Battle Hymn Analysis

Mainly because the final poem in my book is entitled “Battle Hymn,” I have been thinking of the original Civil War song from which I found the inspiration for my poem.  Here are the lyrics to the original:

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 fateful 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. (Chorus)

I have read a fiery gospel write 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.” (Chorus)

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His Judgement Seat;
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on. (Chorus)

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. (Chorus)

My primary concern with Howe’s anthem is the melding of God with war.  While “let us die to make men free” is noble, in my belief, God does not endorse killing (though in the case of direct self-defense, I believe “he” understands to a certain extent.  Refusing to defend oneself is essentially committing suicide, which I do not believe most gods appreciate, either.).

The tune for the hymn was taken from that of “John Brown’s Body.”  While some find this musical allusion offensive, it was intended as irony: “More particularly the lyrics were about a Scotsman of the same name who was a member of the 12th Massachusetts Regiment, and the lyrics were composed to poke some good-natured fun at the runty, mild-mannered Scotsman who shared the same name as the much more famous and fearsome abolitionist.[1]

That Howe was a professed Unitarian is also disconcerting as the modern Unitarian Universalist church tends to teach peaceful resistance as a mechanism for social change.  This is not to imply that all Unitarian Universalists are pacifists or that all are “nicey-nice.”  The church is comprised of members and friends who hold a variety of beliefs.  However, the Seven Principles imply a distaste for war.

Still, Ward was a product of her time, and her anti-slavery values preempted our modern belief system that war might not be the answer, just as contemporary Christians have mostly denounced the Crusades. Her marriage also implies a comfort level between the disparity of war and social justice:  “…she married a hero of the Greek revolution, physician Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe nicknamed Chev, who founded the Perkins Institute for the Blind.”  The couple must have found a way to reconcile revolt and war as a means to sustain independence and go on to work for social justice.  And maybe, that was okay because possibly, sometimes war is justified.

My own poem is purely metaphorical.  It is personal in that it describes my struggles to overcome trauma in order that I could love my husband more deeply.

“When the world has all forgotten

why it went to war,

and when the cannons cease

to pummel anymore,

I will return to you

no matter my condition

and sing our hymn of victory…”

On a more global level, the poem also describes the experience of the Civil War soldier–or any soldier–returning to his family and friends, some of whom may not have agreed with his reasons for going to war.  My poem is not a call to war, but a call to peace and home.

I am a Unitarian Universalist.  I find it interesting that my poem differs so much from Howe’s.  But just like Howe, I am a product of my time and experiences, my education and work, my values and beliefs.  Whether these elements make the world a better place or not is still to be determined.  But I suppose all we can do is the best we can.  We are, after all, human.

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