July 4, 2013

Independence Day Stuff

Having lost Google Reader, I find myself today trying to make sense of Feedly and configuring it in a helpful way, hoping that doing so will save me time in the future. The process has had me identifying blogs that seem to have died and reading today’s postings on blogs I do not read with regularity. This has me thinking about Independence Day more that I usually do on the Fourth of July.

As usual, however, my day began with NPR’s Morning Edition. I was looking forward to the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence by NPR hosts, correspondents, and commentators. Morning Edition decided to do something different this year, broadcasting the usual reading but with visitors to the National Mall. I liked it better the old way, but you can find today’s version here.

Morning Edition also did an interesting story on the origin of “The Star Spangled Banner.” That reminded me of my own song that I wrote as a possible National Anthem, “Out of Many, One.” I decided not to write a blog post about it, but I did write a quick post on Facebook. (Ironically, I’m writing about “Out of Many, One” in a blog post now.)

A bit later in the day, I ran into an interesting essay from The Guardian. Daniel Hannan wrote “Why Britons should celebrate the American Declaration of Independence,” which contains some surprising revelations.

What caused me to write here today at all, however, is a post by Kendall Harmon on TitusOneNine titled “The Full Text of America’s National Anthem.” Harmon renders the familiar first stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” thusly:
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.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Curiously, I have read Francis Scott Key’s poem in many places, and seldom do I find two versions that agree with one another. Even the title is controversial. Key’s original title was “Defence of Fort McHenry.” When the poem was paired with the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” it was renamed—by whom I don’t know—“The Star-Spangled Banner” or, as it is often rendered, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The former is clearly the grammatically correct title, but it is not the most commonly used one. (Both versions can be found in the Wikipedia article about the poem. Go figure!)

Harmon’s post, however, does not even give a name to the National Anthem. Instead, what distressed me was the punctuation of the first stanza. Key’s sentence structure is complex, convoluted even, but it does make sense. (I commented on this complexity in my introductory to the Language Notes section of my Web site.) The version shown on TitusOneNine clearly makes no sense. The third and fourth lines, which are shown as a complete sentence, are nothing of the sort. Try saying “Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” to someone, and see what kind of looks you get. The first sentence must end with a question mark after line four.

Wikipedia helpfully reproduces Key’s original manuscript and the first printed version of his poem. Even these don’t quite agree, though they’re close. This seems to be the first stanza as originally intended, though one may quibble about the indentation, which is unclear in the manuscript and which, in the end, is more or less irrelevant:
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 watch’d, were so gallantly streaming?
          And the rockets’ 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?
No modern printing uses “watch’d,” but everything else seems right here. That first sentence might to recast to be, if not more natural, at least more comprehensible, as: “O say, can you, by the dawn’s early light, see what we hailed so proudly at the twilight’s last gleaming, whose broad stripes and bright stars [that] we watch’d o’er the ramparts through the perilous fight were so gallantly streaming?” Yes, that’s a tough sentence.

Finally, I am probably not alone in feeling that our National Anthem is often sung badly (or inappropriately) at public events. I’ve commented on that before, so I’ll not do so again. See my post “Getting the National Anthem Right.”

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