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Key, Francis Scott

My journey through the Library of America’s collection of 19th century American poetry continues with Francis Scott Key’s “Defence of Fort McHenry,” or, as it is known when set to music, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

As a poem, it is noteworthy for the trend, which I have commented on in other poems in this series, of using poetry to develop a sense of American identity that is rather starkly black and white: virtue lies on the side of America, while vice is the province of America’s opponents. It is clear in these lines, for instance:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havock of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul foot-steps’ pollution.

Not exactly a subtle contrast with “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” It’s oppressive, really.

And not just oppressive, but inherently unpoetic. Poetry, and art more generally, is at its best when it takes advantage of all the subtle means at its disposal for precise communication and uses these means to present and make some kind of sense of the innumerable shades of grey that characterize human life. Once again, the contrast with Virgil strikes me as relevant. Virgil, as a Roman, loves and supports Aeneas, no doubt, but he is able to see that Aeneas’ enemies and opponents are human, with complex arrays of virtues and vices. He is able to take sides without frothing at the mouth over the glory of Rome and its progenitors. And I just have not yet found that in this early American poetry, at least not yet.

Reading this poem outside the context of hearing its first stanza as my country’s national anthem also brought me to consider the poetic quality of “star-spangled banner” as a description of our flag. It’s… not good.

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