|Photo by George Henry Preble (public domain)|
by Peggy Robin
Tomorrow, September 14, is National Anthem Day, and this is THE BIG 200! On this day in 1814, while held prisoner aboard a British warship, Francis Scott Key wrote the immortal poem, “The Star Spangled Banner” that was to become (in another 117 years!) our national anthem. From the deck of the ship as he watched the British fire repeatedly upon Fort McHenry, his words poetically captured what he saw “by the dawn’s early light.” At the battle’s end, “our flag was still there” – and we are singing about that battle still. But the lyrics go on to ask Americans to reflect upon the meaning of the flag and whether it continues to stand as a proud symbol of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It may well be the only national anthem in the world to end with a question mark. (“Does that star-spangled banner still wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”)
Now some of you at this point may object, “That’s not right. Our national anthem does not end there. It has three more verses.” Well, that’s technically correct. But at official events, ball games, and many other large public gatherings, the music and the singing always stop after the first verse. How many of us can sing the other three?
If you want to join a small minority who can, start memorizing from Verse Two, here: http://www.usa-flag-site.org/song-lyrics/star-spangled-banner.shtml. That second verse is mainly a restatement of the account of the battle in the first verse, ending with yet another expression of surprise that as the sun came up, the flag was still visible. That’s all well and good.
Now we come to the third verse. And here we come to a problem, a part that does not sit right with our modern –less bloodthirsty, more egalitarian – sensibilities. That third verse is essentially devoted to gloating about the number of people killed on the other side. Key is not just happy that so many enemy lives were lost, but is sneering that among “that band” whose “foul footsteps’ pollution” has now been washed away by bloodshed, were many foreign mercenaries and freed slaves (“hirelings and slaves”), now gone to the “gloom of the grave” with the star-spangled banner waving “in triumph” over the land where they died. Ugh.
The fourth verse goes on to proclaim that God was firmly on the American side (Key calls America a “heav'n rescued land” and praises, “the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation”) and then lays down a theologically-based justification for future American wars of expansion: “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” (Lest you think I’m out on a limb in my interpretation of these latter verses, I offer this line-by-line analysis by a blogger in Fort Worth Texas: http://thewhitedsepulchre.blogspot.com/2011/02/explanation-of-lyrics-of-star-spangled.html.)
I don’t mean to put a damper on the 200th birthday celebration – just to suggest that we focus on the verse we all know and can sing together without hesitation. Let’s celebrate the Anthem that ends with the question …and leave it at that.
Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland ParkListserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.