Francis Scott Key: The Lawyer-Poet cover

Francis Scott Key: The Lawyer-Poet

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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.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars on 6 reviews

"My husband and I love to visit Baltimore and Fort McHenry. The visitors center has a great tribute to the events inspiring "The Star-Spangled Banner." We take time to listen to the story every visit!" 5 stars by




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Francis Scott Key: The Lawyer-Poet

Jack of Two Trades

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.

Francis Scott Key

Francis Scott Key

©iStock

More Than Stars and Stripes

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.

Petition for a Habeas Corpus

“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.”

Fort McHenry National Monument

Fort McHenry National Monument

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Poems for Friends

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.

In a Little While

“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.

Poems for Lovers

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.

Note to Mrs. Key

“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.”

Officially Named the National Anthem in 1931

Officially Named the National Anthem in 1931

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Most Memorable

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.

In Custodia Legis Library Of Congress