After the shuttle’s dramatic overflight of our area this past Tuesday morning on its way to the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport, I couldn’t help thinking of this poem by Holmes, written when the U.S.S. Constitution was scheduled to be destroyed after years of exemplary service.
Built in an era when a wooden ship had an expected service life of ten to fifteen years, Constitution was thirty-one years old in 1828. The commandant of the Charlestown Navy Yard, Charles Morris, estimated a repair cost of over $157,000 for Constitution. On 14 September 1830, an article appeared in the Boston Advertiser that erroneously claimed the Navy intended to scrap Constitution. Two days later, Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “Old Ironsides” was published in the same paper and later all over the country, igniting public indignation and inciting efforts to save “Old Ironsides” from the scrap yard. She began a leisurely repair period.
On 24 June 1833 Constitution entered drydock and remained there until 21 June 1834 when she was returned to service.
By Oliver Wendell Holmes
September 16, 1830
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!
When Discovery and its transport 747 glided past me that morning, I was struck how it, like the Constitution, was battered and charred by its service. Indeed, the shuttle Enterprise that Discovery replaced was originally named Constitution. The contrast between the initial plan to scrap Constitution and the warm and welcoming reception and preservation of Discovery was a striking one in my mind. Both vessels will be preserved for posterity: both are proud examples of American resolve, ingenuity and courage. Hence, my poem: