Monday, July 11, 2011

Searching for a Key in Frederick

Last year after I became aware of the gravesite memorial to Francis Scott Key across the street from the Frederick Keys' ballpark, I made sure that my travel schedule would permit me to spend some time there.  Early on the date of my scheduled singing for the Keys, I drove Toad (our towed car) to Frederick to have ample time to explore the tributes to Key.  

A statue of Key stands tall at the entry to Mount Olivet Cemetery, and behind the figure is a small stone chapel erected in 1911 and named in his honor.  Inscribed on the bronze plaques around the base of the statue are the four stanzas of his poem, as well as a bronze relief of the first bars of the chorus in its most popular key of B-flat.   To make sure that all entrants into the cemetery know whom the statue represents, his name is sculpted in the hedge at its base.

The information that I knew about the composition of the poem can be summarized in a few sentences.  After watching the bombardment of Ft. McHenry by British war ships during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and occasional poet, wrote the four stanzas of “The Defence of Ft. McHenry” on September 13-14, 1814. Although the poem celebrated the courageous persistence of the American forces and their flying of the stars and stripes in the face of the British onslaught, the words became aligned with a British fraternity’s drinking tune known as “The Anacreontic Song,”  whose melody was already popular in American pubs. 
Frankly, I had wanted much more information—some participatory experience, some meaningful site to see, or some artifact to examine.  While a few of those pieces of material culture are in the Smithsonian, there is relatively little in the city of Frederick.  Its Welcome Center provides minimal information about Key in a small exhibit that also celebrates two other notable Frederick residents during the 19th century, Barbara Fritchie (more below) and Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born Christian to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Although there were houses in the community associated with these women, I was surprised that there was no museum or marker for Key other than the memorial in the cemetery. 

Flag behind Fritchie memorial.

Well beyond the entry to Mount Olivet Cemetery, a memorial to Barbara Fritchie (the preferred spelling of her name) features the lone American flag in the park.  (Since the flag at Ft. McHenry had inspired Key to write the poem, I had hoped to see a majestic flag as part of his memorial.)  A friend of Key who participated with him in a memorial service for George Washington, she is best known, however, for being the focal figure in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “Barbara Frietchie’s Defiance.”  Of course, since Whittier College is named after the poet and calls its teams the Poets, I couldn’t help but be engaged by the tribute to Fritchie, who, failing Whittier’s imaginative work, likely would have been little celebrated.
Although Whittier was the most popular American poet during his day, his literary reputation is now far superseded by his contemporary Walt Whitman.  Whittier’s stature today rests more on his outstanding work as an abolitionist than on his talent as a poet.  Featuring Fritchie’s act of courage in the face of Confederate advances, his poem tacitly embraces his strong abolitionist sense while it exercises a good bit of poetic license.  Although the Union flag flew at her home and was likely riddled with holes from the mini-balls fired by Confederate soldiers, Fritchie actually lay sick in bed throughout the day of the fighting featured in the poem.  Several of the couplets capture the heart of Whittier’s spirit of protest.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;

Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet,

Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight. .  .  . 
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.

'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag,' she said.

Providing individual tributes to Key and Fritchie, the cemetery in Frederick also commemorates the collective service of Confederate and Union soldiers, especially those who died in the nearby battles of Antietam and Monocacy.  The inscription on the Confederate soldiers’ memorial incorporates better poetry than the verses by Whittier.  Three panels on the obelisk present elegiac sentiments by Sir Walter Scott (the opening lines of “Soldiers rest! Thy warfare o’er”) and Alfred Lord Tennyson (lines adapted from the final verse of his “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington”).

              Soldiers rest!  Thy warfare o’er,
              Sleep the Sleep that knows not breaking;
              Dream of battlefields no more,
              Days of danger, nights of waking.

              Their praises will sung,
              In some yet unmoulded tongue,
              Far on in summers that we shall not see.

              To the unknown soldiers whose bodies here rest.
              We cannot inscribe their names on tablets of stone
              But we may hope to read them
              on a purer and unchangeable record.


Flag flying in tribute to Confederate soldiers.

As moving as the sentiments on the memorial were, I felt some dissonance standing there, even with my Southern heritage.  Adjacent to the representative figure of a Confederate soldier was a flagpole hoisting his battle flag. At the very least it was somewhat ironic that when one drives immediately beyond Key’s memorial into the cemetery, the only flag that can be seen is this one of the Confederate States of America. 
Although the Stars and Stripes had occasioned the composition of the two poems—“The Defence of Ft. McHenry” and “Barbara Frietchie’s Defiance”—the flag of another aspiring nation flew more conspicuously than the American flag by Fritchie’s memorial.  And while the flag of the Confederacy at best represents the period of history during which the Southern soldiers had served and died, the flag at Fritchie’s tomb was the current version with fifty stars, not a replica of the flag that might have flown in front of her house during the 1860s.

Tombstone of Navy veteran Sonny Blank faces ballpark.

Enriched and perplexed by the history commemorated in the cemetery, I turned along Mount Olivet’s outer drive facing the ballpark.  And there I found baseball insignia on two tombstones facing the stadium.  In an odd way these two grave markers seemed to provide an effective transition for me from considering the moral and political significance of Key, Fritchie, and the war dead, to appreciating the playful spirit by which two baseball fans wanted to be remembered.

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