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The Star-Spangled Banner Verse You've Probably Never Heard

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The Star-Spangled Banner Verse You've Probably Never Heard

The Star-Spangled Banner Verse You've Probably Never Heard

The Star-Spangled Banner Verse You've Probably Never Heard

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/518876922/535530514" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Many Americans have no idea there are actually four official verses to the "Star-Spangled Banner" — and even fewer know about a little-known, unofficial fifth verse, written a half century later by poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. It goes like this:

When our land is illum'd with Liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain'd who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.

Holmes wrote this extra verse, long after Francis Scott Key wrote the original. The U.S. was in the grip of civil war, and unlike the familiar verse, it's not about a foreign enemy. It's about the foe from within:

Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!

"He wrote that fifth verse, I believe, with real sorrow at what was happening to his country," explains Stephen Mucher, education professor at Bard College.

Mucher says Holmes' words have new relevance today. "The divisions that we had in this country in 1861 are similar to what we have now," he says.

Of course, it was actual war back then. This verse, which circulated throughout the north, contained hope for the future:

By the millions unchain'd who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!

"The millions unchain'd" is looking ahead to the emancipation of enslaved people.

Mucher says he can't imagine a country without "O Say Can You See." But he'd like for people to sing both the first and the fifth stanzas, as a way for us to unite around the principles of the constitution — both in pride and protest.