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


The Poem that Inspired an Anthem

The “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 has an unusual syntax because it was originally a poem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. While the Star-Spangled Banner is one of the more famous poems put to music, there are many others.

Other Poems Set to Music

It turns out many of our greatest poets inspired musicians and composers. Natalie Merchant set Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” to music 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.

The Poet Who Inspired so Much Music

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, featuring spoken-word interpretations of Poe’s writing from actors like Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe. Other references to Poe’s work appear in songs from Bob Dylan and the White Stripes.

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