By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the United States national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. But the fate of national anthems is that their opening lines are often imprinted upon the minds of almost everyone, while the rest of the lyrics are as unfamiliar to readers and listeners as if they had been written in a different language.
Although it’s now known by the title ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (or just ‘the United States national anthem’), the words to the US national anthem actually come from a poem titled ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’. What’s more, the man who wrote them wasn’t even a celebrated poet in his own time: he was a lawyer by profession and only wrote poetry as a hobby.
Key wrote ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’ on September 14, 1814 about his experience witnessing the British fleet’s bombardment of Fort McHenry (in Baltimore Harbour) during the Battle of Baltimore, a battle of the War of 1812 between Britain and the US.
When the United States won the battle, they proudly displayed the then-relatively-new US flag with its stars and stripes (the ‘star-spangled banner’ of the anthem’s eventual title) from Fort McHenry.
O 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?
Francis Scott Key directs his readers (or listeners) to observe the US flag, whose ‘broad stripes and bright stars’ continued to stream or flap as the battle below raged.
Now, as the new day dawns following the US defeat of the British fleet, the flag continues to ‘wave’ over the country which is still ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’, now the American troops have defended their soil against the Brits.
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 in 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.
The mists from the sea obscure the flag from view, while the wind blowing it obscures it, before blowing it back into place, revealing it again. Counterbalancing this attention to mist and obscurity, there’s an emphasis on light: the ‘morning’s first beam’ of sunlight ‘shines’ in ‘full glory’ on the ‘banner’ – a banner itself displaying stars, of course.
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 washed out their foul footsteps’ 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.
Where the second stanza called the British fleet a ‘haughty host’, suggesting it was sheer arrogance and superiority which led the Brits to attack Baltimore Harbour and Fort McHenry, Key continues this line of argument in the third stanza: the British navy ‘vauntingly swore’ that the confusion of battle would leave the Americans without a home or a country. (It’s worth bearing in mind that less than forty years earlier, the United States was still fighting a war with Britain over US independence.)
But, in a clever image, Key says that the confident footprints the British left as they marched to attack the American fort have been washed away by the blood of the British wounded and slain; it’s a neat metaphor that encapsulates the idea of arrogance being destroyed by humiliating defeat.
O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n 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!
Again, the emphasis in this final stanza is on freedom – the freedom of the American people, ‘freemen’ who no longer live under the British yoke. But Francis Scott Key attributes the American victory to God, ‘the Power that hath made and preserved us as nation’. Americans place their trust in God for supporting their campaign, and their defence of their new nation. America is a ‘Heav’n rescued land’, a country saved from destruction by God’s hand.
But freedom is the message that shines through more than any other. The US flag with its stars and stripes waves freely over the land of the free, declaring America’s freedom from tyranny or oppression at the hands of another power.
This is a message carried by many other national anthems, unofficial or otherwise: one of Britain’s most popular national songs (although not its national anthem), ‘Rule, Britannia’, proudly proclaims that ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’. (Ironically, in light of the circumstances surrounding the composition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, ‘Rule, Britannia’ is about the might of the British navy: ‘Britannia, rule the waves’.)
Throughout ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, Francis Scott Key uses the refrain, ‘O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave’. These words, of course, have become famous beyond the poem (or song): many people refer to the United States as the ‘land of the free’, especially.
So, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ started life as a poem called ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’, was written not by one of America’s leading poets of the day but by an amateur, and – despite being written in 1814 – only became the official US national anthem in 1931. If things had been a little different, ‘Hail, Columbia’, ‘America the Beautiful’, or even ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’ were all contenders for that honour.
Francis Scott Key was, of course, long dead by the time his poem became the lyrical basis for his country’s national anthem. By then, his name was attached to another famous American writer, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald – better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald – who was Key’s second cousin, three times removed. Fittingly, one of Fitzgerald’s working titles for his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, was ‘Under the Red, White and Blue’.
The New York Times most recently in 2018 did an article on it but it has been discussed over and over throughout the decades – much of which can be found online if you want to study it further.
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Yes, Yvonne Green is a celebrated poet and British barrister !
It’s a rare American who can even make an attempt to remember more than the first verse. An old joke, based on the anthem’s use before sporting events, is the the second verse of the “Star Spangled Banner” is the head umpire’s call: “Play Ball!”
The actual flag in the poem survives, and even today is quite a large flag. I believe, as the poem sort of describes, it wasn’t just hoisted at the end of the battle, but flown during the whole fight and designed to be visible from a distance to serve as a beacon on the status of the British attack.
In America we seem to be big on lawyer-poets. Besides Key’s one hit wonder, there’s Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, Edgar Lee Masters, and William Cullen Bryant. And I’ve suspected Emily Dickinson of picking up some elements of her male family member’s law trade, particularly in the exactitude in which certain abstract words work in her compressed verse.
Are there any British barrister-poets?
The tune of the Star Spangled Banner is adapted from an old English drinking song. The adaptation of it as the “National Anthem” was implemented until 1916 by Woodrow Wilson but it was not officially adapted until 1931. It has been a song of controversy since the beginning as it was originally designated and lobbied into popularity as a national anthem when it was used for state events as a patriotic song largely by the Antebellum South along side their push to establish “Decoration Day” to honor fallen Confederates. It’s inferences to slavery with lyrics written by Key, a slave holder, continue to remain a subtext in it’s verses and keep the song in a controversial light. The New York Times most recently in 2018 did an article on it but it has been discussed over and over throughout the decades – much of which can be found online if you want to study it further.
I never knew that Key and Fitzgerland were related. You learn something new every day!
Quite distantly, by all accounts – several generations removed and all that. But it’s quite nice that Fitzgerald was named after Key!