Posted by: David Stewart | September 1, 2008

In the Form of a Question

When I was growing up, we sang the national anthem every morning at the start of school. By the time I became an adult, the Star Spangled Banner was pretty much old hat to me. Although we learned the story of how the words came to be written, the story of the defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, it didn’t have much significant meaning to me.

Then came our own Fort McHenry moment of our generation: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Rather than tear the nation apart, it unified us and reminded us of our common ground as Americans. The American flag started appearing on cars, on T-shirts and in front of houses. The Anthem started taking on more meaning.

Even today, as the emotional intensity of 911 has faded some, the playing of the Star Spangled Banner can evoke strong emotions from me, even at times, tears.

Part of why the Anthem has become more significant is it says a lot about what it means to be a part of this nation.

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

For one thing, it is probably the most unusual national anthem in the world, because the entire first verse is an unanswered question. Remember, the lyrics to the Anthem were written by an American who had been taken captive by the British during the war of 1812, and was being held prisoner on a British warship in Baltimore Harbor while Fort McHenry was being bombarded. As night falls, the US is still in command of the Fort, as evidenced by the large American flag flying over its fortifications. The poem asks a British soldier on deck whether the Fort has fallen yet. Is the flag still flying? Has the invasion been complete? Do we still have command over the Fort?

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

This is the Question that forms the first verse. Even though the music to which the words have been set seems to reach a resolution, the question remains unanswered. Is it flying? Are we defeated?

Thanks to Wikipedia.org, I rummaged through the lyrics to a large number of current national anthems. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_anthems) Most of them can be summarized as “My homeland is wonderful, the people are wonderful, I will always be loyal and protect my homeland,” etc. Actually, the only “question” I could find was the Czech national anthem, which asks “where is my home?” but it is answered by the end of the verse (“The Czech land, my home!”)

There is evidently something uniquely American about this – we are forever questioning ourselves, reinventing ourselves. Never satisfied with the answers we came up with before, we constantly ask the unanswered question, are we complete? Have we prevailed?

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

Note also that the question is asked in the context of exploding missiles and bombardment. Without the glaring light of travail, we would be unable to see whether we have prevailed. In a sense, when Americans get too comfortable, if misery is too far from us, we stop thinking as clearly about what binds us together. That is why the attacks of 911 caused so much renewed patriotism. It is because we as a nation are defined in a sense by the tribulations that we suffer under.

I hope that this doesn’t mean that we are doomed to forever be defined only by war-making. The adversary might be a belligerent nation, but it might be the tribulations of poverty and disease. We can be just as unified and defined by the need to defeat our dependence on fossil fuels if we are so motivated. Nevertheless, comfort does not define us, it is pain.

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

The Anthem actually has more verses – four of them in fact. The other verses attempt to put on some kind of bravado in the face of an overwhelming foe, and struggle with the concepts of freedom. But it is this first verse, and it’s beautiful, unanswered question that not only defines us as a people, it brings a lump to my throat when I hear it ever more to this day.

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  1. […] 27, 2006.  I started in those days on LiveJournal, because its what my daughters used. When I moved to WordPress in September 2008, I set the tag line to “Running, Technology, Christian Spirituality and Running” since […]


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