Editorial

A watchful night aboard ship, the Star Spangled Banner is born as a four-stanza poem

Posted 11/10/22

On the eve of Veterans Day, 2022, the story of how this country’s national anthem came into being  over 200 years ago provides both a history lesson and a tribute to those who endured …

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Editorial

A watchful night aboard ship, the Star Spangled Banner is born as a four-stanza poem

Posted

On the eve of Veterans Day, 2022, the story of how this country’s national anthem came into being  over 200 years ago provides both a history lesson and a tribute to those who endured “through the perilous night” of 1814, and to this day in defense of a free America.

The history is fascinating. Did you know there are four verses to the Star Spangled Banner? We sing only the first.

Did you know that Francis Scott Key, who wrote the four stanzas, was an attorney? Did you know that the words he penned in four stanzas were written as a poem called  “The Defense of Fort Henry?”

How did he happen to be aboard ship in Chesapeake Bay, as “O’er the ramparts we watched” on that fateful night?

The answers are set down in a short story entitled “No Refuge Could Save” by Dr. Isaac Asimov, with excepts quoted here. It is essentially the story of the origins of “The Star Spangled Banner.”  The setting is the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain.

In August, 1814, the British had taken Washington, D.C. and then moved up the Chesapeake Bay toward Baltimore. The objective was to split the young American nation in two.  To take Baltimore, the British would have to defeat  a force of 1,000 Americans at Fort McHenry, whose guns controlled the harbor.

“On one of the British ships was an aged physician, William Beanes, who had been arrested in Maryland and brought along as a prisoner. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and friend of the physician, had come to the ship to negotiate his release.”

“The British captain was willing, but the two Americans would have to wait. It was now the night of Sept. 13, 1814, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry was about to start.”

“As twilight deepened, Key and Beanes saw the American flag flying over Fort McHenry. Through the  night they heard bombs bursting and saw the red glare of rockets. They knew the fort was resisting and the American flag was still flying. But toward morning the bombardment ceased, and a dread silence fell.  Either Fort McHenry had surrendered and the British flag flew above it, or the bombardment had failed and the American flag still flew.”

As dawn began to brighten the eastern sky, Key and the physician must have asked each other over and over, “Can you see the flag?”

Francis Scott Key’s four-stanza poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” was widely published in newspapers. Someone noted that the words fit an old English tune called, “To Anacreon in Heaven” — a difficult melody “with an uncomfortably large vocal range.”  Key’s work became known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” and 117 years later in 1931, Congress declared it the official anthem of the United States.

And now the words to describe the watchful night.

   

Oh! say can you see, by the dawn’s early night,

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 gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro’ 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?

   

Ramparts, Asimov notes, are the protective walls or other elevations that surround the fort. The first stanza asks a question. The second gives an answer.

   

On the shore, dimly seen thro’ the mist 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,

’Tis the star-spangled banner. Oh! long may it wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

   

“The towering steep” is again, the ramparts. The bombardment has failed, and the British can do nothing more but sail away. Asimov suggests gloating by Key over the American triumph in the third stanza. During World War I when the British and Americans were staunch allies, this third stanza was not sung.

   

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’s pollution.

No refuge could save the heirling 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.

   

The fourth stanza, Asimov opines, is a pious hope for the future.

   

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation,

Blest with  victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

Then conquer we must, for our cause is just,

And this be our motto — In God is our  trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and home of the brave.

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