Our anthem ’tis of thee

Jul 082008
Authors: Seth Anthony

It’s time for another national anthem. Don’t get me wrong, “The Star Spangled Banner” is a stirring song. But as I enjoyed the Fourth of July this year, our national anthem didn’t pop into my head as I watched fireworks or hiked in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Instead, rounding a corner on the trails, my mind recalled the description written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 as she traveled across the Great Plains to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado: “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!”

“The Star-Spangled Banner” contains nothing like the imagery of America’s national beauty evoked in “America the Beautiful.” Instead of reveling in the flag, which is merely a symbol, “America the Beautiful” reminds us of the things, people and places that inspire our national pride.

Whereas “The Star-Spangled Banner” sits for four stanzas on a description of a single battle, “America the Beautiful” then moves into a prayer for grace and brotherhood: “America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”

It’s a song that is strong and proud, yet humble. It recognizes that, although this is a great country, there is still more work to be done to form “a more perfect union.”

The contrast couldn’t be stronger when compared with “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” “land of the free and the home of the brave,” which pretends the U.S. is the only country in the world that has ever been home to freedom or courage.

The second verse reflects on the pioneers who came from around this world — a nation of immigrants who struggled to make a better life for themselves: “O beautiful, for pilgrim feet whose stern, impassioned stress a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness!”

It then recognizes that personal responsibility and the form of our laws make us great, in what may be the most humble line of any national song: “America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw; confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!”

“America the Beautiful” isn’t without recognition of those who have defended our freedoms, though.

The third stanza continues: “O beautiful, for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!”

The self-sacrifice of both the Founding Father’s and centuries of veterans is honored not just for the practical benefits of defense, but also for its nobility: “America! America! May God thy gold refine, ’til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine!”

In contrast to the “The Star-Spangled Banner’s” “then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: “In God is our trust,” “America the Beautiful” doesn’t try to invoke divine approval as a mere afterthought.

“America the Beautiful” then looks beyond just the military successes of the here and now: “O beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!”

In contrast to this humility and introspection, the refrain of “The Star-Spangled Banner” reads almost like, “hey, are we still here? Yup, and we’re awesome.”

Instead of convoluted phrasing and archaic language — try to parse “o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” — “America the Beautiful” is accessible and singable. In short, it’s a better song.

It has the dignity of a hymn, instead of the raucous meandering of an anthem set to the tune of a drinking song.

It doesn’t insult the citizens of other nations that are now our allies, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” does of the British. It was the national song of choice until World War I, and it can be once again.

We don’t need to ditch “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which has been our national anthem since only 1931. But “America the Beautiful” can stand beside it as a second anthem, or as a “national hymn.” Then, perhaps, we can have a national song that isn’t best known for being butchered at baseball games.

Seth Anthony is a graduate student working towards his doctorate in chemistry. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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