem "Old Ironsides" about the eponymous ship of the US Navy. Wikipedia tells us (with sources) about how this poem came to be written:

In September 1830, [the author] read an article in the Boston Daily Advertiser about the Navy's plans to dismantle the historic USS Constitution. Startled, he was moved to write "Old Ironsides" to express his opposition to the scrapping. The poem was published in the Advertiser the next day and was soon reprinted by papers in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

However, reading the poem itself, the context doesn't seem clear to me purely from the text of the poem. It's clear that it concerns a famous naval vessel, and that the poet feels something is a fate worse than being sunk:

The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

[...]

Oh, better that her shattered hulk
Should sink beneath the wave;

When this was first published, how were readers meant to know what it was about? Am I just being dense and it would've been clear to contemporary readers that the poem must be about that particular ship and the particular fate of being dismantled? Was it originally published with a note to say it was a response to the previous day's article? Was it obvious from context since readers would remember the previous day's article?

Mostly I'm curious about whether in-text evidence alone was meant to be enough to make clear the theme of the poem, or whether extratextual clarification was always needed (like I needed the extratextual detail of the Wikipedia page to understand what the poem was about)?

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    Wouldn't the title make the context clear? It was a very famous ship and the nickname was well established.
    – verbose
    Feb 9, 2021 at 3:38
  • @verbose I had actually forgotten the title ... that does make clear which ship it was about. But would its expected fate at that time have been general knowledge to readers? I'm asking more about how the poem makes clear it's about dismantling the ship than how it makes clear it's about that particular ship.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 9, 2021 at 6:35

2 Answers 2

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Holmes could be confident that his readers would understand him because the fate of the Constitution was a notable political issue in September 1830, mentioned many times in the press. Below I’ve quoted three newspaper stories (of many) that appeared in the weeks prior to the publication of the poem on 16 September 1830.

Is the Nation prepared to abandon our Navy? If the system of “reform,” which we believe is in contemplation, be persisted in, we shall shortly not have a vestige of a Navy remaining. Ships are expensive structures, and naturally pushable.1 Ample provision is annually made by Congress for their repair; and oftentimes these repairs are so extensive as to amount to re-building them. The Frigate Constitution, for instance, was built in 1797; since that period she has been more than once cut down, even to the water’s edge, and built up anew. Still she remains the “Constitution,” a name dear to the nation, and the pride of our mariners. She returned in the summer of 1823, from a four year’s cruise in the Mediterranean, and now requires extensive repairs, to place her in a state of preservation for future usefulness; and will our citizens quietly submit to see this gallant ship, the pride of our Navy—the “crack ship” of the fleet, known in every sea as “old Ironsides,” sold under the hammer of an auctioneer, under the provisions of an absolute law of Congress, hunted up for the occasion, because the nominal Secretary2 and his de facto3 “think” her unworthy of repairs? Will the good citizens of Boston permit her to leave their port, the property of any individual or government but our own? Forbid it Bunker Hill!! If report be true, the Mocedonian,4 the fruit of the lamented Decatur’s5 victory, and the Cyane,6 a “twint7 trophy” of old Ironsides, under Com. Stewart,8 are to be added to the number to swell the catalogue of retrenchment and reform.

‘A fast Friend of the Navy’ (27 August 1830). From the Columbian Gazette. In Constitutional Whig 7:61, p. 2.

1. Sic: perhaps a typo for “perishable”. 2. John Branch, Secretary of the Navy. 3. Amos Kendall, United States Postmaster General. 4. Sic: a typo for Macedonian, a British frigate captured in the War of 1812. 5. Stephen Decatur, who had been killed in a duel. 6. Cyane, a British sixth-rate captured in 1815. 7. Sic. 8. Charles Stewart.

There are rumours of serious disagreements at Washington, between the thinking Secretary of the Navy, and the Board, and especially the head of the Board, of Navy Commissioners. The Secretary, with the aid of his factotum, Amos Kendall, of infamous notoriety, has picked up and old and forgotten law of 1806, authorizing vessels deemed unworthy of repair, to be sold under the hammer. He very gravely determined that something ought forthwith to be done under it—that sundry of our gallant ships were getting to be old, and had been in service “long enough if it had been profitable, and too long, if it had not;” and that according to the good Republican doctrine of rotation, they should give way for others! Looking round for some distinguished mark for the illustration of his principle of wisdom, he discovered old ironsides—the frigate Constitution! She wanted extensive repairs, and she, it was therefore decided by the Secretary and Amos, should be sold as unworthy of repairs! Against this act of folly and suicide, the Navy Commissioners, who are judges, and the only judges in the affair, decidedly protested and Com Rodgers,1 in particular, almost accused the Secretary of gross ignorance of his duty, or inveterate hostility to the Navy. Thus affairs stood at the last advices. The Secretary still persisting, and the Commissioners as decidedly objecting. The Secretary it is understood has always been opposed to the increase of the Navy, to the extent the laws and policy of the country have authorized; and it is very naturally now supposed, that he is seeking, under the color of this obsolete law, to give effect to this hostility.

Anon (10 September 1830). ‘Old Ironsides’. From the New Jersey Fredonian. In Constitutional Whig 7:65, p. 2.

1. Commodore John Rodgers.

It has been affirmed upon good authority that the Secretary of the Navy has recommended to the Board of Navy Commissioners to dispose of the frigate Constitution. Since it has been understood that such a step was in contemplation we have heard but one opinion expressed, and that in decided disapprobation of the measure. Such a national object of interest, so endeared to our national pride as Old Ironsides is, should never by any act of our government cease to belong to the Navy, so long as our country is to be found upon the map of nations. In England it was lately determined by the Admiralty to cut the Victory, a one-hundred gun ship (which it will be recollected bore the flag of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar), down to a seventy-four, but so loud were the lamentations of the people upon the proposed measure that the intention was abandoned. We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution, and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require.

Anon (14 September 1830). ‘Old Ironsides’. From the New York Journal of Commerce. In Boston Daily Advertiser.

Holmes wrote that he was inspired to write the poem after reading the last of these pieces:

The poem was an impromptu outburst of feeling and was published on the next day but one after reading the above paragraph.

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1892). Poetical Works, volume I, p. 2. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

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Google Books search for "Old Ironsides" shows the term was in frequent use before 1829 in America to refer to the USS Constitution, but also in Britain to refer to HMS Brittania. And as a nickname for Oliver Cromwell. And a character in a play.

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