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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910)

BY birth a member of a fashionable New York circle; by education a cultivated and accomplished woman of society; by marriage made one of a group of zealous and uncompromising philanthropists,—abolitionists, prison reformers, equal-suffragists, coeducationists,—Mrs. Julia Ward Howe has turned her eclectic training only to generous uses. She has published verse, travels, and essays; she has taught—if much serious and eloquent journalistic work may be reckoned among the higher forms of teaching; she has won much reputation as a public speaker on social, educational, and political subjects; and it is not impossible that even had she written nothing, her brilliant fame as a conversationist, and as the most inspiring of companions, might insure her that vague though sure renown which belongs to the famous French hostesses of the seventeenth century.

The New York of her youth was still a neighborly city, where the small set of cultivated and leisurely families saw much not only of each other, but of the agreeable foreigners who came to this country. Her father, Samuel Ward, was a well-known banker, to whom all notable persons brought letters of introduction, and in whose household the young people learned to be agreeable, to be alert, and to adjust their mental vision to an ever-widening horizon. Mrs. Ward, a very cultivated woman, was herself a poet of some merit, whose poems, never published, were greatly admired in private circles. The clever second daughter took profit from all her experiences, read everything that came in her way, attacked with energy Latin and German,—a knowledge of languages being then generally deemed superfluous if not disastrous in what was known as “female education,”—and when still in short dresses wrote reams of verse. Her wise elders, however, while encouraging her literary tastes, permitted none of this intellectual green fruit to find a market.

She had been a New York belle for two or three seasons when her marriage with Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, of Boston, placed her in a new world. This eminent philanthropist, then in the prime of middle age, had devoted his whole life to the unfortunate. When hardly out of college and medical school he had enlisted as a volunteer in the cause of Greek Independence in the revolution of 1824,—the contest to which Lord Byron gave his life; out of untrained material he had created an excellent surgical corps for the insurgents; at the declaration of peace he had established an industrial colony on the Isthmus of Corinth; in 1830 he had served as president of a relief committee in the Polish uprising, and been imprisoned in Prussia for his pains; he had founded in South Boston the first American institution for the instruction of the blind; and he was among the most efficient of the antislavery crusaders. The friends who surrounded him took life and themselves very seriously, and all sorts of “causes” came to the Howe abode to be justified and adopted.

Mrs. Howe’s nature responded generously to these new demands. She became the eager advocate of the oppressed, whether victims of the law like the slave, of political tyranny like the Irish, the Poles, or the Hungarians, or of public opinion,—as, to her thinking, were all women. Her ready pen was always at the service of her many clients. But she found time to study French, Greek, and Italian, and to devote herself to modern philosophy, working hard at Schelling, Hegel, Fichte, Spinoza, and Kant. She wrote philosophical lectures which she read at her own house, and she helped to establish philosophical clubs. With her husband she edited an able antislavery paper, the Boston Commonwealth, to which she contributed leaders, essays, poems, letters, and witty comments. In the ten or twelve years following 1854 she published three volumes of poems,—‘Passion Flowers,’ ‘Words for the Hour,’ and ‘Later Lyrics’; two books of travel, ‘A Trip to Cuba’ and ‘From the Oak to the Olive’; and a drama, ‘The World’s Own’; having written also in the same period hundreds of clever newspaper letters to the New York Tribune and the Anti-Slavery Standard. Since 1881 she has published ‘Modern Society,’ a ‘Life of Margaret Fuller,’ and a second volume of essays, entitled ‘Is Polite Society Polite?’ She has chosen to include within covers only a small part of her writings, nor does even their whole bulk represent the life work of this versatile and public-spirited author. She inspired the prosperous New England Women’s Club, the pioneer of its kind in America. She was a delegate to the World’s Prison Reform Congress in London, in 1872, and helped to found the Women’s Peace Association. She was president of the women’s branch of the great New Orleans Exposition in 1884, and she has presided over innumerable clubs, conventions, and congresses.

Notwithstanding this enormous activity and productiveness, her own countrymen associate her name almost wholly with one poem, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’; a poem struck off at white heat early in the Civil War, when, in the camps about Washington, Mrs. Howe was thrilled by the marching of thousands of gallant young soldiers to the martial air of ‘John Brown’s Body.’ The regiments caught up with enthusiasm the new words which she set to the familiar tune; and the ‘Battle Hymn’ was sung in camp and field, from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. It became the Marseillaise of the unemotional Yankee. Mrs. Howe died at Newport, Rhode Island, October 17, 1910.

[All the following poems are taken from ‘Later Lyrics.’]