On the poetic origin of the National Anthem of the United States
Originally titled “The “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, Francis Key’s poem was printed in newspapers and eventually set to the music of a popular English drinking tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven”—aka “The Anacreontic Song“—by composer John Stafford Smith.
Anacreontic poetry is described as poems “in the manner of Anacreon”, i.e. lyrical drinking songs, frivolity. While Key’s poem is a contrafactum and not itself anacreontic, the setting in which his poem was set to music was certainly a den of drink and roused excitement.
After one of Key’s friends, Dr. William Beanes, was taken prisoner by the British, Key went to Baltimore, located the ship where Beanes was being held and negotiated his release. However, Key and Beanes weren’t allowed to leave until after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Key watched the bombing campaign unfold from aboard a ship located about eight miles away. After a day, the British were unable to destroy the fort and gave up. Key was relieved to see the American flag still flying over Fort McHenry and quickly penned a few lines in tribute to what he had witnessed.
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Featured photo of historic poem written by Francis Scott Keyes via
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