Literary Yard

Search for meaning

A Poetics of the Pledge of Allegiance

By: John Robinson

Francis Bellamy did not intend his publishing gimmick to turn into a national ritual, nor did he intend his words to be taken up in the mouths of those seeking asylum or new beginnings in a democratic society such as ours.  In spite of the author’s true intentions, something greater and more honorable came from his later reversed efforts.  A pledge cannot be treated as poetry, nor can it be treated the same as prose, even though it is closer to the latter in style.  There are, however, certain poetic qualities in the Pledge of Allegiance which permit it to be treated for my purpose here as material for a reading in poetics and language codes.  I will discuss the codes last, though begin with the features mapped by Jonathan Culler first because they ground a reading in the conventions of readerly expectations.

      The Pledge of Allegiance illustrates both spatial and personal deictics of context.  The pledge is spatial due to its intent of encompassing the entire citizenry of the country.  Every citizen, no matter where they live, feels the oneness of the pledge and the solidarity of being part of the same republic upon hearing or pronouncing the statements it expresses.  Because the Pledge of Allegiance is a pledge, an oath, very unlike poetry that is a work of art, it is still similar to poetry because it is an invocation of beliefs and values.  These beliefs and values are actual and not characterized through the standard conventions of poetry or other types of literature where the speaking “I,” implied or stated, remains fictive in that regard.  Deictics in this sense is personal due to the reversal of distance wherein the reciter accepts the spoken values as their own.

     As for the formal models of unity, there seem to be no stated binary oppositions, only stated values of patriotism.  Therefore, equivalence is evident because all oppositional elements are implied and absent.  The stated values are; allegiance, unity, spirituality, freedom and equality.  Dialectical resolution of binary oppositions exist through the statement of these values which also constitute the resolution of these implied oppositions through the dialectic of saying the pledge.  The genre of pledge/oath is that medium which serves as a reminder of the values vouchsafed by America.  Further, the pledge represents the four term homology if the pledge is to the one who recites the pledge as the values the pledge states are to greater culture and government.  The entire pledge consists of communicated values which constitute an image in our minds as to what it could mean to be patriotic and as such designates the series united by a common denomination: equality.  Because of these conditions, the Pledge of Allegiance can be characterized as the series with a transcendent and summarizing final term.  All values stated go beyond culture because the pledge invokes the religion of the country, at least in a historical sense, the founding Protestants.  The transcendental final term, “God,” is interpreted in the context of religious freedom and remains open to interpretation based on the spiritual preference of the citizen.

     Resistance is mostly absent from the Pledge of Allegiance due to the fact that within the recuperative operations of the content, the speaker is familiarizing oneself with words they already know by heart provided they have been educated in the United States and in a state where it is a requirement by law to stand and hear the pledge each morning.  All concepts in the pledge are discussed at some point in a child’s education.  A reversal of deictics contributes to the reality of the work portrayed because it is a pledge and not a poem.  Due to this familiarity, there is no or little resistance in the reader’s experience.  Recuperation for the Pledge of Allegiance operates on the basis of the reciter knowing and realizing the relationship among all of the values stated.  

     The unifying features of the writing center around the values espoused by the Pledge of Allegiance.  Each of them constitute qualities associated with the theme of patriotic allegiance.  This also seems to be the most important, thematic element.  The idea of equality is also important because of the history of those who founded our country in search of religious and economic freedom.  The importance of the theme of democratic patriotism is a reflection of society because it is the role of cultures to perpetuate themselves through establishing systems of belief which encourage the best possible outcome for all concerned.  The title of the pledge centers the reader/reciter’s focus on theme, yet all other stated values bear significance as well.

     The four, general interpretive operations can be used to reflect on the same aspects as any poem, however, some of them are absent or slightly different in the Pledge of Allegiance.  The implied, binary oppositions would constitute the opposite values of those associated with patriotism in the pledge.  For example, allegiance/betrayal, unity/discord, spirituality/faithlessness, freedom/restriction and equality/unfairness.  In terms of how they relate to each other, they simply serve to remind the reciter what is most important as a good citizen of the United States of America.  Each spoken value reifies a set of traditional, unifying beliefs that all members of that society share.  They represent the values and beliefs of all people, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity and through this expression serve as a reminder of past struggle, though also serve as a claim of what being a united republic means in our contemporary society.  

     Being a pledge, there are few poetic qualities present in the work.  There are no puns or ambiguities present.  Items in the Pledge of Allegiance must all be read as synecdoche because they operate as expressed values in relation to something that is greater: society.  Thus, in line-function, part-to-whole is the gesture made in the value statements that the pledge asserts.  When we say, “I pledge allegiance / to the flag / of the United States of America…” the language moves from object to society (L. 1-3).  One could say the conceptual move is double here, from part, “I,” to whole “allegiance,” and then part, “flag,” to whole, “United States of America.” The additional lines operate in a similar way, though are somewhat different because they carry-over the association into the next conceptual move.  When we say, “and to the republic / for which it stands…” this is a part-to-whole movement, object to society, though we must go back to line five and remember “flag” is what is being compared to “republic” (L. 4-5).  The next line do not operate that way.  They are whole-to-transcendent whole because “one nation / under God” functions in a different way compared to object-to-society.  The “nation” being the whole, the spiritual concept of “God” represents the transcendent whole because the sacred exists in the world-view of American culture as the ground of all being.  The final lines return to the part-to-whole pattern: “indivisible / with liberty and justice for all” (L. 8-9).  The line-function of member-to-class only exists in the pledge if the “I” continues in the carry-over fashion from line one to “United Staes of America” (L. 1-3).  No other line-function elements are present and there are no relevant aspects which fall within the standard conventions of poetry.  Literary conventions are absent because genre in this sense, determines all elements which follow.  

     Despite this absence, there are qualities of the Pledge of Allegiance which draw upon literary aspects of language that deserve mention, namely; rhythm, diction, reverse allusion and synonymous terms.  I have approached my citation of the lines of the Pledge of Allegiance as if it were arranged like a poem on a page to account for the rhythm of the speaking voice when recited.  This is what I mean:

          I pledge allegiance

          to the flag        

          of the United States of America,

          and to the republic

          for which it stands,

          one nation,

          under God,


          with liberty and justice for all (L. 1-9)

Word choice in this particular instance suits the formal, political paradigm of expected connotative language; “allegiance,” “United States of America,” “republic,” “God,” “liberty” and “justice” respectively.  One unusual feature concerns the reverse allusion in “and to the republic / for which it stands” (L. 4-5).  These lines allude to “flag” in line two.  Poetic allusions usually work in the opposite way, as the allusion is usually given before the object being modified with the allusive language.  For this reason, I call this feature a reverse allusion.  Synonymous terms exist in lines two through four because “flag,” “United states of America” and “republic” mean the same thing.  All of these aspects are interesting literary qualities one would not usually associate with the Pledge of Allegiance.

     Naturalization of line-endings and narratological aspects are not as pronounced as other features.  The pledge illustrates the justification of phonetic figures as a way of stressing or throwing into relief the values it expresses which assert the theme of patriotism explicitly.  The pledge contains no couplings or similar word-play.  Unity and symmetry justify the formal features because it is a pledge with no repetition beyond cadence and synonymous terms.  Space on the page is the only other convention the pledge shares with those of poetry.  Plot, theme and character as dramatic conventions remain absent due to the cultural purpose of the pledge.  Since the pledge is spoken as a ritual statement, part of public events or ceremonies, plot centers upon the speaking person, the “I” of the pledge and reifies the theme of patriotism.  Being an actual pledge and not poetry, character remains absent unless one considers the term as demeaner; that type of character sought to be most important as illustrated through the values expressed in the pledge is of central importance.  

     The language codes of Roland Barthes, taken from “Style and Its Image” as well as the S/Z, along with contemporary descriptions of the codes from the Terrance Hawkes text, Structuralism and Semiotics(1977 and 2003) provide further insight as to how language operates at other levels within even a brief piece of writing such as the Pledge of Allegiance.  If one considers the hermeneutic code as the story-telling code by means of which the narrative creates mystery and suspense before resolving the enigma along its course, the reader for codes will see this particular one is absent in the pledge.  Even if one extends the definition of the code to include the figurative language of poetry, most readers will readily recuperate all words within the pledge once a basic level of literary competence is achieved through education.  The phrase of reverse allusion; “and to the republic / for which it stands” constitutes the only element similar to a hermeneutic masking of language within the pledge (L. 4-5).  The only metaphor in the poem is the flag, which represents the republic.  One could extend metaphorical allusion to the concept of “God” and extend this as an allusion to the sacred, the ground of all being shared by the five major spiritual traditions of the earth; Protestant, Judaic, Hindu, Taoist and Islamic faiths.  

     Under the symbolic code in the Pledge of Allegiance one finds the several qualities which connotate the values proper for being a good patriotic citizen.  These qualities are the same as mentioned earlier; loyalty, solidarity, spiritual, freedom and equality.  Symbolically, the pledge communicates the values of a patriot for daily life in a democracy.  As such, these connotations also represent the core of one’s formal, public and national identity.  Through literal re-phrasing in the pledge, these concepts are stated throughout the pledge and reinforce the qualities as they are spoken.  All repetitive synonyms in this regard would find consideration; “flag,” “United Staes of America,” “republic,” “nation” and “all.” The deep structure of the work in this sense would constitute the social contract, as an oath is a form of an agreement with those encountered and what one enters into when living in a democratic society.  

     Since the semantic code considers all connotations of language within the writing, all description within the Pledge of Allegiance reinforces the qualities of patriotism.  All recapitulated qualities invoked through reciting the pledge remind the speaker what items mean within the context of public and private behavior.  Since there exists a spiritual dimension to one’s national identity, all qualities are intended to permeate life and affect all areas with regard to specific concepts.  These concepts, however do not remain individual, they extend from the reciting “I” of the pledge to the entire nation, the “all” in conclusion.  What such items represent symbolically are also evoked semantically from beginning to end.  With this in mind, there exist no actional elements except the recitation of the pledge by the speaker.  This is both in the writing and the actual words to be spoken when doing so.  In this way, the literal action of saying the pledge reflects the values exhibited in the writing and becomes an expression of one’s very being.  

     The cultural-referential code helps to elucidate the Pledge of Allegiance as a national pronouncement of faith to one’s country and its historical background.  The pledge represents those values central to all citizens, though its past evolution and origin were very different from its current intention and purpose.  The authoritative voice of the pledge, I would characterize as a formal, democratic American of plain, spoken English.  This cultural context shapes the purpose and scope of the pledge because of its current use as a document which intends to remind the speaker of the most important, national values.  Historically, the pledge has an ironic evolution.  Amy Crawford describes this evolution and authorial intent in her essay, “How the Pledge of Allegiance Went From PR Gimmick to Patriotic Vow” (Smithsonian Magazine 2015).  Briefly, the writer states how Francis Bellamy, editor of The Youth’s Companion in 1892, created the pledge as a marketing ploy.  Crawford also explains how he used his editorial leverage to publish speeches against what he considered, ‘alien immigrants of inferior race’ (Smithsonian Magazine).  Bellamy was perhaps by most current standards what we would call a racist and his pledge was initially a document which had some very un-American intentions.  There are also two important changes that took place over time.  In 1923 the pledge was amended with an addition of “the flag of the United States of America.” Up to World War II, there was originally a military salute which was traditionally performed by students saying the pledge in schools.  This salute at a certain point in recitation changed to the gesture of an extended arm, palm upward toward the flag.  This was also the era of the change of this gesture to the hand over the speaker’s heart because the extended palm was seen as too similar to the Nazi salute.  In 1954, as a response to the Cold War Communist threat, Eisenhower encouraged the addition of the language; “under God.”  Congress concurred and approved the change (www.  Ironically, through Bellamy’s act of hate-speech, this purpose eventually was turned towards a more democratic vision of society.  


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “Style and Its Image.” The Rustle of Language.  Edited by Francois Wahl.      
Translated by Richard Howard, University of California, 1989.  pp.  90-99. 

Culler, Jonathan.  Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature.  
 Cornell university Press, 1975.

Crawford, Amy.  “How the Pledge of Allegiance Went From PR Gimmick to Patriotic Vow.”
Smithsonian Magazine, September 2015.

Hawkes, Terence.  Structuralism and Semiotics.  Routledge, 1977 and 2003. www.


John Robinson is a mainstream, Appalachian-American poet from the Kanawha Valley in Mason County, West Virginia.  His 168 literary works have appeared in 118 journals and presses throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Poland, Germany and China. 

His first chapbook, June’s Fisher of Solitudes, will be published at Mountain State Press in 2024. 

He is also a published printmaker with 101 art images and photographs appearing in forty journals, electronic and print, in the United States, Italy, Ireland and the United kingdom.

Recent Literary Work; The Wallace Stevens Journal, Mountain State Press, Origami Poets Project, Xavier Review, North Dakota Quarterly. Talking River ReviewRevolution John and Language and Semiotic Studies.


Leave a Reply

Related Posts