The poem is written by the American poet Julia Ward Howe. Howe was an abolitionist and a social activist for women’s suffrage. This poem is a famous patriotic song in America. Here, the poet alludes to several biblical episodes. The allusions serve a specific purpose. Episodes such as the “Second Coming” and the “Last Judgment” contain symbolic meanings that help the poet to strengthen the argument present in the last stanza of the poem.
Summary of Battle-Hymn of the Republic
In this poem, the poet alludes to several biblical passages. The speaker depicts Christ as a savior who will bring peace again in this world. She can see him appearing in his glorious outlook to redeem mankind as he did before. But, this time he won’t be too kind to those who previously wiped humanity from the face of the earth. According to the speaker, he is a warrior now, beaming with heroism and vibrant with vengeful energy. However, the portrayal of Christ as a hero and as a warrior hints at something else. Here, the poet tries to infuse the audience with the heroic energy of Christ. In this way, they can get justice for themselves. Jesus Christ is just a metaphor in their proclamation of resistance.
The poet composed the overall poem from a first-person point-of-view. For this reason, it is an example of a lyric. There are a total of five stanzas in this song and each stanza contains four lines. Each stanza is followed by a chorus of four lines. The rhyme scheme of the text is regular. And it is AAAB. This scheme goes on throughout the poem. The last line of each stanza acts as a refrain. The poet slightly modifies the refrain in each stanza. Apart from that, in a particular stanza, the long lines contain 15 syllables and the last line contains 6 syllables. The overall poem is composed in iambic octameter and the refrains are in iambic trimeter. However, there are a few variations in the metrical pattern.
Howe’s poem begins with two biblical allusions. The first one is in the “coming of the Lord” and the second allusion is to “the grapes of wrath.” Moreover, there are some other allusions to certain episodes of the Christian scriptures. Thereafter, in “fateful lightning” there is a metaphor, and the phrase, “swift sword” contains alliteration. There is also a personification in the line, “His truth is marching on.” In the second stanza, the “camp” is a symbol of war. It’s a use of metonymy. Thereafter, in the third stanza, the poet presents irony through the line, “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.” The second part of the sentence contains hyperbaton. Moreover, the poet uses an onomatopoeia by referring to the sound of the trumpet. The last stanza of the poem contains a parallel to the American Civil War.
Analysis of Battle-Hymn of the Republic
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.
‘Battle-Hymn of the Republic’ begins directly with the concept of the Second Coming of Christ. According to the speaker, her eyes have seen the “coming of the Lord.” Here, the poet compares Christ as a lord as well as a warrior. She is anticipating the future glory that the arrival of Christ will bring on earth. Here, the Second Coming acts as a symbol of optimism, nor the conventional symbols of horror and destruction associated with it. The speaker has also seen Christ trampling out the vintage or wine where the “grapes of wrath” are stored. The “grapes of wrath” is a Christian motif showing Christ standing in a winepress. There he becomes the grapes in the press. This image depicts Christ’s wrath on those who are sinful and inhumane.
Thereafter, the poet says Christ has loosened the “fateful lightning” of His “terrible swift sword”. Here, the sword symbolizes an instrument of punishment. This instrument is terrible as well as swift in action. For people who have gone astray from the path of truth, Christ won’t delay in punishing them. He is coming to restore truthfulness on earth again.
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.
The speaker has seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps. It seems the embodiment of Christ is preparing for war along with his followers. The followers have built an altar in the evening dews and damps. As the world is now overloaded with sinful souls, everything appears as dewy and damp to the speaker. She can read from Christ’s righteous eyes that with the coming of dawn faith will be restored and the sinners will be punished accordingly. The image of “dim and flaring lamps” creates a tense mood in the poem that something serious is going to happen with the coming of the lord. At last, she says his day is marching on. It means that Christ will restore peace, justice, and truth in society.
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.”
Moreover, the speaker has read a “fiery gospel” written in “burnished rows of steel”. Here, the “fiery gospel” refers to the verdict of God. Here, the Almighty has said what He is going to do with the sinners. Thereafter, “burnished rows of steel” contains a symbol of war. In the “burnished rows of steel”, the poet finds Christ’s words. Christ said those who dealt with his “contemners”, now they have to deal with his grace. It sounds like a warning to the vicious men who forgot the teaching of Christ. Thereafter the poet alludes to another biblical episode. Here, the poet refers to the Virgin Mary whose child will crush the serpent with his heel. Here, the serpent is none other than Satan.
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.
Thereafter, in this poem, the speaker says Christ has sounded forth the trumpet of war. Now, he will never step back. Christ will only stop until every sinner gets their punishment. Thereafter, in this stanza, the poet alludes to the Last Judgement. According to her, God is analyzing the hearts of men to see who deserves punishment. By seeing this, the speaker is so elated that she can’t wait any longer. Her body and soul both are elated after seeing Christ in this role. At last, the poet uses the refrain to emphasize the fact that the arrival of God will bring peace and justice to the world.
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 the last stanza of the poem, Howe says that in the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea. Here, “lily” is a well-known Christian symbol. Christ can transfigure the poet as well as the readers. However, “transfiguration” is the experience of momentary divine radiance. So the glory of God fills the poet with divine radiance. Apart from that, in the final two lines, the poet says as Christ died to make me holy they should die to make men free. In this section, there is an implied allusion to the slave trade in America. However, at the end of the poem, Howe repeats the idea of God marching on earth for the sake of emphasis.
Julia Howe submitted the lyrics of ‘Battle-Hymn of the Republic’ to “The Atlantic Monthly” and it first appeared on the front page in the February 1862 issue of the magazine. Howe first heard this song during the Civil War. At the request of The Reverend James Freeman Clarke, she wrote new words for the song. While staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington on the night of November 18, 1861, she wrote the verses of this song. Of the writing of the lyrics, Howe noted:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pencil which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. (Howe, Julia Ward. Reminiscences: 1819–1899. Houghton, Mifflin: New York, 1899. p. 142.)
However, she set the lyrics to the music of ‘John Brown’s Body’ published in “The Atlantic Monthly” in November 1861. In this song, there is a direct reference to the American Civil War and the judgment of the wicked at the end of the age.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the theme, biblical allusions, and subject matter of Julia Ward Howe’s ‘Battle-Hymn of the Republic’.
- The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats – This poem presents a lack of ability to think during the tumultuous time before the war. It’s one of the best William Butler Yeats poems.
- On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton – This poem presents a variety of images in the prediction of what the future is going to be like.
- Untitled Poem by George Henry Boker – This untitled poem paints a vivid picture of the physical results of war.
- Beat! Beat! Drums! by Walt Whitman – It’s a best-known Walt Whitman poem and written around 1862 when the Civil War was beginning.
You can read about 10 of the Best War Poems here.