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The Star-Spangled Banner -- Francis Scott Key

Guest poem sent in by Emlen Smith
[our apologies to Emlen; this was meant to go out yesterday - ed.]
(Poem #1729) The Star-Spangled Banner
 Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
 What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
 Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
 O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
 And the rockets' red glare,
 The bombs bursting in air,
 Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
 O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
 O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

 On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
 Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
 What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
 As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
 Now it catches the gleam
 Of the morning's first beam,
 In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:
 'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave
 O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

 And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
 That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
 A home and a country should leave us no more?
 Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.
 No refuge could save
 The hireling and slave
 From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
 And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
 O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

 Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
 Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
 Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
 Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
 Then conquer we must,
 When our cause it is just,
 And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
 And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
 O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
-- Francis Scott Key
I think the National Anthem is underappreciated as a poem. We Americans take
it for granted, or if we think about it, probably assume we only like it out
of tradition (and I doubt anyone else knows it at all). It's not, I admit,
Shakespeare, but it's a fine poem, worth looking over more closely
(Americans are lucky in this respect; the lyrics of "God Save the Queen"
are, no offense to anyone, pretty dull.).

"The Star-Spangled Banner" requires a bit of context to be understood:
during the War of 1812, Key went out in a truce ship toward the British
fleet to negotiate the release of a prisoner who was a friend of his. Before
he returned, the British attacked Fort McHenry, 8 miles away; Key watched
from the sea, amid "the foe's haughty host." When the fighting stopped at
night, he could not see what had happened, and had to wait till morning for
the flag to appear.

It's a shame that we generally only sing the first verse, which ends on a
cliffhanger -- does that banner still wave, or what? (People often get
confused by line 7, which says that the flag WAS still there at twilight;
Key can't see once night falls, and wonders if it will still be there in the
morning.) Read rightly, verse 1 is just preparation, building up suspense:
we start with a question, interrupt for a little proud reminiscence, but
then come back to the same question. This verse is the whole long, anxious
night of September 13, 1814, drifting, waiting, surrounded by foes who know
no more than we do.

Which sets us up for verse 2, my favorite. The tenseness of verse 1 is still
there at the beginning, in the dread silence and the fitful, teasing breeze
-- but it exists only to be broken. After the two short lines 14 and 15, the
flag's full appearance bursts out, and you (or at least, I) just want to get
up and cheer. Verse 2 is about that one moment, when relief floods in all at
once and drowns our uncertainty, that sudden leap of the heart as we see the
flag. It's the same jump that interrupts the beginning of the refrain in
line 17; in all the other verses that line is an unbroken thought, but here
it has an exclamation point and an "O" in the middle.

The third verse is a source of some embarrassment now that the British are
our friends again, and is omitted even more often than the second and
fourth.  But we lose something when we omit it. "The Star-Spangled Banner"
is a whole; it travels naturally from one verse to the next. The great
release of verse 2 must, inevitably, pour out the gloating of verse 3. "And
where is that band...." We can see Key, as soon as the first moment of joy
is past, turning his head to look for those arrogant Brits in the ships
around him, who, remember, have been waiting just as anxiously as he has.
The poem would be more kind and polite if it passed immediately into the
sober reflection of verse 4 without any emotion, or even with emotions a bit
less savage; but it would read like a poem composed to educate men, not like
a sincere, joyful celebration of victory. (Besides, this is nothing. If you
want a really bloodthirsty national anthem, try reading the Marseillaise.)

But we do get some sober reflection at last. Once he's gotten that gloating
out of his system, Key doesn't just continue jumping on British graves. He
turns calm and serious, and he gives us a moral lesson, as, after all, he
has to.  There isn't any wildly original insight here, of course, and there
isn't meant to be: the force comes from the simple, strong, short words in
the three rhyming lines 32-34. The point isn't to teach us anything new, but
to remind us of what we already know, to make sure that we don't get carried
away with our (appropriate) joy in victory, but calm down and think about
the purpose of that victory, and the Power that gave it to us. Then,
finally, we get the joy again, enhanced, not reduced, by the lesson, when
the refrain comes back.

Key's use of the refrain, by the way, is masterful. The variation
effectively fits it to each verse, and the movement of each verse builds
toward it in a different way, so that it never becomes boring, or seems put
in just because it has to be there.

So, basically, I like this poem. (Of course, it's better with the music,
which I believe was a traditional English drinking tune or something;
certainly not original. I am utterly unqualified to discuss the quality of
the music at all.) I admit, of course, that I like it more because it's
associated, to say the least, with American patriotism, because I've heard
it played at a million baseball games, etc. But I think, even without that,
that it's a real good poem. I'd be interested to know how it strikes
English, Australian, Indian, etc. readers, who don't have my biases. Happy
Independence Day.



You can hear the song, and find a biography of Key, at:
  [broken link]

Cecil Adams on the origins of the tune:

30 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Laurence Wayman said...

You red-neck Americans should know that Key set his music to the
then popular drinking song." Anacreon in Heaven" written in 1770 by
John Smith. Anacreon was a Greek poet who celebrated the joys of wine
and beauty and was memorialized by a statue on the Acropolis showing
him in a state of drunken hilarity. The ridiculous range of the
melody of "The Star -Spangled Banner" is explained by its origins at
a club of roisterous fellows in London who would lift their mugs on
the high notes.
One reason the National Anthem wasn't adopted for 127 years after it
was written had to with the pious opposition of certain temperance leaders

By the way...please dont drop a bomb on my house for saying the above.

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