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!
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. Emlen [Links] You can hear the song, and find a biography of Key, at: [broken link] http://www.bcpl.net/~etowner/anthem.html Cecil Adams on the origins of the tune: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a3_011.html