O Say Can You Hear? A Look at Our National Anthem’s Poetic Roots

This weekend, many Americans will gather with loved ones to commemorate our country’s heritage by firing up the grill, admiring some fireworks, and attempting to sing one of the most difficult songs in the English language. “Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as our national anthem in 1931, and its soaring melody and densely packed lyrics have been tripping up those tasked with performing it ever since.

The song’s unusual syntax can be partially attributed to the fact that it was originally a poem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. Indeed, the leap from poet to songwriter seems like a short one, but this factoid about our national anthem got us wondering what other poems have inspired or been set to music.

It turns out many of our greatest poets have had their musical moment in the sun. Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” was set to music by Natalie Merchant in 2005. The Shakespeare-penned song, “Under the Greenwood Tree,” which is performed by Amiens and Jacque in his play As You Like It, was covered by Donovan on his album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967. But the poet with a particularly deep musical legacy is Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s work has been inspiring composers and musicians across a broad range of genres for over a century. In 2003, Lou Reed released an album called The Raven that features spoken-word interpretations of Poe’s writing from actors including Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe and references to Poe’s work appear in songs from artists ranging from Bob Dylan to the White Stripes.

What other poems would you like to hear set to music? And who would you like to perform them? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter. And be careful with those fireworks.