O Say Can You Hear? A Look at Our National Anthem’s Poetic Roots

american flag

This weekend, many Americans will gather with loved ones to commemorate our country’s heritage by firing up the grill, admiring some fireworks, and attempting to sing one of the most difficult songs in the English language. “Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as our national anthem in 1931, and its soaring melody and densely packed lyrics have been tripping up those tasked with performing it ever since.

The song’s unusual syntax can be partially attributed to the fact that it was originally a poem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Indeed, the leap from poet to songwriter seems like a short one, but this factoid about our national anthem got us wondering what other poems have inspired or been set to music.

It turns out many of our greatest poets have had their musical moment in the sun. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” was set to music by Natalie Merchant in 2005. The Shakespeare-penned song, “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which is performed by Amiens and Jacque in his play As You Like It, was covered by Donovan on his album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967. But the poet with a particularly deep musical legacy is Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s work has been inspiring composers and musicians across a broad range of genres for over a century. In 2003, Lou Reed released an album called The Raven that features spoken-word interpretations of Poe’s writing from actors including Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe and references to Poe’s work appear in songs from artists ranging from Bob Dylan to the White Stripes.

O say can you see the link between poetry and music?

What other poems would you like to hear set to music? And who would you like to perform them?


  1. Lily Mae -  September 5, 2016 - 1:59 am

    I am a white female and I must say, after now knowing the entire anthem, I am appauled that an anthem of a country would speak of slavery and conquest…. The blacks shouldn’t stand. Would us(whites) if it were an anthem speaking of the slavery and death of our people?

    • Elizabeth -  November 10, 2016 - 8:49 pm

      You misunderstand the verse. In the context of the War of 1812, verse 3 asks where the British troops are, where is the foe who boasted they would destroy our country. Then it refers to those same people as ‘hirelings’ and slaves of their sovereign king. Key was saying, ‘They don’t have a voice in their gov’t as we do. They’re just slaves of their king, and they came here threatening to destroy our democracy, our country. Well, there was no place for them to run, no way to hide from the grave they found here.’ Context matters; without it, you’ll misunderstand what someone was trying to say, as you’ve done here.

  2. Kathy Peck -  September 1, 2016 - 6:19 am

    Everyone who has doubts about the Star Spangle Banner must visit the location, Fort McHenry, that inspired the words…..with a good tour guide. I sang the song for years but since visiting Fort McHenry and learning the story behind the song, I can not sing it without tearing up due to patriotism, love of both country and freedom from oppression for all. We still have a long way to go to live up to the ideals in the poem. The poem itself captures a moment in our country’s history that exemplifies our bravery, quest for freedom, and pride in accomplishment. Very moving. Anyone who criticizes the words must not have visited Fort McHenry. Please don’t criticize the poem unless you have visited Fort McHenry first and expanded your experiences and questioned your prejudices. Thank you.

    • Gwen -  September 3, 2016 - 8:15 am

      I’ve been to Fort McHenry and had an excellent tour guide. Knowing that those who were holding that flag in place were Black slave women and children forced to hold it in the middle of bombings and gunfire; allows my opinion that our nation should hold them in hire esteem.

      Slavery…African Americans (Black people, People of color) should get over it? That’s like telling the Jewish the holocaust never happened. Or worse yet, get over it. How much insult shall continue the injury. We teach our sons and daughters about the fight for freedom and equality, yet we live here in the US and are treated so poorly. Land of the free and brave? Cowards!! Crooks!! Cast outs from British…Stole an entire country with no remorse…250 years and still no remorse…Oh say, can you see?

      • Charla Sisk -  September 9, 2016 - 11:47 pm

        It was hirelings(white Irish slaves) and black slaves who held that flag too. Irish people love America despite knowing many women and children Irish were torn from their families after their husbands were killed by the British and sold into slavery for less than blacks plus treated horribly and raped by their masters. Yet, the Irish people have moved forward and still love America. We still love the American flag. Oh say, can you see?
        Blacks need to stop trying to always find someone or something to blame for their communities inability to work together to build each other up.

        • George Kennedy -  September 14, 2016 - 3:23 am

          The last time we as black Americans tried to build our community and live our lives as a free race of people whites burned it down . Check your history on the black wall Street

        • CaRita Creamer -  September 21, 2016 - 4:25 pm

          Finally, someone with knowledge. Thank you so much Charla Sisk.
          I do not know why some people think people of color were the only ones in slavery. Slavery came in every race and slave owners came in every race.
          KNOWLEDGE is POWER.

          • Fig fig -  September 30, 2016 - 5:31 am

            There is a big difference between indentures and slaves. White in this country were never labeled as slaves, so to say that that Irish person has knowledge just say you lack knowledge of real history

        • Jacqueline -  September 29, 2016 - 9:38 am

          Your rhetoric is so expected since you Still benefit from the Privilege afforded to you because of the wealth Slavery brought to this country . Know history period . Slave were not considered Human (but) property . Therefore when Key wrote the poem blacks were neither free nor human according to Slave owners. Now as for as the Irish goes they were indentured servants not slaves . Blacks were not given or allowed CHOICE being Taken from their homeland. Great Jedi mind trick . Blacks still need the Oppressor to acknowledge they are Opressing an entire People.

        • Jay Benford -  October 1, 2016 - 6:32 am

          I don’t think blacks are saying we don’t love America, because indeed i do however, i also dont see the irish being unarmed and gunned down by the ppl who are supposed to protect and serve. Ppl are so up in arms about this, but these same ppl sit by quietly as these murders happen. Why? If youre quick to speak out about this but silent when these sort ifv things happen them you are a part of the problem. Be just as vocal when you see an injustice

    • Paul Blackburn -  September 11, 2016 - 1:55 pm

      You say not to criticize the song. But you must respect anyone’s right – not to stand – that knows the words of this hypocritical song that say’s, ” Is the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” – Is the land of the in-slaved, and the home of original terrorist’s. Go visit some of those places where white people skinned black people alive, and cut their fingers off to keep them from climbing the chains that they were tethered to, as they were being burned alive, as they cut their testicles off. That’s the place you need to visit. Show some sympathy for that. I hope he never stands for the ” Strat Spangle Banner,” until he feels American’s got the point and the message.

  3. Diane Downham -  August 28, 2016 - 8:17 am


    The 3rd verse refers to the slaves that were offered freedom by the british if they would come and fight for them. So many did, figuring that freedom in canada or england would be better than slavery in USA……There is a reason that you never hear these other verses sang……much less spoken of. There is such a long and nasty history of racial tension in this country, we no longer NEED to sing about it and glorify it…….Our National Anthem needs to be changed . We are the ONLY country on this planet whose national anthem speaks of war…bombs…. slavery…and conquering other nations should our cause be just……..


    • Dian Ross -  September 11, 2016 - 12:02 am

      I totally agree with Diane Downham!
      Time to find a new song America….my children sing the National Anthem at every swim meet, never again. We never knew about the other verses. We will not sing and patronize a song that boasts about fighting our ancestors (or any culture) that wanted to be free. No “sane” person (black, white, red or yellow) would sing a song knowing that it’s origin was about suppressing their culture. So I agree, its time for a new song America, otherwise we’ll never be able to even begin working on race relations in America!

  4. msfwh -  July 16, 2016 - 6:18 am

    The bullet stricken flag was in shreds and was still standing because the people were, in the end, holding it up, many were woman and children. This song is representative of the true spirit of America. May it last as long as our great country.

  5. Bernard Fisher -  July 5, 2016 - 3:09 pm

    I would respectfully disagree with Christian on the point that the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ necessarily glorifies war. I understood it recognized adversity and defiance against a superior foe at the battle for Fort McHenry. The flag flown proudly throughout that night withstood the bombardment against what would seem impossible odds. Without glorifying war would that not be a lesson for a young nation not to capitulate and stand up for what you believe in? I believe when Keys wrote of that battle which was so fierce he didn’t believe the flag, which to him represented the ‘free and the brave’, had a chance. To him, as a captive witnessing the bombardment to see that flag flying next morning must have filled him with extraordinary pride and should serve as a reminder to you all that in troubled and seemingly impossible times look to what your flag represents and how your nation was born. ‘America the Beautiful’ can still stand then as the repository of that belief.

    • Sharon -  August 3, 2016 - 8:46 am


  6. Jehanna -  July 22, 2013 - 9:18 am

    Here’s a question for the nation: how many verses does your national anthem have? ;)

    (P.S. It has at least four. I’m not sure if there are more.)

    • Kent Hammerstrom -  July 2, 2016 - 11:16 am

      The Star-Spangled Banner
      O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
      What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
      Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
      O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
      And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
      Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
      O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

      On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
      Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
      What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
      As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
      Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
      In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
      ’Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

      And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
      That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
      A home and a Country should leave us no more?
      Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
      No refuge could save the hireling and slave
      From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
      And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

      O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
      Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
      Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
      Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
      Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
      And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
      And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
      O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

  7. Christian -  July 8, 2013 - 9:54 am

    I believe we should replace ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ with ‘America, the Beautiful.’ The former selection glorifies a war and boils down to two questions: “Can you see the flag? Is it still there?” The latter song extols the beauty of our nation, real stuff to value and be proud of.

    • Pamala -  July 1, 2016 - 11:21 am

      I agree and I have carried that question for more than 50 years . In addition , it’s much easier to elicit a celebratory group.

    • j.f.a. -  July 3, 2016 - 9:17 pm

      “Glorifies war” is a recent talking point that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Read the history behind the song.

    • Carmen McQuade -  August 29, 2016 - 6:30 pm


  8. Ole TBoy -  July 5, 2013 - 12:20 pm

    America the Beautiful would be a finer National Anthem. And anyone and everyone can sing it. Very democratic.

  9. Laurel R -  July 5, 2013 - 6:58 am

    A portion of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“What a piece of work is man….”) is performed in the musical Hair as part of another song (I can’t remember just which one…..)

  10. Janice -  July 5, 2013 - 6:33 am

    If we sung the song more often it would become easy.
    Everyone should sing it at the ballgames. all of us should sing it at the fire works display…

  11. Hot Rails -  July 4, 2013 - 12:44 pm

    Don’t forget about the metal band Iron Maiden putting Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to music.

  12. SONGS-POETRY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  July 4, 2013 - 11:42 am

    [...] ‘Songs-Poetry’ or Bob Marley simply Jamming — While the rest of us are Cramming — For some or another shot at Critical Thinking and Poetic Injustice — Always looking over some shoulder — Awkwardly linking — Below the Fold over or otherwise They Bust US. — They — That’s Everybody Else — For no other than another reason we be human — So of Course nobody else will Trust US — That’s a Sword that Cuts both Ways — Everyone wants to sell us something — Whether be Religion, Sugar or a Rhyme — Will it be like this until the End of All Days? — We Just don’t have the time. — Songs-Poetry — It seldom ever pays. — If not in esoteric ways. –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on July 4, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

    • Sharon -  August 3, 2016 - 9:07 am

      OMGosh, you give me a great feeling that someone out there is or seams to be pondering the possibilities of how, when where and most importantly Why things were happening and what it actually took to try to make it and live another day. Just a few more minutes or 60 years is all it comes down to, using our brains and heart, compassion together.

  13. Cyberquill -  July 4, 2013 - 8:30 am

    I’d like to hear Johnny Cochran’s “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” set to music and performed by Nat King Cole.

    • floating doc -  July 5, 2015 - 5:24 am

      Virgil Thompson set a group of Robert Frost poems to music in a song cycle called Frostiana.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top