Americans should learn the national anthem’s additional verses
Published: Sunday, August 25, 2013
Updated: Sunday, August 25, 2013 23:08
Most Americans are familiar with the first verse of our national anthem. However, very few realize there are three additional verses. This is unfortunate, because the second verse is just as important as the first, if not more significant. Although it may seem like an odd proposal, Americans should sing the first two verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” rather than just the first verse we are all familiar with.
To comprehend the reasons behind this proposal, it is important to understand the history of our national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Baltimore lawyer Francis Scott Key while imprisoned aboard a British battleship during the War of 1812. All through the night, the British bombed Fort McHenry, yet the American flag still flew over the fort. Key wrote about this in the line “And the rockets’ red glare/the bombs bursting in air/gave proof through the night/that our flag was still there.”
However, at some point in the night, the bombing stopped. It was now pitch black, so Key was unable to see whether the American flag still flew over the fort, indicating that the British had lost the battle, or whether the Americans had surrendered. This was a pivotal moment in American history. The United States was still a young, vulnerable nation. The stars and stripes flying over Fort McHenry would indicate American victory and ensure its continued survival. However, if the British Union Jack was flying over the fort, it meant Great Britain had won the battle, and would probably eventually win the War. Had this happened, the United States’ history as an independent nation would have been very brief.
By the end of the first verse, Key still did not know which flag was flying. It thus concludes with the critical question “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
It is not until the second verse, the one we do not sing, that this question is answered. The second verse was written as the sun began to rise, and Key looked out “On the shore dimly seen, through the mist of the deep.” He still did not know whether the fort had fallen. America, “the foe’s haughty host” was quiet, engulfed in what the song describes as “dread silence.”
Key again pondered which flag was flying over Fort McHenry, asking “What is that which the breeze/O’er the towering steep/As it fitfully blows/Half conceals, half discloses?” The flag, whose identity was previously unknown, suddenly “Catches the gleam/Of the morning’s first beam/In full glory reflected/now shines on the stream.” Finally, as the second verse concludes, one of the most important questions in American history is answered. “’Tis the star-spangled banner/O long may it wave/O’er the land of the free/And the home of the brave.”
When we only sing the first verse, we fail to answer Key’s question about whether our nation has survived. This ignores the history of not just the anthem, but of the United States itself. We should sing both verses at baseball games, political rallies, Independence Day concerts, and all other events where the anthem is sung.
While some might argue that it is too time-consuming to sing two verses, there are many other countries which already do so. The Netherlands sings the first and sixth verses of its 15 verse anthem, “Wilhelmus.” Australia sings the first and third verses of “Advance Australia Fair,” which was originally a four verse poem before being set to music. Greece commonly sings the first two stanzas of a 158 verse poem. It would be too impractical for any of these countries to sing their entire national anthems regularly, just as it would be difficult for America to sing all four verses every time. However, they still manage to sing more than one verse, thus honoring the true meaning of the songs. Therefore, it would not be unusual for the United States to follow a similar practice and sing multiple verses of our national anthem.
The first verse asks an important question. Knowing and singing that verse is important. But it is not enough to ask the question of whether our flag is still there. We must also answer it by learning and singing the second verse.