May 26, 2014

FROM THE ARCHIVES: LASTING HYMN:

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC by Julia Ward Howe and William Steffe (Mark Steyn, A Song For The Season)

[W]hatever the tune's origin, when Julia Ward Howe heard the song for the first time that fall day, "John Brown's Body" was already famous. She loved the martial vigor of the music, but knew the words were "inadequate for a lasting hymn". So her minister, Dr Clark, suggested she write some new ones. And early the following morning at her Washington hotel she rose before dawn and on a piece of Sanitary Commission paper wrote the words we sing today, casting the war as a conflict in which one side has the advantage of God's "terrible swift sword":

I have seen Him in the watchfires 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...

She finished the words and went back to bed. It was published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. They didn't credit Mrs Howe and they paid her only four dollars.

Julia Ward Howe came from a distinguished lineage. Her forebear Richard Ward was Royal Governor of the British colony of Rhode Island and his son Samuel Ward was Governor of the American State of Rhode Island. Her husband, like his friend, the poet Lord Byron, had played an important role in helping the Greeks win independence from the Turks. Mrs Howe herself wrote many poems, Broadway plays and newspaper columns. But "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic" is her greatest achievement. Henry Steele Commager called it "the one great song to come out of the Civil War, the one great song ever written in America".

Whether or not that's true, most of us understand it has a depth and a power beyond most formal national songs. When John F Kennedy was assassinated, Judy Garland insisted on singing it on her TV show - the producers weren't happy about it, and one sneered that nobody would give a damn about Kennedy in a month's time. But it's an extraordinary performance. Little more than a year later, it was played at the state funeral of Winston Churchill at St Paul's Cathedral. Among those singing it was the Queen. She sang it again in public, again at St Paul's, for the second time in her life at the service of remembrance in London three days after September 11th 2001. That day, she also broke with precedent and for the first time sang another country's national anthem - "The Star-Spangled Banner". But it was Julia Ward Howe's words that echoed most powerfully that morning as they have done since she wrote them in her bedroom in Washington 140 years earlier:

As He died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free
While God is marching on.





Posted by at May 26, 2014 4:39 AM
  

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