And then the poet repeats the injunction “Say!” and changes the question. The opening question — can you still see our flag? — is a synecdoche of sorts for a bigger question — does that flag “yet wave/O’er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”? The second question refers not only to the battle at hand, but to the destiny of the country. The question is not only whether the flag of freedom still flies over America but also whether America itself is still brave and free.
The fearful vigil through the nocturnal bombardment, the fleeting glimpse of the national colors, the moment of truth in the gathering light of dawn — these are a metaphor for the national condition. The flag enduring the enemy bombardment is only a symbol for the true subject of the poem, namely the reaction of the hearer himself. The opening “Say!” placed us at the poet’s side at dawn; the second “Say!” makes this a metaphor for the national condition. Key addresses the second “Say!” to all generations of Americans: Are you still brave enough to be free? Your national existence, implies the poet, will be a long vigil, in which America’s true character will be glimpsed sporadically in the reflection of enemy attacks.
Again, Key’s question is not rhetorical, but existential: the answer to the question depends on the response of we who hear it. There are few instances of the second person in poetry with which to compare this, although the device is very ancient. A few come to mind. One is the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:2. Another is Simonides’ epitaph for the three hundred Spartans who held the pass against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC. “O passer-by: tell the men of Lacedaemon that we died doing our duty.” The poignancy of the epitaph is that these dead men must ask a passer-by to bring the news to their homeland. The reader of the epitaph figuratively becomes the messenger. In John Donne’s familiar “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee,” the subject becomes not death in general, but the very personal death of the hearer. And the second-person address in Francis Scott Key’s anthem asks each of us: “Are you good enough to be an American?” It is a question we should ask ourselves every day.