Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Fourth of July Weekend, the Flag, and Julia Ward Howe

Read the first three stanzas of Julia Ward Howe’s ten-stanza poem, “The Flag,” and you would be justified in coming away with a picture of a patriot bordering on the zealot.

There’s a flag hangs over my threshold, whose folds are more dear to me
Than the blood that thrills in my bosom its earnest of liberty;
And dear are the stars it harbors in its sunny field of blue
As the hope of a further heaven that lights all our dim lives through.

But now should my guests be merry, the house is in holiday guise,
Looking out, through its burnished windows like a score of welcoming eyes.
Come hither, my brothers who wander in saintliness and in sin!
Come hither, ye pilgrims of Nature! my heart doth invite you in.

My wine is not of the choicest, yet bears it an honest brand;
And the bread that I bid you lighten I break with no sparing hand;
But pause, ere you pass to taste it, one act must accomplished be:
Salute the flag in its virtue, before ye sit down with me.

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MTE4MDAzNDEwNTY0Mzg0MjcwBut in poetry, as in life, nothing is black and white—not even the red, white, and blue.

Howe is most famous for composing “The Flag” after visiting a Union camp at the invitation of President Lincoln. There she’d sung popular tunes with the soldiers including “John Brown’s Body,” and was asked if she could compose more meaningful lyrics for the marching song. Later, having penned one of America’s most stirring anthems, she famously said, “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.’”

This was not a woman who slept through meaningful moments. As an author, publisher, and activist, she fought for abolition, suffrage, and many social issues that stood between what was still a fledgling republic and true greatness. She battled her husband’s rigid sense of a “woman’s place” in the world to the point of separating from him after bearing six children, the last when she was almost 40 years old—this in the dicey world of maternity medicine in 1858. She was a respected writer, a sought-after speaker and world traveler. She mattered.

We cannot know Julia Ward Howe’s motivation in writing “The Flag,” but we can see the working of a liberal heart in the line, “Come hither, my brothers who wander in saintliness and sin!” Julia Ward Howe, patriot, may now be esteemed for saintliness, but she suffered mightily for what the values of her times considered close to sin— having not one, but many a career, finding her way out of socially imbued prejudice and ignorance, and always—always—reminding women through her poetry that being oppressed was a choice, not a destiny.  She died in 1910 at age 91. She lives on.


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