Sunday Poetry – Julia Ward Howe

I’m reading Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe at the moment so the only possible poem for today is her most famous work, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s impossible to begin reading it (or even write the title) without humming the famous tune.

The biography is fascinating as I knew nothing about Julia Ward Howe except the fact that she wrote the Battle Hymn. Her marriage to a famous doctor, Samuel Gridley Howe (he ran the Perkins Institute for the Blind that Dickens visited & wrote about in his American Notes), was fraught with tension. The Civil Wars of the title of Showalter’s biography don’t just refer to the conflict that began in 1861.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword:
      His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.
      His Day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
      Since God is marching on.”

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
      Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
      While God is marching on.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Poetry – Julia Ward Howe

  1. I have the biography waiting for me, too…it's always fascinating to learn the 'hidden' stories…and she lived in my neighborhood at one point, so I'm looking forward to reading about that. 🙂 (PS thank you for the BBC link…can't wait to listen to it.)

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  2. The biography is excellent. The centre of the book is the relationship between Julia & her husband which is fascinating. even knowing how legally restrictive life was for Victorian women, I was still furious at some of the things SGH did. I'm sure you'll enjoy it, especially as she was a local girl.

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