Top of page

Francis Scott Key: the Lawyer-Poet

Share this post:

Both law and poetry require a fluid grasp of language and a critical need for precision and economy with words; possessing these skills can be the key to making one person successful in both endeavors. There are a few times in history when well-known poets started their professional lives in the law (John Donne, Archibald MacLeish), and there are a few instances when good lawyers have been poets on the side, such as Wallace Stevens and Francis Scott Key.

While Stevens is famous for his poetry, the average American might be surprised to know of Key as a poet–if, in fact, they know much about him at all (native Marylanders excepted). Not only did Key write his most famous poem, “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” now known to all Americans as “the Star Spangled Banner,” he wrote verse throughout his life. He was a devout man who had almost elected to be an Anglican priest, and so many of his poems are religious and include a few hymns and translations of psalms. He penned “Song” (also known as “When the Warrior Returns”) a patriotic poem predating “Defence of Fort M’Henry” by nine years that is very similar in topic and style. He wrote elegies and brief humorous pieces. It seems he had never intended them for publication but did hand them round to friends for their comfort and amusement.

After Key’s death in 1843, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney–Key’s brother-in-law, friend, and famous Maryland lawyer–collected Key’s poems into one volume and arranged to have them published in 1857, as Poems of the late Francis S. Key, Esq. Thanks to Taney’s wish to memorialize Key, we can learn more about the straight arrow who wrote the national anthem, and that is probably the main reason modern readers will enjoy reading this brief volume.

It is unlikely that Key will gain much of a renaissance as a poet, as his poetry was very much a piece of the popular culture of his time. Regardless, some of his work is still being used today. Key’s poems provide the lyrics for songs included in some modern church hymnals. Legal scholars will likely enjoy Key’s “Petition for a Habeas Corpus to the Honorable James Sewall Morsell…“  

“May it please your honor to hear the petition
Of a poor old mare in a miserable condition,
Who has come this cold night to beg that your honor
Will consider her ease and take pity upon her.
Her master has turned her out in the street,
And the stones are too hard to lie down on, or eat;
Entertainment for horses she sees every where,
But, alas! there is none, as it seems, for a mare.
She has wandered about, cold, hungry, and weary,
And can’t even get in the Penitentiary.”

When Key was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Morsell was a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia,  and he was a friend of Key. When Morsell’s wife Mary Ann Morsell died, Key wrote a poem memorializing her. It came to be popularly known as “In a Little While,” and so moved the family that they had a shorter version of the poem incised on her gravestone at Zion Episcopal Church in West Virginia:

“A little while”, this narrow house prepared,
By grief and love, shall hold the blessed dead;
“A little while”, and she who sleeps below
Shall hear the call to rise and live forever;
A Little While, and ye who pour your tears
On this cold grave, shall awaken in your own.
And ye shall see her, in her robes of light,
And waken in her triumph.

According to Key’s biographer Marc Leepson in What So Proudly We Hailed, Key occasionally attended meetings of the Delphian Club as a young man and wrote at least one poem for the club, although anything else he wrote for them seems lost to history. He composed poems to court his wife before they married. And then there is his poem to his wife, “Note to Mrs. Key,” which one can enjoy for its ordinary humanity as well as its faint thematic echo of William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say“, even if its rhyme is clunky:

“Mrs. Key will hereby see
That Judges two or three
And one or two more
So as to make exactly four
Will dine with her to-day;
And as they cannot stay,
Four o’clock the hour must be
For dinner, and six for tea
And toast and coffee.”

Of course, most Americans know the story of the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key scribbled the poem on the back of an envelope while witnessing the Battle of Baltimore from a British ship on the Patapsco River. The day after the battle, someone–many stories credit Judge Joseph Nicholson–took Key’s verses to a printer in Baltimore who printed bills and broadsheets of the poem. In the coming months it came to be called “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and was set to the notoriously difficult-to-sing English drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It swiftly was adopted as a popular patriotic tune over one hundred years before Congress officially named it the national anthem in 1931. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the poem for which Key is best remembered, mainly for the historical significance behind it rather than its art. And it bears the additional charm of having extra “O’s” in it for Baltimore sports fans. His flowery poem has come to be remembered in his home state as a source of native pride.

Poetry Month is the perfect reminder to revisit a favorite poem or poet or find a new favorite to enjoy. Studying a homegrown poet like Key, with his deep ties to early American history and law, gives one a greater appreciation for the poetry in the anthem of the United States, and the strong inspiration that he had to write it.

Fort McHenry, where the "Star-Spangled Banner" was inspired by a battle in the War of 1812. Baltimore, Maryland. Carol Highsmith.
Fort McHenry, where the “Star-Spangled Banner” was inspired by a battle in the War of 1812. Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Carol Highsmith.) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,





Comments (3)

  1. A few corrections, if I may:
    – The collecting and publishing of Key’s poems was the work of Henry V. D. Johns, not Roger B. Taney. Taney, at Johns’ request, wrote a “letter” for the book “narrating the incidents connected with the origin of the song “The Star Spangled Banner.”
    – Key starting writing The SSB on a letter, not an envelope, although the distinction is trivial considering the custom of the day of folding a letter up so as to make an envelope of it (as can be seen in Key’s letter to Randolph on the Maryland Historical Society website.) (See Taney’s letter, page 26 in Johns’ book.)
    – Key wrote The SSB as a song lyric and meant it to be set to the Anacreon tune. The strongest evidence showing this is Key’s earlier “When the Warrior Returns”, which he sang himself and recycled into The SSB. The disassociation of the lyric and tune, the idea that someone else paired them up “months” later, and the “drinking song” misnomer came from Key’s prohibitionist descendants.

    Ruben Bolton

  2. As a 6th generation Direct Descendant of Francis Scott Key, I appreciate the well written article about “my grandpa”. Thank you, for the courtesy.

    Shirley Isham

  3. Note also that the LoC has (according to its on-line postings) FSK’s own copy of a contemporary printed copy of the words and musical score of “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The first publication in The Baltimore American is reliably dated as September 20, 1814, a week after the battle, and contains a note about the tune “Anacreon.” Coupled with his “When the warrior returns,” also fitted to the tune, nine years before, all this indicates intention from the moment of composition to fit that tune. It seems reasonable that FSK probably did sit down (after getting a good night’s sleep following his all-night vigil) and pen a fair copy of the poem, and may have taken it to the paper himself — that versus the story of a friend delivering it needs more research.
    Unlike Wallace Stevens and Archibald McLeish, Key did not give up the law for the lyre, and consequently made valuable contributions to jurisprudence in America. And as a “one-hit wonder” he did artistically just fine.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.