Americans: Herewith an apology of sorts on the
228th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. An
American masterwork has come to my attention that puts
to shame my gibe at your "hand-me-down high culture" (What is American
culture?, November 18. 2003). It is the text
of your national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Francis Scott Key's work belongs to the sparse
genre of great poems by awful poets (another is "The
Battle Hymn of the Republic"). Great stress may
concentrate the thoughts of a mediocre versifier, like
coal into diamonds, and that is what the Battle of Fort
McHenry did for Key in 1814. The familiar text of the
first stanza (the only one with artistic merit) is as
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 valiantly 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
Essential to the poem's purpose
is the address to the second person as well as the
ambiguity of the subject. To whom is the command "say"
addressed? And to what does the speaker refer? The
hearer from whom the poet demands response has watched
through an anxious vigil until the dawn, seeking a
glimpse of something infinitely precious. Its name, its
substantive, is withheld, while the poet describes it
only by the actions that make it known. 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 object of great admiration 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 United States flag - at
last the object is named - was still there.
now the first light of the dawn has come. The
bombardment has ceased. The poet demands that the
listener say whether, in the dim sunrise, he still can
see the flag above the ramparts. It is a fearsome
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
concentrated in those few moments of anticipation. More
than that: the hopes and fears of generations hang upon
what the listener will espy as day breaks, as the poet
demands an answer.
And then the poet repeats the
injunction "Say!" and reverses the question: the flag,
the object kept in suspense, no longer is the object of
the poem; instead the object is the reaction of the
hearer himself. The poet no longer asks whether the flag
is still flying, but whether it yet flies over the Land
of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The question
refers not to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of
the country. The uncertainty of the initial question is
thrown back upon the hearer: is America still the Land
of the Free and the Home of the Brave? The subject no
longer is the flag, and the battle no longer is the
bombardment of Fort McHenry: the subject is the hearer,
and the battle rages within the hearer's soul. That is
why the poet withheld the name of the subject at the
outset. By forcing the hearer to consider what the
subject may have been, he prepared the ground for a
grand transposition of subject, namely to the hearer
The fearful vigil through the nocturnal
bombardment, the fleeting view of the national colors,
the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn -
these are 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, warns the poet, will be a long
vigil, in which America's nature will be glimpsed
sporadically in the reflection of enemy attacks.
With this prophetic gesture, Key's inspiration
falls exhausted. The remaining three stanzas are mawkish
("Then conquer we must/When our cause it is just/And
this be our motto/In God is our trust"), although I
rather like the bit about "their blood has washed out
their foul footsteps' pollution".
Notwithstanding the weak stanzas that follow, it
is a great poem. A great poem grabs you by the throat;
that is, it grabs you, you personally, and makes your
reaction the implicit subject of the poem. That is why
the second-person address in poetry entails such power
and such risks.
Consider one of the most ancient
examples of the second person in poetry, Simonides'
epitaph for the 300 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,"
their monument said. The Spartans fought to the last man
to win time for the Greeks, and 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 these
lines figuratively becomes the messenger.
Donne's familiar "Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It
tolls for thee" uses second person to speak of death; it
is not death in general, but your very own personal
death of which the poet speaks.
To do this sort
of thing, the poet must abnegate himself on behalf of
the hearer. The poet is S T Coleridge's "Ancient
Mariner", who abnegates himself in order to tell a tale
that will stir the soul of the hearer. The poet must
possess the Mariner's "glittering eye" such that the
passer-by will stop and hear him out. With his modest
gifts, Francis Scott Key accomplished a marvelous
transposition of poetic subject.
withdraw into their own mental game, and tease the
reader for missing the in-jokes. Walt Whitman's
onanistic "Song of Myself", beloved of highbrow critics
such as Harold Bloom, to me seems merely embarrassing.
People who incessantly talk about themselves become
tiresome, even clever ones like James Joyce. One prefers
the company of people who conduct a real conversation.
The same applies to poetry. Key, at least for one
remarkable stanza, shows himself a real poet; Whitman by
contrast produced self-obsessed blather.
Americans once knew what high culture was, even
if they had little high culture of their own. If the
ordinary schoolchild memorizes the verse of the best
poets, learning the classic devices of what used to be
called rhetoric, great occasions will wring from the
heart of a quite pedestrian versifier a poem worthy of
Pegasus. Such was the Battle of Fort McHenry, or the
mustering of Union troops observed by Julia Ward Howe,
authoress of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".
One wonders whether today's Americans, who hear
"The Star-Spangled Banner" before baseball games and
suchlike, absorb its meaning. Francis Scott Key's
question remains open. America's national colors are the
same, but do they wave over a brave and free people?
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