Most are so familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a song that they forget that it was written as a poem. Francis Scott Key was an amateur poet, not a musician. In fact, some argue that it was his brother-in-law, Judge J. H. Nicholson, who figured out how to fit the words to a popular drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven.”
If the judge did advise Key to turn the poem into a song, it was good advice; it’s doubtful that Key would have been remembered for the “Defence of Fort McHenry,” his original title for the piece. None of his other works have received critical praise, and no one has suggested that this work is any stronger than his others.
Key’s poem does, however, illustrate certain literary conventions of the period. It follows a conventional rhyme scheme (A-B-A-B-C-C-D-D), and it employs a meter common to the neo-classical poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. After an initial iambic (“O! say”), the poem’s first line delivers three anapests. An anapest is a three beat phrase consisting of two short syllables followed by an accented or long syllable (“can you see . . . by the dawn’s . . .ear-ly light”). In subsequent lines, Key throws in an occasional extra syllable—the “ing” of gleaming and streaming—, but for the most part he relies on anapests to sustain the poem’s waltz-like rhythm.
The poem’s rhythmic regularity complemented its moral confidence. Neoclassical poets like Key believed in an orderly universe in which good triumphed over evil. They also believed that art should reflect and advance this order. Poems should not confuse their readers with irregular rhyme schemes and meters, nor should they undermine the moral order of society by turning villains into sympathetic heroes or allowing evil to triumph over good. Key’s poem met these criteria. In his “Defence of Fort McHenry” the invaders who introduced the “havoc of war” are defeated, and in the end, the “star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”