43. Defence of Fort McHenry: Francis Scott Key

Oh, say did you know that “The Star Spangled Banner” was a poem long before it was a song, or even our national anthem. Yeah, you probably did. And you also know it was composed during the War of 1812 as Key sat prisoner in a British ship that was bombarding Fort McHenry. What you might not have known was that the poem, which is our concern here, was actually named “Defense of Fort McHenry”. When it was put to the tune of a popular drinking song, the name was changed to what we now know as “The Star Spangled Banner”.

For our purposes, note that this poem is four stanzas. How, you might ask your students, does this compare to our national anthem? Why do we not sing the whole thing? Indeed, is something lost by taking the quick route and forgoing the subtlety and nuance found over the four stanzas? This might be a good time to talk about how much is too much, or are poems more like bumper stickers than stories?

And, really, is this poem any good? Can smaltz and emotion pass as great poetry? Is it art, or did Key just get lucky?

Defence of Fort McHenry
Francis Scott Key

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 thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, 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 in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh 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 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!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory 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!


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