Some things about “The Star-Spangled Banner” you probably didn’t know:
1. The Star-Spangled Banner is a poem originally entitled “Defense of Fort McHenry” and it has 3 additional stanzas which are seldom sung.
2. The difficult, almost unsingable melody was originally a British drinking song.
3. The whole first stanza is a question. The poet is essentially asking, “Is the American flag still flying above Fort McHenry?” Francis Scott Key, the author of the poem, was being held prisoner on a British warship, and spent the night wondering whether the British attack on the Baltimore fort would succeed or fail.
4. The poem reflects Enlightenment ideals. It was part of a public culture of poetry , when people used poetry to mark all kinds of occasions. Poems were often opinion pieces the same way op-ed essays are today.
5. The chorus of the poem changes after each stanza. Originally the chorus expresses the poet’s uncertainty about the fate of the fort and the flag. With succeeding stanzas he becomes more and more certain that the fort has survived the attack, until the exultant final two lines:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
New York University literature professor Cyrus Patell talks about the Star-Spangled Banner in his lecture Edwards and the Transition to Enlightenment (website, iTunes), which is part of his course American Literature I: From beginnings to the Civil War (website, iTunes, Youtube).
He and his students read the poem closely and get a new look at a song that we hear so often, we usually don’t think about too deeply.