‘What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?”
Can you answer the poet’s question?
You may be forgiven for not recognizing this verse from the second stanza of a poem written in September of 1814. Undeniably though the first stanza of the poem would be instantly recognized by over well over 300 million of our neighbours to the south and west. Got it yet?
Maybe the poem’s original title would help: Defence of Fort McHenry. That star shaped redoubt lies just before Baltimore, Maryland at the top of Chesapeake Bay. I can’t imagine these hints haven’t already nailed the answer down for you but just in case here is a final one.
Set to the notes of a then-popular British pub tune, The Anacreontic Song it became a melody that most here could surely hum after years of listening to Hockey Night in Canada. I probably had learned it by the end of my kindergarten year. Needless to say, the poet’s paean celebrates a flag, a star-spangled banner.
Francis Scott Key penned the words on the back of an envelope the day after witnessing the British attack on the defences protecting Baltimore from the deck of a frigate participating in the assault. Key, then a young lawyer, had been on board under a flag of truce trying – successfully as it turned out – to win the freedom of an elderly doctor captured in an earlier action.
Chance circumstances lead to Key witnessing the nighttime bombardment. It would have been hard to miss Fort McHenry’s flag. Measuring 12.8 metres by 9.1 with each of the then 15 stars on it 60 centimetres across the fort’s commander had wished “a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.” They didn’t nor did Key.
Poets can ignite a patriotism that stirs the heart and pulls the citizenry past the blunders, short-sightedness and at times outright corruption or malevolence of elected leaders. Their words can touch emotional cords that motivate and sustain sacrifice in the face of great adversity. This is as true now as during the War of 1812.
We have our own equivalents. One contemporary score, Secord’s Warning by Joe Grant and Steve Ritchie of Tanglefoot fame, celebrates the deed of the Massachusetts-born, Canadian patriot Laura Secord who, like Key, had overheard battle plans. Unlike him, though, she could warn the British and Canadian forces of the impending attack. The ensuing bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane in Ontario forced the invading Americans to retreat but not out of Upper Canada.
“So all you Yankee soldier lads who dare to cross our border
Thinking to save us from ourselves
Usurping British order
There’s women and men Canadians all
Of every rank and station
To stand on guard and keep us free
From Yankee domination.”
Somehow in today’s world afflicted by grave global problems such as the ones pointed to in a study by the International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) released earlier this week we need to shift our focus from a narrow national patriotism to one that calls us to rally to confront our common planetary crises.
The IPSO’s 27 experts authors told the United Nations: “Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, over-exploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean.”
Our poets today clearly have a role in pushing, prodding and inspiring us. What words will they use to urge us through a new global patriotism to the sacrifices now needed?
An early Happy Canada Day and Fourth of July to all.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.