Textual Analysis (Silly Alert!).

Biblical scholarship is a very difficult field of study, requiring expertise in many areas. One of the most challenging aspects of understanding the true meaning of Biblical (or any ancient) text is making sense of the wording in the context of the contemporary cultural and linguistic milieu of the period in question. As an example of the perils and trials of textual analysis, lets take this example of a future study of an obscure American text from the early 19th century.

The text is written in the form of a poem, but many authorities believe it was a song. Some scraps showing musical notation associated with parts of  the text have survived, but the fact that all attempts to actually sing the melody indicated by these notes is virtually impossible has led to strong doubts that this poem was actually ever sung. At least not to the tune as notated.

The text follows along with commentary on its analysis.

Title: The Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see,
By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?

Here we are being asked if we can see something in the light of the dawn. Since there is no specification of what we are being asked about, we cannot give a definitive answer. The only clue seems to be that it was something that was hailed – perhaps a taxi cab, or Julius Cesar, at the end of the shining of the twilight. So this must mean (since Julius Cesar was long dead at the time) that we are being asked if we can still see the taxi cab that brought the group of people referred to as “we” home the previous evening, and then parked outside their house in the early dawn. Generally cabs would  not have  stuck around all night outside of the house they delivered people to, so the answer must be no.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming?

So apparently, this taxi cab which is the subject of the first stanza was covered in stripes and decorated with stars, which sounds bizarre (almost all NYC taxicabs were painted yellow for unknown reasons or significance), but then again, so is the idea that people would hail a taxi cab with pride. Maybe there was something special about the cab. The perilous fight is easy. Ever try to get a taxi in midtown NY at the height of the rush hour? It probably wasn’t any easier back then. There is no possible clue to what ramparts they watched over (assuming that the omission of the “v” in “over” has some reason). And it appears that the stripes and stars in the first line were streaming, which makes the appearance of this taxi cab even more bizarre. And why the word “gallantly”, unless it refers to the driver who managed to get them home?

And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.

This is really a stumbling block. Its either allegorical (I mean Manhattan can be rough, but rockets and bombs didn’t generally glare and burst in the streets) or this entire incident occurred on July 4th, which actually also fits the last line, since flags were also displayed on that national holiday. The third line is hopelessly obscure. The issue of proof is completely outside of anything related to the rest of the piece.

O say, does that star-spangled
Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave

This last stanza seems to hold some important keys, since it contains the title of the piece (the star spangled banner). Again, as in the first stanza it asks a question, which seems impossible to answer or even understand. Banners are flags (see previous stanza) but what does this have to do with our taxi cab? “Star spangled” is clearly an idiom whose meaning is lost to history, although it might relate to the stars painted on the taxi (see above). The last two lines are extremely difficult. It appears that this banner may or may not be waving over two places, whose descriptions are… well much too general to give any clues about their precise location. The land of the free could be almost anywhere, depending on who exactly (humans? Animals?) are the free creatures referred to. As for home of the brave, well that could be the subjects (“we”), since they did venture out into the night of July 4th in New York City, found a bizarrely decorated taxi, and made it home in one piece. In conclusion, this text is most likely an insignificant personal record of a wild night in New York on a national holiday that clearly involved considerable loss of cognitive function on the part of the writer, probably due to intoxication.


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10 Responses to Textual Analysis (Silly Alert!).

  1. jongarvey says:

    Great stuff, Sy! It reminds me of a friend of mine who did a scholarly analysis of “Bye bye Miss American Pie,” that line being a clear scribal error in an original about a famine which said, “Biye! Biye! [a cry of woe], I miss a merry canned pie!”

    It also contained such gems as “What is a “levee” but a mustering of troops?”

    All too close to some of the critical biblical commentaries of the previous century.

    • Thanks Jon. Since you are now an official Biblical Scholar (as well as everything else) that means a lot coming from you. Speaking of which, I am working on the review for PSCF, Any reader who hasnt gotten it yet, be sure to buy “God’s Good Earth” by Dr. Garvey.

  2. This reminded me of the words of an old friend who told me that he had very nearly gone into the Episcopal priesthood (instead went into medicine). He said that it was important that the Bible be studied within the historical context of its writing. He felt that it was otherwise subject to being twisted around convenient narratives. To wit…

    I have to disagree with your interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” here, as I think you’ve been limited by a big city perspective. Living where there’s far less light-pollution, and considering the meaning of the intransitive form of the archaic verb “spangle”, the title of the piece very clearly refers to the vastness of the sky as we look up to it like a “banner” above our heads. The “broad stripes” refer to the motions of the sun and moon across the sky, and the countless “bright stars” are easily recognized as the “spangle” by less urban dwellers. Everything else then falls clearly into place… “rocket”-launches, the “perils” of space flight, and the “brave” people who travel “O’er” to the stars that reappear every night without fail. From the subject matter combined with the complex rhythmic pattern (or lack thereof), this is probably an industrial-metal piece about the freedom from earthly bonds achieved by courageous space-exploration.

    • Ha ha. Well, it looks there are going to be two opposing schools of thought here. The “Gartesian taxi school”, and the “Kumian space flight school”. I predict some special volumes and international conferences will be devoted to the debate between these rival versions of the truth. Get ready for WAR heretic!

  3. sallyhawksworth says:

    While admiring the industry and ingenuity of the leaders of the Gartesian and Kumian schools, I am afraid I must inform them that their interpretations stray far from the truth. If we wish to properly understand the meaning of a word in a particular line in a text from an ancient culture, we should examine the usage of the same word in other surviving texts from the same culture. And in this case we are lucky enough to have an almost complete copy of a work from the same location, that long defunct confederation known as the United States of America, composed within a few years of this fragment – the historical epic narrative “ Hiawatha”, written by that sublime poet Henry Wandsworth Longfellow. And from this work it is abundantly clear what at that period was the meaning of “brave” when used as a noun. It was the term for a male warrior of one of the tribes of aboriginal inhabitants of that continent (the people that for obscure reasons are referred to in the only surviving film about them as “Red Indians”), who at the period when Longfellow’s narrative was set, led a nomadic hunter gatherer existence, wandering from temporary settlement site to site according to the seasonal abundance of game and edible plants.

    Surely in the light of this knowledge, the meaning of the last stanza cannot be mistaken. The writer is asking whether the flag already referred to still presides over the tents of these noble savages. Are they still “free” to wander over the land and to make their homes where they will? And tragically, the answer was “No!” Even at the period when Longfellow, and the anonymous author of this fragment were writing, the “Indians” were being displaced from the lands where they had once roamed, and acts of genocide perpetrated against them. Courageously and farsightedly, the writer of this short poem has chosen to stand aside from his or her fellow invaders and protest this brutal takeover, looking back with elegiac lament on this vanishing culture. Or, possibly, what we have here is actually the work of one of the persecuted races, using the foreign language of his oppressors in order to be understood by them, in a vain attempt to beget sympathy and a change of policy.

    In the light of this explication, much that was at first sight puzzling in the earlier lines begins to make sense. The poet describes the flag, totem of this particular tribe, decorated with their traditional motifs of stripes and stars, visible by the light of the burning camp fire, that wards off the dangerous wild animals which threaten them and which they must constantly battle against, and that explosively shoots its sparks, figuratively described as “rockets” and “bombs”, high into the night air. He asks whether it is still visible in the dawn of the new age, the age of the white man. But there is no reply, indeed no one left to give a reply. And so the poem ends, heartbreakingly, in silence.

    • Wow!! What an amazing comment. Wise, erudite and profound. I hereby renounce the Gartesian Taxi interpretation and declare myself a devoted follower of the Hawksworth Native warrior school. We should begin planning a symposium to present this revelation to the academic world. A major breakthrough indeed!!

    • Hmmm… I have to admit that this Hawksworth Native warrior interpretation appears convincingly collaborated by the historical literature, while also doing away with the need to appeal to either a light-polluted sky or having to listen to any industrial-metal (thank you very much).

  4. Well, it looks like Sally wins the Silly Interpretation Contest award (the coveted SICA). All opposition has crumbled.

  5. sallyhawksworth says:

    Thank you so much for this unexpected honour, (the only literary award that I am ever likely to receive, I suspect). I could spend the next ten pages mentioning individually everyone who by exchanging two words with me at some time in the last sixty years might be supposed to have contributed to my success, but It’s been heavily hinted that I should put a sock in it, so I’ll simply dedicate my prize to the memory of Hiawatha and his people, and exit with graceful humility.☺️

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