Americans: Herewith an apology of sorts on the 228th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. An American masterwork has come to my attention that puts to shame my gibe at your “hand-me-down high culture” (What is American culture?, November 18. 2003). It is the text of your national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Francis Scott Key’s work belongs to the sparse genre of great poems by awful poets (another is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). Great stress may concentrate the thoughts of a mediocre versifier, like coal into diamonds, and that is what the Battle of Fort McHenry did for Key in 1814. The familiar text of the first stanza (the only one with artistic merit) is as follows:

Oh, 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 valiantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through 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?

Essential to the poem’s purpose is the address to the second person as well as the ambiguity of the subject. To whom is the command “say” addressed? And to what does the speaker refer? The hearer from whom the poet demands response has watched through an anxious vigil until the dawn, seeking a glimpse of something infinitely precious. Its name, its substantive, is withheld, while the poet describes it only by the actions that make it known. It is “what so proudly we hailed,” “whose broad stripes and bright stars” streamed valiantly over the rampart as the poet and his interlocutor watched through the perilous night.

And this object of great admiration could be glimpsed intermittently only by the light of the enemy’s munitions, through the glare of rockets and the flash of exploding bombs: these, the missiles of the foe, gave proof through the night that the United States flag – at last the object is named – was still there.

But now the first light of the dawn has come. The bombardment has ceased. The poet demands that the listener say whether, in the dim sunrise, he still can see the flag above the ramparts. It is a fearsome moment; the hearer has watched through the night to see if the US position has held or fallen; in a few moments he will see in the first light of day whether the flag is still there. All the fears of the nightly vigil are concentrated in those few moments of anticipation. More than that: the hopes and fears of generations hang upon what the listener will espy as day breaks, as the poet demands an answer.

And then the poet repeats the injunction “Say!” and reverses the question: the flag, the object kept in suspense, no longer is the object of the poem; instead the object is the reaction of the hearer himself. The poet no longer asks whether the flag is still flying, but whether it yet flies over the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The question refers not to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of the country. The uncertainty of the initial question is thrown back upon the hearer: is America still the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? The subject no longer is the flag, and the battle no longer is the bombardment of Fort McHenry: the subject is the hearer, and the battle rages within the hearer’s soul. That is why the poet withheld the name of the subject at the outset. By forcing the hearer to consider what the subject may have been, he prepared the ground for a grand transposition of subject, namely to the hearer himself.

The fearful vigil through the nocturnal bombardment, the fleeting view of the national colors, the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn – these are a metaphor for the national condition. Key addresses the second “Say!” to all generations of Americans: Are you still brave enough to be free? Your national existence, warns the poet, will be a long vigil, in which America’s nature will be glimpsed sporadically in the reflection of enemy attacks.

With this prophetic gesture, Key’s inspiration falls exhausted. The remaining three stanzas are mawkish (“Then conquer we must/When our cause it is just/And this be our motto/In God is our trust”), although I rather like the bit about “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

Notwithstanding the weak stanzas that follow, it is a great poem. A great poem grabs you by the throat; that is, it grabs you, you personally, and makes your reaction the implicit subject of the poem. That is why the second-person address in poetry entails such power and such risks.

Consider one of the most ancient examples of the second person in poetry, Simonides’ epitaph for the 300 Spartans who held the pass against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. “O passer-by: tell the men of Lacedaemon that we died doing our duty,” their monument said. The Spartans fought to the last man to win time for the Greeks, and the poignancy of the epitaph is that these dead men must ask a passer-by to bring the news to their homeland. The reader of these lines figuratively becomes the messenger.

John Donne’s familiar “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee” uses second person to speak of death; it is not death in general, but your very own personal death of which the poet speaks.

To do this sort of thing, the poet must abnegate himself on behalf of the hearer. The poet is S. T. Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” who abnegates himself in order to tell a tale that will stir the soul of the hearer. The poet must possess the Mariner’s “glittering eye” such that the passer-by will stop and hear him out. With his modest gifts, Francis Scott Key accomplished a marvelous transposition of poetic subject.

The moderns withdraw into their own mental game, and tease the reader for missing the in-jokes. Walt Whitman’s onanistic “Song of Myself,” beloved of highbrow critics such as Harold Bloom, to me seems merely embarrassing. People who incessantly talk about themselves become tiresome, even clever ones like James Joyce. One prefers the company of people who conduct a real conversation. The same applies to poetry. Key, at least for one remarkable stanza, shows himself a real poet; Whitman by contrast produced self-obsessed blather.

Americans once knew what high culture was, even if they had little high culture of their own. If the ordinary schoolchild memorizes the verse of the best poets, learning the classic devices of what used to be called rhetoric, great occasions will wring from the heart of a quite pedestrian versifier a poem worthy of Pegasus. Such was the Battle of Fort McHenry, or the mustering of Union troops observed by Julia Ward Howe, authoress of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

One wonders whether today’s Americans, who hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” before baseball games and suchlike, absorb its meaning. Francis Scott Key’s question remains open. America’s national colors are the same, but do they wave over a brave and free people?

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