Reporter's Notebook

Poem of the Week
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This year, in honor of National Poetry Month, we compiled some of the best poems published throughout The Atlantic’s 160-year history… and we didn’t want to stop. Come back every week to read another poem from our archives, and go here to check out our month of poetry recommendations from staff and readers.

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Poem of the Week: ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ by Julia Ward Howe

Thomas Nast / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Earlier today, The Atlantic debuted its flagship podcast, Radio Atlantic, along with its theme song: Julia Ward Howe’s iconic Civil-War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” reinterpreted by renowned jazz musician Jon Batiste.

The lyrics of the “Battle Hymn” premiered in our pages in February 1862, a little more than 155 years ago, for the price of four dollars. The song captured the spirit of the young magazine, which had been founded less than five years earlier with the aims of ending slavery and advancing “the American idea.” And it resonated similarly with the moral and patriotic ideals of the embattled Union. As Dominic Tierney wrote in 2010:

During the Civil War, the “Battle Hymn” became a rallying cry of the northern cause, reprinted a million times, and sung on a thousand marches.

Like The Atlantic, the song endured long after the abolitionist cause won the day. Of its lasting impact, Tierney observed:

The story of the “Battle Hymn” is the story of the United States. The song … is a hallowed treasure and a second national anthem. We have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. The “Battle Hymn” has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

But most of all, the “Battle Hymn” is a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. … It would endure as America’s wartime anthem long after the guns fell silent in 1865.

The song has retained a special significance for us at The Atlantic, too, embodying the remarkable history and guiding principles of the publication even now, a century and a half after we first published it. As our editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg says on Radio Atlantic, “Julia Ward Howe’s poem was the best investment of four dollars our magazine has ever made.”

Here are the opening lines of the “Battle Hymn”:

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 fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
                       His truth is marching on.

You can find the rest of the lyrics here. Then, watch Jon Batiste reinterpret the classic melody and read about the meaning behind his modern arrangement. And don’t miss the first episode of Radio Atlantic, where you can listen to Batiste play the song in full, hear the story behind the original composition of the “Battle Hymn,” and learn more about its significance to The Atlantic.


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Redwood trees seen from below, with light filtering between their trunks
Eric Risberg / AP

This week I left Washington, D.C., behind and returned to the coastal town in Northern California where I grew up for a brief respite from the late-summer heat and humidity pervading the capital. To mark my homecoming, here’s a bit of E. R. Sill’s haunting “Among the Redwoods,” from our December 1884 issue:

Farewell to such a world! Too long I press
   The crowded pavement with unwilling feet.
Pity makes pride, and hate breeds hatefulness,
   And both are poisons. In the forest, sweet
The shade, the peace! Immensity, that seems
To drown the human life of doubts and dreams.

Far off the massive portals of the wood,
   Buttressed with shadow, misty-blue, serene,
Waited my coming.

I was born and raised just a short drive from the sort of forest Sill describes. He captures the experience of standing among the redwoods that I can still clearly recall from when I was younger: the incredible vastness of the trees; the mist and the light filtering through their close-grown trunks; the resounding sort of quiet they exude, so ancient and so far removed from anything man-made.

Even with all the 19th-century tokens of its romanticism and rhyme scheme and formal language, Sill’s poem vividly evokes that familiar place and those familiar feelings. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve found in our archives, a little bit of my home set down a century before I was born.

And it’s not the only reminder I’ve found. John Muir described the same woodlands in his 1897 case for saving “The American Forests”:

The redwood is the glory of the Coast Range. It extends along the western slope, in a nearly continuous belt about ten miles wide, from beyond the Oregon boundary to the south of Santa Cruz, a distance of nearly four hundred miles, and in massive, sustained grandeur and closeness of growth surpasses all the other timber woods of the world. Trees from ten to fifteen feet in diameter and three hundred feet high are not uncommon, and a few attain a height of three hundred and fifty feet, or even four hundred, with a diameter at the base of fifteen to twenty feet or more, while the ground beneath them is a garden of fresh, exuberant ferns, lilies, gaultheria, and rhododendron.

These forests were not destroyed by the clearings Muir denounced—by which, he wrote, “these vigorous, almost immortal trees are killed at last, and black stumps are now their only monuments over most of the chopped and burned areas.” Instead, when I was younger I was able to walk into much the same woods as Sill and Muir described in the late 19th century, and stand at the foot of some of the world’s tallest and most ancient trees. I can read these old writings and find something familiar, some sense of home. And when I return to the California coast the redwoods are still there, waiting my coming.

Pantea A. Tofangchi / Passager Books

Editor’s note: Henry Morgenthau III is a 100-year-old poet. He published his first collection in 2016 at the age of 99. Before that, he was a writer and a documentary filmmaker at WGBH in Boston, working with subjects from James Baldwin to Eleanor Roosevelt. He’s also a memoirist, and the son of the former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., but his family connections don’t define his poems—as he told us, “One of the reasons I started writing poetry was to free myself from all that.”

For Morgenthau, freedom comes with humor and insight, in his own distinctive voice. And in his poem “A Sunday in Purgatory,” he finds this freedom even within the would-be confines of his age. It’s the title poem of his book, and we’re delighted to share it below.

—Jeffrey Goldberg

A voluntary inmate immured
in a last resort for seniors,
there are constant reminders,
the reaper is lurking around that corner.
I am at home, very much at home,
here at Ingleside at Rock Creek.
Distant three miles from my caring daughter.

At Ingleside, a faith-based community
for vintage Presbyterians, I am an old Jew.
But that’s another story.
I’m not complaining with so much I want to do,
doing it at my pace, slowly.
Anticipation of death is like looking for a new job.

Then suddenly on a Sunday,
talking recklessly while eating brunch,
a gristly piece of meat lodges in my throat.
I struggle for breath, too annoyed to be scared.
Someone pounds my back to no avail.
Out of nowhere, an alert pint-sized waiter
performs the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’t believe it will work.
It does! Uncorked, I am freed.

Looking up I see the concerned visage and
reversed collar of a retired Navy chaplain,
pinch hitting as God’s messenger for the day.
Had he come to perform the last rites,
to ease my passage from this world to the hereafter?
Don’t jump to dark conclusions.
In World War II on active duty,
he learned the Heimlich as well as the himmlisch.
Knowing it is best administered
to a standing victim,
he rushed to intervene.
On this day I am twice blessed
with the kindness of strangers.

You can listen to a reading by Morgenthau here; read more about his poetry collection from Passager Books here; and contact him here.

Victor Fraile / Reuters

It’s August again, and here in D.C., where we’ve had a cool and cloudy week, it’s already starting to feel a bit like fall.

It’s a time of year that Helen Hunt Jackson (under the diminutive pen name “H. H.”), captured in our pages almost a century and a half ago. In “August,” from our August 1876 issue, she describes the loveliness, and ephemerality, of a summer nearing its end:

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.

You can read the full poem here.  

Interior view of a slave pen, showing the doors of cells where the slaves were held before being sold
Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia Library of Congress

This year I’ve spent my working hours in a distant American past, reading contemporaneous accounts of abolitionism, civil war, and Reconstruction in the deepest reaches of our archives.

Over the last few months this position has sometimes felt disjointed from the constant stream of news coming out of Congress and the White House. But this week the two eras collided violently when efforts to take down Confederate monuments were met with protests by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Confederate generals became the subject of articles, protests, and presidential flim flam, and Frederick Douglass reemerged on our homepage as a powerful political voice.

So, though it was written more than 150 years ago, William Cullen Bryant’s “The Death of Slavery” feels relevant today. In the poem, published in our July 1866 issue, Bryant hails the abolitionist victory at the close of the Civil War by addressing his words to the institution of slavery itself—that “great Wrong,” that “scourge,” finally at the end of its “cruel reign.”

Like The Atlantic’s founders, Bryant was fiercely opposed to slavery. He repeatedly gave voice to his abolitionism in the editorials he penned as the longtime editor of the New York Evening Post, and was an emphatic supporter of the anti-slavery Free-Soil and Republican Parties and particularly of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. The grand moral language and triumphant tone of “The Death of Slavery” evince the fervent outrage with which he viewed America’s “peculiar institution,” and the equally fervent exultation he felt when it finally ended.

The last stanza of the poem, in which Bryant addresses the physical remnants of slavery, feels particularly resonant at the end of this long and difficult week. It reads:

I see the better years that hasten by
   Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
   Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
          The slave-pen, through whose door
          Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
   At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
   Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, ’mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.

You can read the rest of the poem here, and find more verse about the Civil War in our archives.

Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress

The first jazz recordings were made a century ago, in late February 1917. Just five years later, Carl Engel reported in our August 1922 issue, “Jazz is upon us everywhere.” The music was spreading into venues across the United States and Europe, and Engel, for one, was not a fan. He found the dancing inspired by “this delirious caterwauling” particularly offensive: “silly, lewd gyrations … the release of tension in a witless, neurotic stratum of society” that were “not precisely setting an example of modesty and grace.” Still, he later acknowledged, “jazz—good jazz—is not devoid of musical possibilities, not wanting in musical merit,” even if the “prurient panders of the musical fraternity” and “deplorable dances of our day” were beyond defense.

Theodore Maynard, on the other hand, thought modest and restrained dancing was ill-suited to the new music. In “Jazz,” from our January 1922 issue, he describes a cabaret scene in which wealthy patrons rise to dance to a jazz song. Maynard sees none of the “silly, lewd gyrations” that Engel condemned. Instead, he puzzles over the lack of passion and enthusiasm in the dancers, so out of touch with his own reaction to the music:

                                                           Gay
   They were not. They embraced without dismay,
Lovers who showed an awful lack of awe.

Then, as I sat and drank my wine apart,
   I pondered on this new religion, which
   Lay heavily on the face of the rich,
Who, occupied with ritual, never smiled—
Because I heard, within my quiet heart,
Happiness laughing like a little child.

You can read the full poem here.