His Truth Is Marching On

Julia Ward Howe (1819 – 1910)

“I shall stick to my resolution of writing always what I think no matter whom it offends.”

Julia Ward Howe

Battle-Hymn of the Republic

By Julia Ward Howe
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.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
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.

In researching poems for this month, I have come across several scholarly articles commenting that the Civil War was bereft of significant contributions to American poetry and literature.  After digging deeper, I would say that judgement is too harsh, but one test of that claim is to ask the question; “what was written in this period that has sustained itself as relevant and popular to this day?”   Popularity alone has never been a good measure of the importance of poetry, but it does matter a bit, in the sense if poems are forgotten and aren’t continued to be read,  then it ceases to have a voice.   When I asked myself that question; “what is one thing I can name top of mind from the Civil War in terms of poetry?’ – the Battle-Hymn of The Republic is the only thing that came to my mind.

The Battle Hymn of The Republic is a marching song that has continued in the tradition as a church hymn at least in the Presbyterian church I have experience.   Yet its origins are like many hymns, the version we know today, came together through a melding of a lyrics and music that had a long oral history that changed over time.   The words are credited to Julia Ward Howe, a noted abolitionist and supporter of John Brown, but she only wrote a portion of the lyrics. The most distinctive part of this song is its chorus, glory, glory, hallelujah, was lifted completely from the John Brown Song, which had lifted it from earlier hymns and camp songs popular at the time.  Howe had heard the John Brown Song performed at a flag-raising ceremony in Fort Warren, near Boston, Massachusetts in May 1861, a month after the start of the civil war.  The John Brown Song music and lyrics were part of a folk hymn tradition that went back more than 50 years as part of Methodist and Baptists camp meeting songs.   A friend of Howe’s, the Reverend James Freeman Clark, suggested in November she write more inspiring lyrics appropriate to the times and by February of 1962, Howe’s Battle-Hymn of the Republic was published on the front page of the Atlantic Monthly and was resoundingly embraced by the Union Army and the North from that point forward.   I wonder how many people who sing that song in church some Sunday, connect it’s lyrics with the conflict and sacrifice of the Civil War?   


My Last Dance

By Julia Ward Howe
The shell of objects inwardly consumed
Will stand, till some convulsive wind awakes;
Such sense hath Fire to waste the heart of things,
Nature, such love to hold the form she makes.
Thus, wasted joys will show their early bloom,
Yet crumble at the breath of a caress;
The golden fruitage hides the scathèd bough,
Snatch it, thou scatterest wide its emptiness.
For pleasure bidden, I went forth last night
To where, thick hung, the festal torches gleamed;
Here were the flowers, the music, as of old,
Almost the very olden time it seemed.
For one with cheek unfaded, (though he brings
My buried brothers to me, in his look,)
Said, Will you dance?’ At the accustomed words
I gave my hand, the old position took.
Sound, gladsome measure! at whose bidding once
I felt the flush of pleasure to my brow,
While my soul shook the burthen of the flesh,
And in its young pride said, Lie lightly thou!’
Then, like a gallant swimmer, flinging high
My breast against the golden waves of sound,
I rode the madd’ning tumult of the dance,
Mocking fatigue, that never could be found.
Chide not,—it was not vanity, nor sense,
(The brutish scorn such vaporous delight,)
But Nature, cadencing her joy of strength
To the harmonious limits of her right.
She gave her impulse to the dancing Hours,
To winds that sweep, to stars that noiseless turn;
She marked the measure rapid hearts must keep
Devised each pace that glancing feet should learn.
And sure, that prodigal o’erflow of life,
Unvow’d as yet to family or state,
Sweet sounds, white garments, flowery coronals
Make holy, in the pageant of our fate.
Sound, measure! but to stir my heart no more—
For, as I moved to join the dizzy race,
My youth fell from me; all its blooms were gone,
And others showed them, smiling, in my face.
Faintly I met the shock of circling forms
Linked each to other, Fashion’s galley-slaves,
Dream-wondering, like an unaccustomed ghost
That starts, surprised, to stumble over graves.
For graves were ‘neath my feet, whose placid masks
Smiled out upon my folly mournfully,
While all the host of the departed said,
Tread lightly—thou art ashes, even as we.’