Just in time for Flag Day, let’s look at “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as promised.
The first thing people tend to forget is that what we sing as our national anthem is actually the first verse of a four-verse poem. Thus the first verse really doesn’t have full meaning outside of that context. In fact, it’s the question part of a question-and-answer structure, so the full meaning is actually quite different than the meaning of the first verse. Focusing only on the first verse would be sort of like interpreting “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” based only on the first eight lines…..that’s just the setup part, the payoff comes at the end.
Nevertheless, I like the first verse a lot better than the other three, which fall into conventionality rather dramatically. So it’s perhaps a lucky turn of events that we only sing the first verse, because that verse taken alone makes for an interesting though different aesthetic experience.
The entire verse is an extended question. That’s pretty cool–who else has a national anthem that is one long question? The previous unofficial national anthem, “Hail Columbia,” has much more of what we think national anthems are supposed to be like, lots of confident assertions about Heav’n and beholding immortal patriots. But “The Star-Spangled Banner” is asking a relatively simple question: Can you see the flag?
You can read more about the Battle of Baltimore elsewhere. Suffice it to say that if Fort McHenry had fallen, Baltimore would have been much harder if not impossible to defend, and the War of 1812 could have taken a different turn. But as a rhetorical situation, it’s hard to beat the position of the speaker in the poem–watching anxiously from a ship in the harbor to see if his city is about to be invaded. The verse is addressed to an unnamed “you,” as if the speaker can’t bear to look. It’s dawn; the flag was still there last night, because we could see it by the light of the bombardment (Fort McHenry was bombarded for 25 hours straight). But is it there this morning? It’s a grand, agonizing moment–can you see it? Is it there?
And of course it is, and that’s what we know, even though we never sing the words that say so. We end with the question mark. I like that a lot.