While studying law in Annapolis, the young man's thoughts often turned to his family in Pipe Creek, then in Frederick County, and to Delia, the girl he left behind. In his poems, he wrote of Delia's "Witching smile and her dewy lip." He wrote of the beech tree "on whose trunk [his] faithful vows appear." Or he punned his name, hoping he could unlock the treasures of Delia's heart. He never did.
Nor did Francis Scott Key ever become well-known for his poetry, although he wrote many poems about everything from love to religion, to riddles, to the pleasures of White Sulphur Springs, where he vacationed. Key is remembered almost solely for "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is commemorated every year on Defenders' Day at Fort McHenry. This year's celebration is scheduled for today at 6:30 p.m.
tTC Key was being detained on a British ship where he had gone to win release of two prisoners on the night of Sept. 13 during the War of 1812. Watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry and seeing the American flag waving at dawn, Key was moved to write a poem he called "Defense of Fort McHenry." Later, the words were set to music and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner," which in 1931 became the national anthem.
"The song came from the heart," Key said, and "made its way to the hearts of men." A tall, slender man with fine features, arched eyebrows and large, dreamy blue eyes, Key looked the part of a poet and wrote poetry throughout his life, having been introduced to poetry almost from his birth on Aug. 1, 1779, by his father, John Ross Key, and his mother, Anne. She tutored him and his sister, also called Anne, at their family estate, Terra Rubra (meaning red earth), in what is now part of Carroll County.
Later, studying at St. John's College in Annapolis and in his uncle's law office in Georgetown, his interest in poetry continued. Key was especially fond of the poems of Sir Walter Scott and John Milton.
He was also writing poems to family, friends and pets -- he wrote one to his horse -- and to Delia. Delia, though, was soon replaced in his affections by Mary Taloe Lloyd, the woman for whom he declared himself "a versifying slave."
Blond, winsome Miss Lloyd laughed when she, at 14, first received Key's love ballads. As he persisted, Miss Lloyd threatened to use his poems as papers to curl her hair. And she did. Key would not be spurned. As, "To Mary," one of his poems, runs:
"O! Mary, could'st thou know this heart, / Could word or deeds its truth declare, / T' would raise love's flame in thine, / Or light it if it be not there."
He married Miss Lloyd on Jan. 19, 1802. The couple had six sons and five daughters. He frequently wrote messages to his wife in verse, even a shopping list.
And, with it all, he was quite a lawyer as well.
Practicing for more than 33 years, Key appeared against Daniel Webster and other noted advocates, arguing many cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. He negotiated the release of Dr. William Beanes, who was held aboard that British ship during the battle of Fort McHenry. He served as U.S. district attorney for Washington, D.C. During this time, he continued to write poems. Several of them appeared as hymns in prayer books. One was inscribed in St. John's Church in Georgetown. Some were given to friends. But most of them went unpublished and unnoticed.
"The Star-Spangled Banner," of course, went on to become one of the most noticed poems in history. After it was published on Sept. 21, 1814, by the Baltimore American, Key's popularity rose, especially among women, who beseeched him for poems as album keepsakes.
One such woman was Mrs. John Gayle, wife of the governor of Alabama, where Key was sent to settle a dispute between that state and the U.S. government. Key so charmed the family, writing verses for Gayle's wife and daughter, that the governor decided no action should be taken against Washington.
A pacifist and an abolitionist, Key avidly read Scripture and twice considered entering the ministry. His mature poems often have religious subjects. One of them, "The Nobleman's Son," was based on Christ's healing miracle at Capernaum. Ironically, Key was sick when he wrote that; he died several days later of pneumonia and pleurisy on Jan. 11, 1843, at the Baltimore home of his daughter, Elizabeth.
The real irony of Key's life is that he was never given his due as a poet. It took his contemporaries nearly 15 years before they published the volume, "Poems Of The Late Francis S. Key, Esq., author of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' " in 1857.
Moreover, Key is absent from most American literature anthologies. Obscure poets whose work has long been forgotten are so considered. But Key, who wrote one of the most famous poems of all time, a poem whose writing alone should place him as our country's first poet laureate, is not even mentioned.
Diane Scharper writes frequently about poetry for The Baltimore Sun. She teaches writing at Towson State University.