Star spangled syntax

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In yesterday's "auldies but guidies" post, Geoff Nunberg observed that in "the unparsable 'Star-Spangled Banner' … not many people can tell you what the object of watch is in the first verse". As the subsequent discussion demonstrated, this is roughly as true of LL commenters as it is of the public at large.

Breffni tried to straighten things out by observing that Francis Scott Key has re-ordered three constituents in a confusing way:

Whose broad stripes and bright stars
1. were so gallantly streaming
2. o'er the ramparts we watched
3. thru the perilous fight

… becomes:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars
3. thru the perilous fight
2. o'er the ramparts we watched
1. were so gallantly streaming

This is exactly right, in my opinion.  It may help to further clarify the structure of this hypothesis by turning the relative clause into a stand-alone sentence, and somewhat de-poeticizing other aspects of the language:

The stars and stripes
1. were streaming
2. over the ramparts
3. throughout the fight

… becomes

The stars and stripes
3. throughout the fight
2. over the ramparts
1. were streaming

On this analysis, Key has taken a structure whose natural English order is

Subject V PP1 PP2

and rendered it as

Subject PP2 PP1 V

Is this plausible? Absolutely — Key, like other 19th-century poets, does this sort of thing all the time.

In the "Poems of the Late Francis Scott Key, Esq." (1857), we find all sorts of poetical syntax. It's especially common to see normally phrase-final elements shifted to an earlier position, often one that was well outside the norms of prosaic English syntax at the time, and seems even more artificial today:

Our fathers, who stand on the summit of fame,
Shall exultingly hear of their sons the proud story:

The particular pattern
Subject Verb X
Subject X Verb
is also common, for example in the first verse of "To My Sister":

I think of thee — I feel the glow
Of that warm thought — yet well I know
No verse a brother's love may show,
My sister!

And perhaps it's the same process iterated that gives the pattern
Subject Verb X1 X2 → Subject X2 X1 Verb
as in the second verse of the same poem:

But ill should I deserve the name
Or warmth divine, that poets claim,
If I for thee no lay could frame,
My sister!

Expressing things in the way that Breffni did, and modernizing the wording a bit, we have:

If I
1. could write
2. no poem
3. for you

… becomes

If I
3. for you
2. no poem
1. could write

[It's unclear whether "for thee" modifies the object ("lay"="poem") or the verb ("frame"="write").]

Several other lines in that same poem show a similar pattern of double inversion, e.g.

When I with thee no more must stay, […]
Ere I again on thee may gaze, […]

Without more investigation than I have time for this morning, I can't be sure Key's double inversions always show a mirror image of the normal order. Maybe this sort of thing is just general linear scrambling, not structure-dependent reversal.  On a quick scan, though, it seems to me that there's some support for the idea that poets of Key's period generally follow the patterns generated by reversing the order of sub-constituents (given constituents modified by a bit of pronominal cliticization, and a few independent archaisms), rather than those you would get by freely scrambling. Has anyone ever looked into this sort of thing in detail?

Anyhow, if you read through the rest of Key's poetic works, you'll find many other examples where normally post-verbal elements show up between subject and verb. Thus the tortured syntax required by Breffni's analysis of "Whose broad stripes and bright stars…" was normal for Key. And since none of the other analyses are syntactically coherent, this one — however difficult people these days find it — seems certain to be correct.

I'll close with another patriotic hymn, one that Key wrote to celebrate one or another of the American campaigns against the Barbary pirates between 1801 and 1815, also memorialized in another opaque ritual incantation "… to the shores of Tripoli". [See here and here for further details.]

Note that this poem uses the same anapestic tetrameter as the Star Spangled Banner, and thus could be sung to the same tune:


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    Sorry, as I just posted in the previous thread, I don't agree.

    1. The bright stars and broad stripes,
    2. [which] we watched
    3. o'er the ramparts
    4. through the clouds of the fight,
    5. were so gallantly streaming.


    1. The bright stars and broad stripes,
    4. through the clouds of the fight,
    3. o'er the ramparts
    2. [which] we watched
    5. were so gallantly streaming.

    The order is even more tortured, and the suppression of "which" would be ungrammatical in prose, but the rhetoric is better in my opinion.

    By the way, not only the meter but also the end-rhyme and internal rhyme of Key's "Song" fit the same tune as the "Banner".

    Also by the way, "of their sons the proud story" has exactly the same syntax that's so confusing in "Contre nous, de la tyrannie/ L'étandard sanglant est levé."

    [(myl) I don't think the proposed scrambling is something that Key or other poets of the period would have done. Can you give any other examples where two prepositional phrases, originally part of a relative clause, are fronted so as to appear between the head noun and the subject of the relative clause, with no relative pronoun or complementizer in view?]

  2. Geoff Nunberg said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    One point that struck me in reading the comments on my post: The idea that the object of watch is somehow the flag is plainly inconsistent not just with the syntax, as Mark noted in his comment, but with the original circumstances and the meaning of the verb. From the deck of the HMS Minden, Key and his companion John Stuart Skinner had last seen the flag clearly at twilight. During the night, it was visible only in the intermittent flashes of light from the rockets and bombs. (Actually, what was visible was another, smaller storm flag, but we can leave that aside, since Key did.) So they could catch glimpses of the flag, but they couldn't have watched it, since watching presupposes the persistence of a visual phenomenon — it would have been like trying to watch a mosquito by firelight. And once the bombardments had stopped, they could see nothing at all of the flag until the morning light revealed it (or actually, the larger flag that had been hoisted again). That is, the only thing they could have been watching during the night was the ramparts of the fort. Maybe the desire to have Key watching the flag arises from our recollection of paintings of the scene with the flag illuminated, rather than of a movie.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    Let me support Geoff's comment by quoting again from the "Letter from Hon. Chief Justice Taney, narrating the incidents connected with the origin of the song", as printed in the Poems of the late Francis S. Key, 1857:

    "He and Mr. Skinner remained on deck during the night, watching every shell […] While the bombardment continued, it was sufficient proof that the fort had not surrendered. But it suddenly ceased some time before day ; and as they had no communication with any of the enemy's ships, they did not know whether the fort had surrendered, or the attack upon it been abandoned. They paced the deck for the residue of the night in painful suspense, watching with intense anxiety for the return of day, […] and as soon as it dawned, and before it was light enough to see objects at a distance, their glasses were turned to the fort, uncertain whether they should see there the stars and stripes, or the flag of the enemy. At length the light came, and they saw that 'our flag was still there.'"

    GN: Oh, I see — so on this account it wasn't sporadic glimpses of the flag but the continued bombardment that gave proof it was there.

  4. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    An alternative reading

    Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
    thru the perilous fight,
    were so gallantly streaming
    ([as] o'er the ramparts we watched)?

    That is, 'watched' is intransitive and has no object.

    GN: Patriotism makes generative semanticists of us all.

  5. Fred said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    I'm not an American citizen and have never even thought about the "unparseability" of the Star-Spangled Banner's lyrics before yesterday, but it occurs to me that ignoring the opening lyrics maybe confuses the situation more. I read:

    O! say can you see by the dawn's early light,
    What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
    Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
    O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

    as a general question about whether the flag is visible the morning after.

    In particular, I read "What so proudly we hailed" and "Whose broad stripes and bright stars" as free relatives. In other words, I parse it all as

    Can you see (by the dawn's light) [that thing that] we hailed at twilight, [that thing] with stripes & stars that gallantly streamed throughout the fight that we were watching o'er the ramparts.

  6. John Cowan said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

    That line "Shall exultingly hear of their sons the proud story" is a pretty clear sacrifice of clarity to euphony. Changing "of" to "from" would have preserved the sense and prevented the reader from being garden-pathed by "hear of", but "from" is much heavier than "of", and the slacks in the rest of line are really slack, not just demoted.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    I don't think that the kind of inversion practiced by Key was uncommon in 19th-century poetry of the elevated sort, even in the latter part of the century. Take Dante's Paradiso, 1:22, se mi ti presti tanto, which Mandelbaum (1986) translates as "if you so lend yourself to me," but Cary (1888) as "if thou to me of thine impart so much." As late as 1905, a translation of the Jātaka by H. T. Francis (see here) has "if thou to me a gracious ear shouldst lend."

    [(myl) All of these folks were raised on Virgil and Horace and Homer, in whose languages scrambling was normal, and in whose poetry it was often pushed to the limit.]

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    If you think that the SSB is hard to sing, it's an interesting exercise to listen to the song To Anacreon in Heaven (mp3 here) and then try to sing the SSB to the same meter and tempo. This must be what F.S. Key had in mind when he produced the original. I can't claim that it throws any light on the syntax, though.

    (F.S.K.'s former law office is a short walk from my house and there's a lot of attention to him hereabouts.)

    While we're on the subject of national anthems, the German Deutschlandlied has an interesting history that repays a little research. I dunno whether it's still the custom, but when I lived there in the 50s Südwestrundfunk used to sign off with Haydn's Op.76 #3 string quartet's quiet and thoughtful version, to my mind the perfect way to perform a national anthem — no bombast whatsoever.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

    @MYL: How about one prepositional phrase?

    But, ah ! that look lives in a heart
    Unchangeable and true ;
    Take all — the maid in youth I loved
    Was, Mary, only you !

    John Galt (who is he?), "The Lady Who I Loved in Youth"

    This fits your criteria except that there's only one PP, but I don't think an additional one is much of a stretch. My reading of Key's line is a bigger stretch because he either omitted a non-restrictive "which" or treated what should have been a non-restrictive clause as restrictive. (The latter now seems more likely to me.) I haven't found any examples like that.

    Also, poetic inversions can be unique. Is there another example like my favorite from Milton, "Him who disobeys me disobeys"? Or the last two lines from this stanza from "Our Christ", by Lucy Larcom (1879)?

    In Christ I touch the hand of God,
    From his pure height reached down,
    By blessed ways before untrod,
    To lift us to our crown ; —
    Victory that only perfect is
    Through loving sacrifice, like his.

    (I take this to mean "Only that victory [that is achieved] through loving sacrifice, like his, is perfect.")

    As you say, this is language scrambling pushed to the limit.

    The letter by Roger B. Taney (who wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision, I can't help mentioning irrelevantly) doesn't mention any concern on Key's part for the ramparts or the structure of the fort.

    I too had assumed it was the light of the bombardment, not the continuation of it, that proved the flag was still there, so thanks for the correction. Key's and Skinner's inability to see the flag suggests that any watching took place at the twilight's last gleaming. If they couldn't see the flag, they couldn't have seen the ramparts very well if at all.

    [(myl) Well played; but the proposed shifts for Key's SSB still strike me as implausible.]

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    @Geoff Nunberg: Apparently your discussion of "watched" doesn't affect the interpretation, but I'm afraid I'm going to disagree with it anyway. Find counterexamples wasn't easy, but here are three:

    "The rainy eighth day of the siege faded into a black, rainswept night in which the guards could watch the clearing only by fitful lightning flashes."

    John Bakeless, Daniel Boone: Master of the Wilderness

    "Watch patterns made by lightning, sometimes straight, sometimes zigzag."

    Bernard Spodek, Olivia N. Saracho, Michael D. Davis, Foundations of Early Childhood Education: Teaching Three-, Four-, and Five-Year-Old Children

    "So says someone disturbed to be spied on
    By those bearing arms,
    Who watch her even by lightning.

    Nontsizi Mgqwetho, "Listen, Compatriots!", translated from the Xhosa by Jeffrey Opland.

    On an unrelated subject, since probably some here aren't familiar with Ayn Rand, I meant to say in my last post that I wasn't looking for information on the writer John Galt (1779–1839).

  11. Aaron Toivo said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    The intransitive-"watch" hypothesis seems syntactically plausible, but I find it difficult to accept the resulting reading. But I am not closely familiar with the history: if those who were doing the watching were doing so from behind ramparts of their own, then the reading might work. But without that, it's hard to picture how watching over ramparts would be a relevant temporal reference in the sentence. I prefer the reading in which it's a positional reference: the flag is over the ramparts that we're watching, since the rest of the stanza is quite focused on the imagery of the scene and this fits nicely into that.

  12. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

    @John Cowan: I'm not so sure. From the context, it seems that "their sons" is referring to sons who fell in battle, or at least, not exclusively to sons who did not. If I'm right about that, then "Shall exultingly hear the proud story from their sons" would make no sense; Key's speaker must mean "Shall exultingly hear the proud story of their sons." (Admittedly, it's hard to imagine a father exultant over his son's demise, however proud; but that really seems to be what the speaker is saying.)

  13. Peter Taylor said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    @Jerry Friedman, I think the Larcom quotation requires scarcely any syntactical stretching if you take "perfect" as having its alternative sense of "completed". Then it can be glossed as "victory which is only made complete through loving sacrifice, like his" as a second object to one of the verbs from the previous lines. "I touch" or "to lift us to" could fit.

  14. Jonathan Lundell said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    I don't buy the intransitive idea myself, though I remember wondering about it as a kid. I'd suggest that watch could connect to the sense 'stood watch', except that that makes even less sense with "o'er the ramparts".

    And the intransitive "watched" seems a tad passive (not in the grammatical sense), under the circumstances.

  15. Erik Zyman Carrasco said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    In If I for thee no lay could frame, I have a much easier time interpreting for thee as going with frame, not lay, suggesting that it's much easier for Modern English speakers (or at least me) to prepose normally post-head material in this (literary) grammatical system when the head is a verb than when it's a noun (even though the latter seems to be precisely what we see in …Shall exultingly hear of their sons the proud story _).

  16. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    I'm surprised that no one yet has mentioned Kurt Vonnegut's famous remark about The Star Spangled Banner in Breakfast of Champions:

    Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously. … There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

  17. Xmun said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    John Galt (1779-1839) was a Scottish poet and novelist. The late Ian Gordon, professor of English at Victoria University (and a Scotsman himself), edited two of his novels and wrote a biography — John Galt: The Life of a Writer (1972).

    As for inversions in Milton, can anything beat the distance between antecedent and relative pronoun in this passage?

    Him the Almighty Power
    Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie
    With hideous ruine and combustion down
    To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
    In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
    Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    @MYL: I think we're agreeing to disagree, but I'll add that I too find the syntax I'm suggesting implausible. However, I find the rhetoric you're suggesting implausible — why inform us that Key and Skinner are watching the ramparts, instead of that the ramparts are so proud or uncracked or well manned or something? And in verse, I'll go with the rhetoric.

    @Peter Taylor: I think you're right. I can't quite fit "perfect" with my imperfect understanding of Christian theology, but see above.

    I must apologize to Jeff Opland for writing his name "Jeffrey" and to the real John Galt for changing "The Lady That I Loved in Youth" to Who. He would certainly have written whom!

    Highlights from Key's verse:

    "Low before thy footstool kneeling,
    Deign thy suppliant's prayer to bless."

    That needs not only drastic reordering but of the suppliant as well.

    [the beech tree]
    "Carved on whose trunk the faithful vows appear
    Which Delia heard not with disdainful ear ;
    There, by the riv'let's side, we'll careless lay,
    And think how transient is a lover's day ;"

    Was her ear disdainful or not? And I was surprised to see intransitive lay in this elevated 19th-century context. (The following lines contain no object for "lay".)

  19. Rosie Redfield said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    Might they have been watching-over the ramparts (i.e. making sure that the ramparts were still doing their job)?

    [(myl) That was what I meant by suggesting "a figurative application of OED sense 10.a.'To guard against attack …'". But I think that the more common modern sense 11 "To keep (a person or thing) in view in order to observe any actions, movements, or changes that may occur" is more likely.

    In any case, we've amply demonstrated Geoff's point that among a group of thoughtful and well-read people, there are at least half-a-dozen different theories of the basic syntax (and thus the meaning) of the Star Spangled Banner's first verse.]

  20. Thomas Thurman said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 9:25 pm

    This sort of weird inversion in hymns, I think, is in The Orators what Auden was satirising, with the lines:

    Not, Father, further do prolong
    Our necessary defeat.

  21. John Cowan said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

    Ran Ari-Gur: I brain-farted on that one. Changing "of" to "from" would prevent the inverted reading, not compel it.

    Xmun: I think it's Northrop Frye who says that the function of Milton's contorted syntax is to get his images in the order he wants them without, technically, making his text ungrammatical. If he had lived in the 20th century he would have been an imagiste, and Paradise Lost would be three lines long.

  22. Breffni said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 7:19 am


    we've amply demonstrated Geoff's point that among a group of thoughtful and well-read people, there are at least half-a-dozen different theories of the basic syntax (and thus the meaning) of the Star Spangled Banner's first verse.

    That's certainly true. But I don't think anyone's offered a grammatical argument against the "rampart-watching" interpretation. The only objections to it are that it's implausible or banal. But either (a) that's nonetheless what Key meant and he expressed it grammatically, if clumsily, or else (b) he meant something else and produced word salad, language so shapeless that in Language Hat's view (previous thread) it can carry three or four competing readings none of which comes out on top. I'm in camp (a): poetic misdemeanour (if even that), not catastrophic syntactic and semantic collapse.

  23. army1987 said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    The only interpretation making syntactically sense that I can see is with "we watched" being a relative clause modifying "the rampants"… I'll have a read at the earlier thread and the comments to it.

    [(myl) I agree with you, and I think that Geoff does as well, but there seem to be plenty of others who have different opinions.]

  24. Bloix said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    Mark's comment that "All of these folks were raised on Virgil and Horace and Homer" hits the nail on the head, I think. All educated men of Key's day would have been brought up to read and translate Latin poetry. Latin, being an inflected language, doesn't require strict word order – you can scamble word order pretty freely without affecting comprehensibility. English, being uninflected, provides the information about which clauses are subject, which verb, and which object, by putting them in order, and therefore rearranging them creates ambiguity and confusion.

    But if you're writing poetry with meter and rhyme, being able to put the words in different orders greatly increases the available rhymes and rhythms and makes your job much easier. Plus, when you use unnatural orders, your poetry feels and sounds Latinate, which makes it seem more elevated and formal and imposing.

    I would guess that an early 19th-century reader, brought up on English word-for-word trots to aid in learning Latin, would have found Key pretty easy to parse. It may be our lack of familiarity with Latin poetry that causes us difficulty.

  25. The Ridger said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: (Admittedly, it's hard to imagine a father exultant over his son's demise, however proud; but that really seems to be what the speaker is saying.) There is a wealth of patriotic writing and poetry which assumes that fathers (and mothers) will exult over their dead sons' bravery. I suppose it's all part of getting young men to go and die.

  26. language hat said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    I would guess that an early 19th-century reader, brought up on English word-for-word trots to aid in learning Latin, would have found Key pretty easy to parse. It may be our lack of familiarity with Latin poetry that causes us difficulty.

    I disagree. I've read lots of Latin and Greek poetry, and I still find it unparseable, for the good and sufficient reason that English, unlike Latin and Greek, does not have case endings to clarify the syntax. It's very likely that immersion in Latin inspired this sort of tortured writing, but the end result does not have the clarity of Latin; pushed too far, as here, it's simply a mess. I can see the arguments for "ramparts" as object, but there will never be agreement on it, and that's the fault of the author, not of the inadequate Latinity of degenerate modern readers.

  27. Mary Bull said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    @Breffni, who commented,
    'we've amply demonstrated Geoff's point that among a group of thoughtful and well-read people, there are at least half-a-dozen different theories of the basic syntax (and thus the meaning) of the Star Spangled Banner's first verse.'
    That's certainly true. But I don't think anyone's offered a grammatical argument against the 'rampart-watching' interpretation. The only objections to it are that it's implausible or banal. But either (a) that's nonetheless what Key meant and he expressed it grammatically, if clumsily, or else (b) he meant something else and produced word salad, language so shapeless that in Language Hat's view (previous thread) it can carry three or four competing readings none of which comes out on top. I'm in camp (a): poetic misdemeanour (if even that), not catastrophic syntactic and semantic collapse.":

    I'm in camp (a), too, and pleased to be in such distinguished company as yourself, MYL, and Geoff Nunberg. From a very young age I had no difficulty understanding the lines of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Very convoluted old hymns from the Victorian era were constantly in my ears, and the poetry I was given to read in my childhood and teen years was mostly 19th century. Never studied Latin (though my parents did), but the syntax of all those Victorian poets was in my eyes and ears so early that it feels like my native speech.

    So, I'm glad to have been right (as it apparently seems to a number of the learned and intelligent commenters to this and the previous thread) about the relative clause attached to "ramparts," even though I made so many mistakes as I tried to point out the historical circumstances when I commented on Geoff Nunberg's post: christening Adm. Cockburn a Gen., jumping to a conclusion about the image of the poem in Key's handwriting, not realizing that it was the bombardment itself proving that the fort hadn't fallen, rather than the light from the exploding ordnance. But I'm thankful that much better read people than me, like Mark Liberman, followed up with even clearer historical references. I myself was being indoctrinated with all this American history by the time I entered third grade. Feels very important to me, even though I'm now far from the unquestioning patriotism with which I sang this national anthem as a child.

  28. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

    I always said that English would regret dropping case inflection. One of the few attractive aspects of German grammar is the ability it gives to poets to fiddle with word order. It's a pleasure to watch Bertolt Brecht at work.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    @Xmun: Sorry, I tried to stop people from thinking that my Ayn Rand reference was a real request for information.

    An interesting thing about your Milton quotation is that the separation of relative pronoun from antecedent isn't metrically necessary. Milton could have written

    Him who durst defie
    Th' Omnipotent to Arms, the Almighty Power
    Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie…

    In John Frederick Nims's poetry textbook Western Wind, he quoted these lines up to "perdition" and commented "This is upside-down—but so was Satan."

  30. Rod Johnson said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    GN: Patriotism makes generative semanticists of us all.

    Ha! That means generative semantics is the last refuge of the scoundrel, just like Ray Dougherty suggested.

  31. Xmun said,

    January 3, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Has anyone ever written a novel with a fictitious character in it called Ayn Rand? I hope so!

    Thanks to Jerry Friedman for his enjoyable quotation from John Frederick Nims.

    [(myl) Perhaps it's a bit *too* fictitious, but there's Ayn Rand's Adventures in Wonderland…]

  32. Nathan Myers said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    For a modern example of tortured order, consider "The Queen and the Soldier", by Suzanne Vega. There's a clear narrative hiding in there, but you have to scramble the lines pretty thoroughly to reconstruct it. (The people who like the song best seem to take longest to recognize it.) Maybe the scrambled order demands that it be memorized before it can be understood fully, and that makes it seem more profound. I wonder what other works use this method.

    It reminds me a bit of that trick where the interior letters of words are randomly exchanged without impairing comprehensibility. People feel very proud of being able to read that stuff, despite that everybody else can too.

  33. language hat said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    I don't get it. I just read the lyrics you link to and it seemed a completely straightforward narrative. Soldier visits young queen to ask why she's sending him off to fight, she can't/won't answer, they're attracted to each other, she's bothered by the attraction so she asks him to wait for a moment, then has him killed. What am I missing?

  34. David Conrad said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 9:28 am

    @Nathan Myers: It isn't quite the same phenomenon, but there are a few French songs that I was listening to for practice that aren't quite stylistically my cup of tea, and because my comprehension was low, I had gotten to know the song pretty well and started to like it before I realized that it was the sort of pop song that I don't generally care for (À la vie, à la mort by Ève is one such example).

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    @language hat: Like the letters at the ends of words, the broad outlines of the narrative are in place, but individual events are scrambled. He brings her head down to the ground, and then after that takes her to the window to see. We only notice the crown falling at the end, though it must have fallen at the beginning. The more you look, the more such details there are to find. You can rearrange lines to make it all make linear sense, but it loses something.

  36. Breffni said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    Mary Bull: I have to agree with Language Hat that the grammar is pretty muddled and it's hardly surprising there are so many readings of it. But it's a far more interesting text once you know the background. From the very little of the song I knew, I thought it was a generic victory anthem. The historical incident, and Key's experience of it, are far more interesting than that. Thanks for the pointers!

  37. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    Not really on topic, but I have had occasion to research other topics in Baltimore newspapers from the 1850s. I was given pause when I noticed a pattern of death notices of "Defenders", with no explanation. It gradually dawned on me that these were veterans of the Battle of Baltimore, and the death of one was considered newsworthy. I never thought to look for such notices in the late 1860s. I wonder if it seemed quite so newsworthy after the Civil War.

  38. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    @Breffni: I consider The Star Spangled Banner far more interesting and meritorious than other national anthems, or your typical patriotic song. Consider the question at the end of the stanza. Taken at face value it is asking about the military condition. But it asks not only if the flag is still waving, but if the flag is waving over the land of the free. So this can also be taken as a question about the condition of our freedoms.

    There is a contingent of Americans who are not entirely comfortable with this as the national anthem. Nowadays at ball games we see "God Bless America" inserted as a quasi-national anthem. "God Bless America", unlike "The Star Spangled Banner", is unregenerate pablum. In my less kind moments I wonder if these people are uncomfortable with that question.

  39. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 5, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    @ Nathan: The Suzanne Vega example isn't really the same thing. With Key we see scrambled syntax within a sentence. With Vega we have a narrative with some details revealed out of chronological order. But the detail about the crown is placed perfectly sensibly for the narrative. The soldier has had his say and the queen is considering what to do. The fallen crown is part of her consideration. It could have been mentioned earlier but the impact would be different. Key's syntax, on the other hand, probably has far more to do with meter and rhyme.

  40. Hermann Burchard said,

    January 7, 2011 @ 11:22 pm

    After seeing the question, I thought bout it for a while. My answer: What they watched was the perilous fight. (Sorry, read part of this thread, not all of it — is this view widely supported or not at all?) They did NOT watch the ramparts which where unlit, & two miles away in the night.

  41. maidhc said,

    January 8, 2011 @ 1:30 am

    There was a discussion recently in the San Francisco Chronicle about replacing The Star Spangled Banner with something a bit easier to sing and with words that people can understand. The favorites were My Country, 'Tis of Thee (another piece of unusual syntax) and America the Beautiful. The first has good words but the same tune as the Brits, the second a good tune but mentions God. My suggestion to replace the religious reference by one of the lines from the other song didn't get printed.

    I attended school in the US for a few years, but in the South, so those were the only patriotic songs we ever sang. Thus I never learned the words to The Star Spangled Banner, nor the Pledge of Allegiance (despite the fact that the word "equality" was removed from it to encourage its use in the South).

    No mention of Hail, Columbia even though it was the national anthem for something like 150 years.

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