The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key


In 1814, the amateur poet Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships during the War of 1812. The scene inspired the composition of a poem, printed as a broadsheet (a common publication size at the time) and distributed under the title "Defence of Fort M'Henry." As was common for popular poems, the text was set to a popular tune (written for a London men's social club called "To Anacreon in Heaven") and renamed the "Star-Spangled Banner." More than 100 years later, the song was adopted as the national anthem of the United States.

O 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 gallantly streaming;
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists 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, now conceals, now discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream;
'Tis the star-spangled banner; O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!

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' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight and 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!

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land,
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just.
And this be our motto— "In God is our trust; "
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Reflection Questions

  1. How would you characterize the nature of this poem? Is it a description, an interpretation, or propaganda?
  2. Throughout the poem, the image of a flag concludes each stanza. How does this image suggest a compromise between freedom and law? 
  3. How does the concluding stanza of the poem position the success of the defense of Fort McHenry?

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