Reception. Observation. Perception. Emotion.


Well, it happened again. Someone on a grand stage forgot the lyrics to our national anthem. This time Christina Aguilera was the unfortunate victim of circumstance, but the same thing has happened many times before. These frequent flubs could be attributed merely to the laws of probability—numerous public performances of the song are bound to result in some of them missing the mark.

However, in my opinion something else is behind these troubles. Many of the song’s lyrics are so awkward and obscure that plenty of singers end up in the midst of a verbal minefield when attempting to recite them, and thus a singer can experience difficulty identifying with the words. I know I have mouthed “The Star Spangled Banner” in times past with less than supreme confidence that I was getting it right. So today I shall traverse the lyrics line by line and attempt to parse the meaning out of them. I want to know what we are up against.

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Forgiving the punctuation choices in the text, the song begins with an apparent exhortation, “O say,” which is a phrase not widely used, but in today’s parlance is typically used for a casual question: “Say, did you happen to watch the game last night?” One would assume that our national anthem carries more weight than this, so we have to assume that “O say” originally signaled something of more importance.

The next few words, “can you see,” are easy enough. A question is about to be asked, and it’s apparently rhetorical, which is fine enough for a song. The next lines, “by the dawn’s early light,” are vague by themselves and seem to portend the actual question that has not yet been fully delivered. “What so proudly we hailed” finally hints at something meaningful, but the illustration still seems incomplete, and “hailed” is another word we no longer use very much. Most of us know that it means something like “esteemed” or “praised” so that’s good enough for now.

The second line ends with “at the twilight’s last gleaming,” which finally gives a hint of the complete picture. Can we see at dawn what we hailed at twilight? Again, these words are difficult to process when singing at normal speed, but dwelling on them can provide some sense of the meaning. Perhaps “hailed” means something closer to “saluted” in this case—last night we saluted something which we now see again at dawn. To be fair, let’s assume that we know the title of the song already and that we are probably saluting the “banner” in this passage. But let’s leave the “star-spangled” part for later consideration.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

The punctuation from the first two lines indicates that the initial sentence of the song is still going. At this point we have come across two prepositional phrases and a direct object in the form of a relative clause (“what so proudly we hailed”), and there is more to come. “Whose broad stripes and bright stars” contains some nifty alliteration that could feasibly make this part easier to remember, and it is now pretty clear that we are singing about the American flag. But the word “whose” is slightly jarring, because the pronoun “what” has already been used to refer to the same thing. This is a lot to sift through so far.

The next few words, “through the perilous fight,” are our first indication of why the question (which is still not complete) has been asked. Can you see the banner that apparently survived a dangerous battle?  We need more information, which the next line will hopefully provide.

“O’er the ramparts we watched” is where things start to get quite muddy, and not only because most of us are unfamiliar with ramparts, which we can probably think of as barricades. The phrase itself is extremely tough to diagram. In fact, most people could be forgiven for treating this whole line as one short sentence: “O, the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.” My best guess is that the first part means something like, “over the barricades that we oversaw,” which seems to best fit the context. The remaining text, “were so gallantly streaming,” thus refers back to the previous line, so that it might mean, “whose stars and stripes were still streaming through the battle.” In this case “streaming” must mean “waving” or something similar.

Putting everything together so far, here is what I think the song is saying: “Hey, can you still see the same flag this morning that we saluted last night, despite the raging battle that took place near the barricades where we were located?” Whew… hopefully the rest of the song is not so challenging.

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

“And the rockets’ red glare” is descriptive enough, although these days we probably think of a rocket more as a space-faring vessel or a fireworks component rather than a weapon. Then again, we are all familiar with rocket launchers. But did they have those back then? No time to think about it. Let’s move on.

The next phrase, “the bombs bursting in air,” is fairly straightforward, although today we don’t normally think of bombs detonating in midair. We set bombs in a fixed place first. So we can assume from this line that rockets and bombs must have meant something slightly different at the time this song was written, but we can navigate our way around these lyrics if we have not been confounded by the ramparts from before. A new sentence has begun with rockets and bombs as the subject. Now we need to know what they are doing.

“Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” wraps up the idea satisfactorily once we take an extra moment to connect it to what has gone before. Remember when we were asked earlier whether we can still see the flag this morning? These two lines seem to answer the question affirmatively: the weapon fire from the overnight battle lit up the sky just enough to indicate that the flag was indeed at the same spot.

O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Now we are nearing the end of the song, and once again we are being addressed with “O say.” The final sentence begins as a question: “does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” This must be rhetorical, as we have already established that the flag did in fact survive the night. The potential confusion of this line lies in the word “spangled,” which we never use in common speech today. We can guess from the context that it means something like “adorned” or “decorated” but there may be a hint of lingering doubt in our minds.

“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” provides a sufficiently clear ending to the song, and completes the question from the previous line. “Is that aforementioned flag still waving over this area, which is part of a nation consisting of free and brave people?”

Our national anthem is doubtless a piece of fine poetry, but it is a poem that demands intense mental effort to understand clearly. Since this is the case, I can sympathize with those who have trouble singing the entire song without error. Interestingly enough, the United States originally used “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as an unofficial anthem before adopting “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1931. The switch is understandable since the first song shared its melody with the British national anthem, and we wanted something uniquely ours. I just wish we had found a way to keep the initial song’s lyrics—the sentence structure is much simpler, and the message is more evocative of our roots. These two qualities would likely produce more riveting public performances, allowing artists to demonstrate their talents and emotions with far more confidence. As it stands, most of us will prepare for each rendition of our current anthem with continual trepidation.

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  1. Part of the problem is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not the poem’s original name–it was “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” a clear reference to a specific battle at a specific time and place. The newer title seems to make it about the American flag in the abstract, which definitely makes the details pertinent to that specific battle confusing.

    And as a military historian, yeah–“rockets” ( and “bombs” ( mean different things in this context. And the ramparts in question of those of Fort McHenry, as viewed from far away during the nighttime siege.

    Oh–and awesome post.

  2. I’m frankly kind of surprised at all the fuss over the anthem being hard to understand. I never had any problem, though I also come from a family of teachers who play with words like other families play with video games. I do agree with Jordan, though, that having some historical context makes it much easier. Unfortunately, American history classes leave much to be desired.

    On that historical note (pun fully intended), “Hail Columbia” was actually more commonly used as an anthem than “Our Country ‘Tis of Thee” in official settings until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was officially adopted in the 1930s.

    Scott Buchanan
  3. Scott, I actually thought I was one of the few making such a fuss. It seems like most people are lambasting her for forgetting the words. I would need to see some home video to verify that you “never had any problem” with the lyrics, but that might be painful for both of us. Regardless, thanks for the clarification about the earlier anthem. I changed my wording to specify that “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” was unofficial.

    Jordan, yeah, the original title definitely helps to set the actual scene. And the idea that ramparts were being “watched” from afar makes sense, but is perhaps all the more confusing since the sentence is already about seeing/watching the flag. So it seems to imply their attention was torn between the ramparts and the flag but they were in the same field of vision. Brain… hurting…

  4. Good point–that does seem confusingly redundant.

  5. I’d like to see you thumb through Soul-Stirring Songs and Hymns one of these days – that would provide enough blogging material to last a decade.

    Funny sidenote on “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” – I was in a conducting class going through vocal warmups with my volunteer guinea-pig choir, and just as I instructed them to hum that song (to warm up the resonators, I believe), I happened to catch a fleeting look of confusion on the face of the one girl out of the bunch I knew was from England. Before I could correct myself the professor jumped in and supplied the alternate (original?) name for the benefit of the non-colonials in the room. After class I got a brief lecture on the dangers of ethnocentrism in an increasingly international culture. :)

  6. Another problem (aside from the tortured syntax) is the way the words fit with the music. The music has an AAB structure, i.e. it has a phrase that is repeated identically and then a (longer) section that isn’t repeated. More often than not with this type of structure you would have a very clear syntactical break after the end of the first A and often strictly parallel construction in the syntax of the two A phrases.

    Here what you have is a mess: the first A section works fine syntactically (‘O say, can you see by the dawn’s early light/What so proudly we hailed by the twilight’s last gleaming’). But there is no break (although these first lines would be a complete sentence on their own ) and the second A is a mishmash made all the more difficult to parse because the tune sets up the expectation that the syntax will be as straightforward as it was in the first A section. But instead the syntax is really odd: ‘Whose broad stripes and broad stars–through the perilous fight/o’er ramparts we watched–were so gallantly streaming’. (I’ve put in the dashes to set off the subordinate prepositional phrase which I think can only be parsed the way you parse it, even if almost everyone, logically enough, wants the flag to be the direct object of watched.)

    This mess came about for two reasons: (a) Francis Scott Key wasn’t a good poet and (b) the ‘Ode to Anacreon’ (the tune) wasn’t written for these particular words.

  7. James, thanks for backing me up. I laughed at least thrice as I read your comment.

  8. Thrice is good. Maybe not as good as (hmm…) frice…?

  9. I actually think that she should have embraced the botched singing of the anthem and used it as an opportunity to get more exposure for her own music. She could have done renditions of other songs she could intentionally botch for laughs on Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, Late Show, done the interview circuit… For fun and light hearted self deprication As long as she can get them to feature some of her own music. Haters will be haters, so why not use the momentum to your advantage.

    Me being a marketer, there is no such thing as bad press, if you know what to do with it. Fortunes are made from bad press. Might be too late now given it was a month ago.

    Right now, she has 800 followers on twitter, so whats the worst that can happen?

  10. Quote: “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” –> “the weapon fire from the overnight battle lit up the sky just enough to indicate that the flag was indeed at the same spot.”

    Hmm, I think there’s a smoother, more poetic interpretation than that, namely, the fact that they’re still fighting (i.e., you still are hearing a bunch of bombs) means that the flag is still standing, i.e., the British weren’t successful yet in taking over the fort. It’s what you’re definitely *hearing* that is giving proof, not what you may or may not be seeing. This interpretation is also strengthened a bit by the first two lines of the anthem, which suggest that one couldn’t see the flag between sunset the previous evening and sunrise the current day.

  11. Excellent point!

    The only argument against it (I think) is that the environment could have been similar to a “capture the flag” match from Halo, etc. In which case all the artillery fire COULD have lit up the landscape enough to see the flag, and the song is asking whether or not the flag was in a visibly “captured” state.

    But I do favor your interpretation.

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