Friday, March 27, 2009
Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1809; he graduated from Harvard in 1829. Holmes was a central figure in the New England Renaissance; he studied both medicine and law; for most of his life he served as professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School. In addition to his active professional life, Holmes maintained an active avocation as writer of both poetry and prose. He and members of the Saturday Club founded The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, and his famous Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table appeared in that publication serially from its inception. In 1858 his Autocrat was published as a volume. In 1860 appeared The Professor at the Breakfast-Table and in 1872 The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, and in 1891 Over the Teacups. This series of works represents the best conversation mode written in the United States. The fame of Holmes' poetry mostly rested on his comic verse, except for "Old Ironsides," which exemplifies the old adage, "The pen is mightier than the sword." This poem influenced action.
On September 16, 1830, Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem, "Old Ironsides," appeared in response to a report in the Boston Daily Advertiser that the Navy was going to scrap the USS Constitution. The report was inaccurate; apparently, there were no plans to demolish the ship, but a public outcry arose as a result of that report, and Holmes fired off his poem immediately. The poem is credited with saving the ship, which has a fascinating history.
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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!