An explication of “The Star Spangled Banner”

David P. Goldman offers a close reading of our national anthem, which is not just a hard-to-sing-song but a striking and meaningful poem, one that connects the survival of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 to the survival of the nation in every generation:

. . .It behooves us to sing a national anthem that begins and ends with questions. In this respect, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is an unusual poem. To begin a poem with a rhetorical question is a common enough device (“Why! Who makes much of a miracle?,” “What is so rare as a day in June?” or “Who rides in the night through wind and wild?”). Key’s opening question, though, is not rhetorical, but existential. The hearer from whom the poet demands a response has kept the poet’s company in an anxious vigil. The question itself thus places the hearer alongside the poet in that vigil.

The poet withholds the name of the object we are trying to espy in the first light: It is “what so proudly we hailed,” “whose broad stripes and bright stars” streamed valiantly over the rampart as the poet and his interlocutor watched through the perilous night. And this precious thing could be glimpsed intermittently only by the light of the enemy’s munitions, through the glare of rockets and the flash of exploding bombs: these, the missiles of the foe, gave proof through the night that the our flag — at last the object is named — was still there.

But now the first light of the dawn has come. The bombardment has ceased. The poet asks that the listener say whether, in the dim sunrise, he still can see the flag above the ramparts. It is an anxious moment; the hearer has watched through the night to see if the US position has held or fallen; in a few moments he will see in the first light of day whether the flag is still there. All the fears of the nightly vigil are bound up in this moments of anticipation. Even more: the hopes and fears of generations hang upon what the hearer will see as day breaks..

And then the poet repeats the injunction “Say!” and changes the question. The opening question — can you still see our flag? — is a synecdoche of sorts for a bigger question — does that flag “yet wave/O’er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”? The second question refers not only to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of the country. The question is not only whether the flag of freedom still flies over America but also whether America itself is still brave and free.

The fearful vigil through the nocturnal bombardment, the fleeting glimpse of the national colors, the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn — these are a metaphor for the national condition. The flag enduring the enemy bombardment is only a symbol for the true subject of the poem, namely the reaction of the hearer himself. The opening “Say!” placed us at the poet’s side at dawn; the second “Say!” makes this a metaphor for the national condition. Key addresses the second “Say!” to all generations of Americans: Are you still brave enough to be free? Your national existence, implies the poet, will be a long vigil, in which America’s true character will be glimpsed sporadically in the reflection of enemy attacks.

Again, Key’s question is not rhetorical, but existential: the answer to the question depends on the response of we who hear it. There are few instances of the second person in poetry with which to compare this, although the device is very ancient. A few come to mind. One is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:2. Another is Simonides’ epitaph for the three hundred Spartans who held the pass against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. “O passer-by: tell the men of Lacedaemon that we died doing our duty.” The poignancy of the epitaph is that these dead men must ask a passer-by to bring the news to their homeland. The reader of the epitaph figuratively becomes the messenger. In John Donne’s familiar “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee,” the subject becomes not death in general, but the very personal death of the hearer. And the second-person address in Francis Scott Key’s anthem asks each of us: “Are you good enough to be an American?” It is a question we should ask ourselves every day.

via Spengler » A National Anthem that Begins and Ends with a Question.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • The Jones

    Except that the national anthem doesn’t end in a question. It ends after the fourth verse, just like the poem ends after the fourth stanza.

  • The Jones

    Except that the national anthem doesn’t end in a question. It ends after the fourth verse, just like the poem ends after the fourth stanza.

  • rlewer

    Yes, but is the 4th. verse unconstitutional? Would someone sue if we publicly sang all four verses?

    By the way: Do any of the professional singer actually know the melody or do they just ignore it?

  • rlewer

    Yes, but is the 4th. verse unconstitutional? Would someone sue if we publicly sang all four verses?

    By the way: Do any of the professional singer actually know the melody or do they just ignore it?

  • EGK

    And for Key, the God in whom we trust is the God who has redeemed us in Christ. The very last hymn in the print edition of Lutheran Service Book is his hymn, “Before the Lord we Bow,” which combines patriotism with a solid confession of Christ: “Your sin deplore and bow before the Crucified.” It then concludes with a confession of the second coming and the resurrection of the dead.

    I always get a kick out of singing this hymn in church on Canada Day! (Which we did last Sunday, as a matter of fact.)

  • EGK

    And for Key, the God in whom we trust is the God who has redeemed us in Christ. The very last hymn in the print edition of Lutheran Service Book is his hymn, “Before the Lord we Bow,” which combines patriotism with a solid confession of Christ: “Your sin deplore and bow before the Crucified.” It then concludes with a confession of the second coming and the resurrection of the dead.

    I always get a kick out of singing this hymn in church on Canada Day! (Which we did last Sunday, as a matter of fact.)

  • cattail

    The problem I have with our national anthem is the tune. As I recall, someone else (not Francis Scott Key) picked the tune, an English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The problem is that very few people can sing it, at least when sober! The best vocal performance I’ve heard was by a wonderful contralto in an Air Force ceremony at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. Most singers mess up on the first few bars–too low for most of us–or the “land of the free”–too high for most. This young Air Force woman had the vocal range to do both ends in her wonderful rich voice and make them sound glorious!

  • cattail

    The problem I have with our national anthem is the tune. As I recall, someone else (not Francis Scott Key) picked the tune, an English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The problem is that very few people can sing it, at least when sober! The best vocal performance I’ve heard was by a wonderful contralto in an Air Force ceremony at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. Most singers mess up on the first few bars–too low for most of us–or the “land of the free”–too high for most. This young Air Force woman had the vocal range to do both ends in her wonderful rich voice and make them sound glorious!

  • Joe

    In my opinion, this is the best, rendition of the national anthem:

  • Joe

    In my opinion, this is the best, rendition of the national anthem:

  • formerly just steve

    An interesting addition added by Oliver Wendell Homles. Note the last verse:

    When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
    If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
    Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
    The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
    By the millions unchained,
    Who their birthright have gained
    We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
    While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

  • formerly just steve

    An interesting addition added by Oliver Wendell Homles. Note the last verse:

    When our land is illumined with liberty’s smile,
    If a foe from within strikes a blow at her glory,
    Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile
    The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!
    By the millions unchained,
    Who their birthright have gained
    We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained;
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
    While the land of the free is the home of the brave.


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