Flashbacks April 2005

Poetic Justice

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow champion the cause of freedom in the pages of The Atlantic.

This month the Library of America released an anthology titled Poets of the Civil War, edited by J. D. McClatchy. Several of these works were first published in The Atlantic Monthly by writers whose names stand tall in the annals of American culture. Among them are the founding fathers of The Atlantic—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell—and leading literary figures of the time such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier. Founded in 1857 with the aim of arbitrating and disseminating a literary and intellectual "high" culture that was uniquely American, The Atlantic Monthly professed allegiance to no agenda or canon, with the exception of one unassailable stance: an uncompromising opposition to slavery.

The poems below were published during the editorships of James Russell Lowell and James T. Fields, which extended from 1857 to 1871. Poetry was prominently featured in The Atlantic those years, with four to six poems per issue. According to Ellery Sedgwick's A History of The Atlantic Monthly 1857-1909, contributors of poetry came largely from the magazine's inner circle. Several of those poets—Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, Longfellow, and Lowell—were acclaimed by the Nation magazine in 1866 as "the four living American poets who fill the highest places" in the country's literary pantheon. Whittier and Holmes, the Nation suggested, followed in fifth and sixth positions. The Atlantic pursued and publicized its rapport with these most famous writers, but continued to welcome lesser known contributors, among them Julia Ward Howe. Her poem "Battle-Hymn of the Republic" was given lead space in the February 1862 Atlantic and signaled the magazine's increasing preoccupation with the Civil War. The large number of poems published in The Atlantic that dealt directly with the Civil War is a testament to the magazine's dedication to the abolitionist cause; and the religiosity of several of these poems and the divine sanction they awarded to the war attest to the contributors' conviction that freedom was indeed a sacred and undeniable right.

Mary Ann Koruth

"The Death of Slavery" (July 1866), by William Cullen Bryant

"Boston Hymn" (February 1863), by Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Killed at the Ford" (April 1866), by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"Battle Autumn of 1862" (October 1862), by John Greenleaf Whittier

"Barbara Frietchie" (October 1863), by John Greenleaf Whittier

"Battle-Hymn of the Republic" (February 1862), by Julia Ward Howe

Ode recited at the Harvard commemoration (September 1865), by James Russell Lowell (This poem was written in honor of Harvard men who had died for the Union cause. It was recited on July 21, 1865 and reprinted two months later in The Atlantic.)

Mary Ann Koruth is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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Mary Ann Koruth is an intern for The Atlantic Online

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