In honor of our Nation’s Birthday, I thought it appropriate to take time out to commemorate America’s greatest One-Hit Winder Poets, Katherine Lee Bates and Francis Scott Key.
It’s probably important to remember that Bates’ “America the Beautiful” and Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” were originally written as poems and thus could, and should, be analyzed as such. By looking at the actual language Bates and Key use-- and by stripping the works of their at-times distracting nationalistic associations and patriotic accoutrements-- we may be able to gain a better appreciation of what the authors intended. More importantly, juxtaposing the two poems can give us a more complete picture of the complex, conflicting entity that is America.
Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) was a professor at Wellesley who traveled to Colorado in 1893 to teach a summer school class. While out in Colorado, she climbed to the top of Pike’s Peak; the view inspired her to compose four stanzas of “America the Beautiful.”
The poem, which originally appeared in a journal called The Congregationalist on July 4, 1895, was set to music that same year. The poem went through other incarnations: Bates tinkered with it in 1904 and again in 1913. My (limited) research uncovered t toal of eight stanzas (but to me, the first four are sufficient). You can read the "complete" poem here.
Bates, who wrote children’s books and travelogues as well as poetry, attributed the enduring success of “America the Beautiful” to the fact that “Americans are at heart idealists, with a fundamental faith in human brotherhood.” And indeed, throughout the poem, she stresses the bond between Americans. Not only is there the famous “brotherhood from sea to shining sea,” but she also suggests a bond across time; those living in America today are liked to the “stern impassioned” pilgrims who first came to America and the fallen “heroes,” the soldiers who gave their lives in “liberating strife.”
Bates also describes America as divinely blessed. We all know the “God shed His grace on thee” line from the first stanza, but she also references “God” three more times throughout the poem. And because this God is really looking out for us—shedding grace, mending every flaw— we need to return the favor. In stanza three:
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.”
To me, these lines are saying that we should not seek material success for its own sake, but instead, we should strive for “nobleness” (if that’s even a word), to be good to one another. The fruits from your acts of kindness make up the divine gain, the refined gold.
One more thing: while the section we traditionally sing definitely emphasizes the natural beauty of America (remember, the view from Pike’s peak inspired her to compose the poem in the first place), she does admit, in the fourth stanza, that cities also have a certain charm:
“O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.”
Not exactly sure what she’s getting at here. To me, it seems that she’s saying that, while still praising God’s creations, humankind is capable of creating some pretty amazing things too. She recognizes both human suffering and imperfection (“human tears”) but also human achievement—namely, the cities that “gleam.” (Plus, she gets bonus points for getting the word “alabaster” in there.)
Next up: Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”—or, its original title, “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know the story behind the poem, but here’s the quick-and-dirty version: It’s the War of 1812, and we’re fighting the British again. On September 13, 1814, a lawyer named Francis Scott Key visits the British fleet to negotiate the release of a American prisoner. During the night, the Brits began shelling Fort McHenry of Baltimore. Key awakes the next morning to find “our flag was still there.”
As with “America the Beautiful,” we only sing the first stanza of what was later called “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, Key’s poem actually has four stanzas. You can read the complete text here.
(Aside: please don’t attempt to sing the “complete” versions of either of these songs this holiday weekend, as you will probably annoy your guests. I know I personally bristle when people sing the lesser-known verses of well-known hymns—like at Christmas time, when the chorus feels the need to sing the fourth verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Come on, people: now you;re just showing off.)
Obviously, the poem is one big metaphor for America’s strength and endurance: the flag survived the battle of Fort McHenry, and we can survive anything as well. Good stuff. But if you read the actual poem, you might notice two curious things:
(1) Nowhere in the text of the poem does Key explicitly mention the word “America.” Not that he has to—he’s going for a metaphor here, after all—but it is interesting.
(2) Three of the four sentences that make up the first stanza are questions. Now, when you see the words for the National Anthem the scoreboard at Fenway Park, they leave out the question marks, but Key wrote them as questions.
Why does this matter? Well, the question marks suggest doubt. At the end of that first stanza, the narrator is not proudly proclaiming that the flag is waving over the land of the free and the home of the brave. He’s actually asking, “Does the star-spangled banner yet wave?”
Now granted, as you go on through the poem, Key answers the question: yes, the flag does still wave. In fact, the last punctuation of the poem is a rousing exclamation point. But that’s not the part we sing. We only sing the first part. Our National Anthem ends with a question.
(To stir the irony pot a little more: Key apparently wrote the poem to the meter of a popular song at the time, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The song was a drinking song—a British song. The music to our National Anthem comes from a British drinking song—and the Brits were the guys we were fighting at the time of the song’s composition!)
In 1931, two years after Katharine Lee Bates died, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that made Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States. But Congress didn’t arrive at this decision without a debate: “America the Beautiful” was definitely in the running. But I think the decision to go with “The Star-Spangled Banner” says a lot about our country’s core values.
If you juxtapose just the first stanzas of both texts—the lines we all know by heart—you see some interesting contrasts. “America the Beautiful” (written by a woman) is about beauty and brotherhood. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (written by a man) is about bullets and bombs and battles. “America the Beautiful” is set during the daytime; “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set during the night-time. “America the Beautiful” credits God; “The Star-Spangled Banner” only mentions God in the fourth stanza (which we don’t sing).
“America the Beautiful” mentions the “fruited plain,” the natural world that freely gives life; “The Star-Spangled Banner” talks about how human beings take life. It’s probably not popular to say, but it’s true: when you have “bombs bursting in air,” you have people losing their lives. Of course, the song doesn’t focus on this element, because that’s a turn-off we don’t need when we’re getting ready to watch a ballgame. But that underbelly is definitely there.
Even the colors mentioned in the song highlight the authors’ different agendas-- the “purple mountain majesty” versus the “rockets red glare.” Peace versus war.
Choosing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem sends the message that Americans are survivors, winners. Perhaps that’s why we sing it at sporting events; sports, after all, are about friendly competition, about winning and losing. You notice we don’t sing the National Anthem at other events where people get together, like movies and concerts. Why not? Perhaps because competition is a core value of this country—sometimes friendly, sometimes not so much. And “The Sat-Spangled Banner” reflects this strong, competitive, winning spirit more effectively than “America the Beautiful.”
But America isn’t just strong; it’s beautiful, too. Just because it’s one doesn’t mean it can’t be the other; you can probably say that the country’s beauty is its strength, or maybe that we need to be strong to protect our beauty. I can’t speak for all sporting events, but I know that at Fenway Park, they sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful”; Key’s song starts off the game, while Bates’ song comes during the seventh inning. Nice touch, I think—and a nod to the wonderful contradiction that is America.
(Note: This post was compiled from one of my old American Literature lesson plans. I’m not sure where I originally got all the facts and figures, but I do know it’s all pretty standard information you could find anywhere. Also, I should credit one of my former colleagues, Annie Lugthart, for pointing out to me the question marks in the first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But, lest I'm mistaken, the rest of the insights are mine, all mine!)