31 May 2010

Memorial Day: Patriotic Poetry

One of my favorite things is my church's fifth-Sunday sing-song at evening worship.  Last night we sang several patriotic songs at the request of DAR member and super-patriot Jenny F.  I remember singing some of these songs at church and school as a child.  Do children still learn patriotic songs in school?  I hope so for they are a part of our history and our heritage.  The songs we sing together affirm and create community. 

At least two of these patriotic songs were written by women.  Since I am always interested in the ways in which women made their voices heard at a time when they were denied equal access to public discourse, today's blog comments on these women and their patriotic songs and concludes with a poem I wrote.
  1. Julia Ward HoweThe Battle Hymn of the Republic, which as a child of the South I was not permitted to sing (as Uncle Shelby Calahan said, "we will not so dishonor the memory" of our ancestors who died in the War between the States) until I left home for college.  {I thought a hundred years and four or five generations was long enough to carry a grudge.}   Julia and her husband, Sam Howe, were abolitionists and during the war worked on the U.S. Sanitary Commission which was concerned with reforming unsanitary conditions in the Union camps and hospitals--disease, dysentery, typhoid, malaria killed two men for every one killed in battle.  (Other notable women of the Sanitary Commission include Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix.) The Howes' work with the commission was recognized by President Lincoln and in 1862 he invited them to the White House.   In Washington, Pastor James Freeman Clarke who had read some of Julia's poetry asked her to write a new song for the war to replace John Brown's Body.   Howe's account of inspiration while writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic:  I awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment, found that the wished-for-lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don't write it down immediately....  I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling as if something very important had just happened to me."  The poem, published in the February 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly, made Julia Howe an instant celebrity.  I love this song because it clearly articulates the basis of social justice in Christ and in the "glory" of God.  "Our God is marching on."
  2. Katherine Lee Bates:   American the Beautiful  was written in 1893, published in 1895 in The Congreationalist, and Bates revised the words in 1904 and again in 1913.   Before being published with the music Materna written by Samuel A. Ward in 1910, it was sung to other tunes, notably Auld Lang Syne.  Was Samuel Ward related to Julia Ward Howe?  I don't know.  As Michael T. said last night the original poem was a bit different:
O beautiful for halcyon skies,  
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!            
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

Finally, a poem I began on the morning of  11 September 2001 shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  I finished it several months later on Memorial Day 2002.  The poem is a riff on America the Beautiful or perhaps a dialog with Katherine Lee Bates.

Oh, beautiful for spacious skies...
In a world with too little room
on this Tuesday morning,
death hurtled through the clouds.
...for amber waves of grain...
While we dwelt in peace and plenty,
a hate harvest ripened,
an explosion of horror, watched.
...mountain majesty... fruited plain...
Dreadful September day
when innocence crumbled to ruin
and fear took us hostage.

America, America...
Pilgrims fleeing persecution,
patriots overthrowing tyranny
stood once where we now stand,
...sheltered by God-shed grace...
cried "Freedom;" paid the price.
More than once the price paid in blood;
common man sought uncommon good,
beyond the shining seas
for brotherhood does not
in isolation live.
Costly, too high, too dear—but, still—
America, America...
We are resolved; tears dim
our eyes, not our vision.
Still, alabaster cities gleam.

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