The poem uses symbolism to depict what America stands for and how many have died to protect the country. This is seen through the poet’s description of the American flag, the way it blows in the wind overhead, and how it is ever present, even on the battlefield.
God Save the Flag Oliver Wendell HolmesWashed in the blood of the brave and the blooming, Snatched from the altars of insolent foes,Burning with star-fires, but never consuming,Flash its broad ribbons of lily and rose.Vainly the prophets of Baal would rend it,Vainly his worshippers pray for its fall;Thousands have died for it, millions defend it,Emblem of justice and mercy to all;Justice that reddens the sky with her terrors,Mercy that comes with her white-handed train,Soothing all passions, redeeming all errors,Sheathing the sabre and breaking the chain.Borne on the deluge of all usurpations,Drifted our Ark o'er the desolate seas,Bearing the rainbow of hope to the nations,Torn from the storm-cloud and flung to the breeze!God bless the Flag and its loyal defenders,While its broad folds o'er the battle-field wave,Till the dim star-wreath rekindle its splendors,Washed from its stains in the blood of the brave.
Explore God Save the Flag
‘God Save the Flag’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a passionate, patriotic poem that describes the American flag.
The poem is quite simple, starting in the first stanza with a description of how many soldiers throughout the United States have died fighting for the country. Many have spilled blood to protect the American flag and its ideals. As the poem progresses, the speaker describes those values (primarily justice and mercy) and then personifies them to elevate the imagery.
Structure and Form
‘God Save the Flag’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes is a five-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. This is a very common poetic form, one that’s found throughout American, British, and English-language poetry around the world. The poet also chose to use a very simple rhyme scheme of ABAB. The lines also alternate between eleven and ten syllables.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. These include:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words; for example, “blood,” “brave,” and “blooming” in line one is a really good example.
- Allusion: in the first few lines, if the reader did not have access to the title, they might not know what the poem was about. But, as the poem progresses, it becomes clearer that the poet is talking about the American flag.
- Repetition: the phrase “blood of the brave” is used at the beginning of the poem as well as the end; this is also known as a refrain.
Washed in the blood of the brave and the blooming,
Snatched from the altars of insolent foes,
Burning with star-fires, but never consuming,
Flash its broad ribbons of lily and rose.
In the first lines of this patriotic poem, the speaker begins by describing the American flag as washed in the blood of those who have died defending it. Many young, brave soldiers have died for their country in an attempt to prevent the flag (a symbol of American ideals) from being destroyed by the country’s foes.
The flag is also described as “Burning with star-fires, but never consuming.” Here, the poet wants to emphasize how powerful the flag is, represented through the image of the stars (which are physically part of the flag) burning with a light-like fire that doesn’t destroy but inspires.
The “ribbons of lily and rose” in the four lines refer to the white (or lily) and red (or rose) stripes the American flag also displays. This is an example of a metaphor.
Vainly the prophets of Baal would rend it,
Vainly his worshippers pray for its fall;
Thousands have died for it, millions defend it,
Emblem of justice and mercy to all;
In the following lines, the speaker describes the “prophets of Baal,” a symbol/metaphor for others who are not American and who disagree with the country’s values. They may try to tear the flag down and destroy it. Many have “prayed” for the flag, or the country, to fall, the poet adds in the next lines. But, of the many who have tried, they have all failed.
The speaker continues on, saying that far more have fought for the flag; they’ve lost their lives to preserve the “justice and mercy” that it represents. The “millions” are emphasized in this stanza in order to prove to the reader that the “Flag” has a larger army on its side. Justice and mercy are supported in a way that the enemy is not. The poet is setting up a very clear conflict between good and evil. The simplicity of this conflict should appeal to most readers who enjoy seeing a “good” side overcome an “evil” side in a fight.
Justice that reddens the sky with her terrors,
Mercy that comes with her white-handed train,
Soothing all passions, redeeming all errors,
Sheathing the sabre and breaking the chain.
In the third stanza, the poet uses personification to describe how “Justice…reddens the sky with her terrors” and “Mery…comes with her white-handed train.” These things relate to the previous stanza and the poet’s depiction of the flag’s colors and meaning. When the conflict happens between good and evil, the sky grows red with the power of justice and personified “Mercy” comes to the battlefield with “her white-handed train.” This is a unique image, one that suggests that Mercy follows justice but comes with just as much power and force.
The country supports justice and mercy. When someone makes an error, the poet alludes, they can redeem themselves. At the same time, the flag/country is liberating, breaking the chains, and ending conflicts, ensuring that Americans have peace.
Borne on the deluge of all usurpations,
Drifted our Ark o’er the desolate seas,
Bearing the rainbow of hope to the nations,
Torn from the storm-cloud and flung to the breeze!
The fourth stanza describes the way that America, and the flag, were formed. It was an “Ark,” or place of refuge that today drifts over the country, blowing in the wind, and serves as a symbol of the “hope” of the nation (and other nations). The flag is the “rainbow of hope” described in the third line of this stanza. This is an example of a metaphor, one that’s meant to lighten the mood of the poem and help readers see the flag in a positive and beautiful life. It brings hope to the masses in a way that the flags of other countries, presumably, do not. It escapes from the terrifying storm and is “flung in the breeze.” This is meant to evoke images of the flag unfurled in the wind, showing its full colors and grandeur.
God bless the Flag and its loyal defenders,
While its broad folds o’er the battle-field wave,
Till the dim star-wreath rekindle its splendors,
Washed from its stains in the blood of the brave.
In the final stanza, the speaker concludes the poem by describing the flag, once more, as being defended loyally and by many.
The use of ‘o’er’ is an archaic form of ‘over,’ which could represent the universal nature of what is being said, irrespective of time. This is similar to Auden’s ‘O What Is That Sound,’ which creates the same effect that war has through being particularly vague about what ‘sound’ is approaching and using similar archaic language, such as ‘O.’
The poet also decided to capitalize the first mention of the ‘Flag’ in this stanza. Typically, capitalization is used in poetry to personify the flag or add importance/significance to the inanimate object. This illustrates that the flag is not just a flag but something more, such as symbolic.
It waves over battlefields, protects those who remain at home, and is a source of inspiration for the masses. The poem ends on this relatively short note after repeating the phrase “blood of the brave,” which readers can also find in the first stanza.
The poet has intentionally repeated these lines for potentially a couple of reasons:
- At first sight, the poem can now appear cyclic. This can create a sense that:
- War is cyclic and something that is always part of humanity, regardless of the time period.
- People will always fight for the ‘Flag.’
Interestingly, there is a slight variation, with the ending stating there are ‘stains.’ There were no stains at the start but at the end. The flag is stained with the blood of those who have fought for it: a symbolic reminder of the death surrounding it and its symbolic status for why people are fighting for it.
The main theme of this poem is the idealism of America. The poem focuses on an idealized version of the United States, seen through the poet’s depiction of the American flag.
The tone of this poem is passionate and strong. The speaker is 100% convinced in what they’re saying about the United States.
The poem suggests that the American flag symbolizes the American way of life. All those who live in the country and all those who have died for it are protected by that symbolism.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Oliver Wendell Holmes poems. For example:
- ‘Old Ironsides’ – speaks on the glory of the USS Constitution on the eve of its decommissioning from the service.
- ‘The Chambered Nautilus’ – is an interesting and beautiful poem. In it, the poet describes the nautilus and the life of struggle and improvement it engages in.
- ‘The Living Temple’ – describes the relationship between humankind and God’s marvelous natural creation.