FOURTEEN years ago there came from the famous press of Ticknor & Company,
a small volume of Poems, whose first page, beside the imprint of the publishers,
bore only this simple title-line
Mrs. Julia Ward Howe
An anonymous book of poetry does not comment itself to the reading mob, and not
many copies were sold. But the critics read it, and the scholars, and the small
public which had heard that it was Mrs. Howe's book, and desired to
know what sort of verses a woman of society, a wit, a housewife, and a mother of
children would write. It was a book that invited, and received, and defied
criticism; a book powerful, pungent, and unripe. Its personalism was terrible.
In every page it said, "Lo, this thing that God has made and called my
name! What is it? Why is it? Behold its fervors and its doubts; its love and its
scorn; its disappointment and its acquiescence!" Here, at last, in
America, was a woman poet; not an echo, nor a shadow, nor a sweet singer of
nothings. Another Sidney, chivalrous, gracious, and eager for her part in the
battles of life; to whom, also, the muse said, "Look into thy
heart, and write!" She was not an artist, for her song
had mastered her, but it must
needs have been strong-winged, and
bold to do that. Clearly she was a many-sided woman, whom heart and imagination
alone would have made a devotee, and her keen intellection alone a free lance,
and who thus alternately believed much and nothing, alternately accepted and
defied destiny. So much one might read of her history in this book.
Society knew also that she was born and reared in New York, her father being a
wealthy banker, well-bred, and scholarly. Determined that his pet daughter -- a
wise little atom even in her babyhood -- should not be merely a fashionable
girl, he gave her teachers and books, appealed to her ambition, aroused her
artistic instinct, and kindled her religious nature. The quick spirit responded
to every touch. A wise and loving man meant only to mould a wise and loving
woman; but day by day the steady eyes grew more intent in their questioning; day
by day the broad brow wore lines of deeper thought; day be day the elder mind
caught glimpses in the younger of that strange, ineffable gift which men call
genius. The brilliant girl had written verses almost as soon as she could write
at all. French and Italian she readily mastered, and in time, leaving behind her
the waste and weary land of German grammar, she came into such a shining
inheritance of German literature as seemed to create in her new faculties of
comprehension. Goethe and Schiller were her prophets and kings, and she received
with large welcome the subtile philosophers of their speculative nation. While a
school-girl she published first, a review of Lamartine's Jocelyn, with
translations in English verse, and afterwards a more thoughtful review of
Dwight's translation of the minor poems of Goethe and Schiller.
So she grew to ripe girlhood, -- reading, writing, dreaming; fiery within, as her
warm tints and rich bright hair declared her, but cold without, under the
repression of her education. To this day it is plain that she cannot easily
antagonisms. That her reason accepts the strictest
formulas of life, her energetic intellect works well and thoroughly in the
harness of existing laws and limits, while her "red
temperament" sometimes besets her to set all bonds at naught, and
scatter heresies of thought and conduct like firebrands.
At twenty, sentimental, romantic, longing for the actual vivacity of life, and
finding only the dullness of routine, she was subject to seasons of passionate
and profound melancholy. Her German studies had made her indifferent to the
formal worship in which she had been bred, and no vital belief offered itself to
her. Into this vague, hungry, and dark mood of hers came the awful kindness of
death. The idol of her heart -- her father -- died, and within a brief time a
dear brother also, and the questioning heretic became a religious and spiritual
enthusiast. The exultation lasted for two years. During that time the young
devotee read little else than the Bible, which she undertook as a meritorious
One day a friend put into her hand "Guizot's History of
Civilization," and then her new life began. She studied it with all the
force of her vigorous mind, and its large thought aroused her from her dream of
holiness to a life of use, while it lent wings to her self-centred imagination.
She was now a liberal in politics, -- in religion a thoughtful inquirer. She
studies Paradise Lost, and felt its gloomy grandeur, while it nevertheless
compelled her reason to reject an eternal hell as possible. At twenty-three she
married Dr. Samuel G. Howe, of Boston, -- a man whose heroic labors for Greece
in her struggle for independence, whose beautiful devotion to the blind, and
whose anti-slavery crusades made men speak of him as the new Bayard. They went
abroad immediately. In England the petted child, the young heiress, the idol of
her own circle, the haughty belle, found her only claim to social distinction
was her husband's fame, which the recent
Dickens' “American Notes” had made dear to all noble English hearts. To a woman
of her strong, self-centred nature, of her conscious power, and stately pride,
this acceptance of her as the appendage of another, this carelessness of what
sovereignty might be in herself, was an abasement as bitter as salutary. She had
dreamed of literary fame; but this sudden humiliation, the new cares, the alien
interests that crowded upon her, postponed her career for years. She came to the
Old World as a queen comes to her own. Its beauty, its maturity, its solemn
antiquity seemed her inheritance. Rome, magnificent and desolate, made her life
a rapture. There her first child was born, and her passion of mother-love was
hardly deeper than her passion of sad tenderness for the supreme city. Now for
the first time her firmament was high enough for her to stand upright. She lived
in this divine atmosphere for months, and then came back to the prosaic round of
housekeeping, and gave herself much to society.
In spite of household cares and baby hands tugging at her priceless hours, she
saved time for the hard study which was the breath of her life. She read
Swedenborg, and the tough difficulties she encountered only stimulated her. She
toiled at Comte, and made new resolves of thoroughness and breadth of culture.
In 1950 she again went abroad, returning to her beloved home, where she wrote
most of the poems in "Passion Flowers," and where art, and
books, and her precious children made that winter her golden prime. Coming back
to Boston, Dr. Howe undertook the charge of "The
Commonwealth," -- a newspaper dedicated to free thought, and zealous
for the liberty of the slave.
And now Mrs. Howe's opportunity was come. She wrote editorials, literary
articles, and verses, contributing, also, those brilliant paragraphs for which
the paper was famous in
its day. This success opened the way for
the publication of "Passion Flowers," so overblamed and
overpraised. Two years after came "Words for the Hour," -- a
book that palpitated, such red heart's blood coursed through the lines.
These poems, like the first, were wayward, inartistic, obscure, defiant, but
they were riper, and even more full of promise. In each the thought was strong,
and deep, and true. The stately rhythm that now and then broke on the ear, the
full and passionate expression, the terrible sarcasm, the sudden lyric glimpses,
lavished by the intense soul dowered with the love of love, the hate of hate,
the scorn of scorn, revealed a power which no woman but Mrs. Browning had
exceeded. The critics decided to accept the new poet; but a nature so intense, a
personality so strong as hers, is rarely understood or estimated at its worth.
On the one hand she was assaulted with flattery, and on the other with abuse.
She went steadily on her way, saying such wittily sharp things of her detractors
that it argued no small courage in a man to couch a lance at her, -- still
studying like an undergraduate, still writing with the industry of a country
parson, -- and in1857 publishing "The World's Own,"
-- a play produced at Wallack's Theatre, in New York. It was brilliant,
full of dramatic feeling, and well managed, but lacked a certain theatrical
suppleness, a stage-effectiveness, without which it could not succeed.
In 1859 Dr. and Mrs. Howe accompanied the dying Theodore Parker to Cuba. A
charming book of travels, witty, brilliant, airy, and graceful, was her account
of this journey, published first in the "Atlantic Monthly,"
and then, with additions, in a volume which she called "A Trip to
Cuba." Fun is a very near feeling, in fine souls, and all through the
book, under the ring of the laugh one catches the breathing of a sigh, as the
shadows of the glittering island-life, and the shadows of a parting friendship
fell on the bright observer. About these days, or earlier, readers of the
"New York Tri-
bune" were charmed with the
occasional letters from Boston, from New York, or Washington, about the gay
world and people and places of note, about summer days and autumn glories, about
art and poetry and religion. Eagerly asking whose they were, such readers came
for the first time into glad relations with Mrs. Howe, and felt her to be a
benefactor, for the true thoughts and bright pictures she had given them. Since
1860 her studies have been principally philosophical, including Swedenborg,
Spinoza, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. "I am afraid," she said,
naively to a friend, "I am afraid I believe in each one till I read the
During the last eight years she has written many admirable social and philosophic
papers, which she herself values far above her poems. Six lectures on Ethics
were cordially received in the drawing-room, where she read them to an audience
of critical listeners. And at Northampton, at the time of the meeting of the
American Society of Arts and Sciences, she read, before many of the
academicians, a remarkable lecture on "Man a priori and
a pastoriori." She has written, also, thoughtful
essays, entitled "Polarity," "Limitation,"
and "The Fact Accomplished." She gave last year, to the
"Christian Examiner," three able papers on "The Idea
and the Name of God," on "The Ideal Church," and
"The Ideal State."
In 1886 she was daring enough to publish "Later Lyrics," -- a
third volume of miscellaneous verses, and was justified of her courage by the
worth of her work. Her splendid "Battle Hymn of the Republic,"
set to the ringing tramp of the "John Brown Song," was the
Marseillaise of the war. Who will forget, --
| "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the
| He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are
| He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift
| His truth is marching on.
|5 "I have seen him in the watch-fired of a hundred
| They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
| I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;
| His day is marching on.
| "I have read the fiery gospel writ in burnished rows
|10 'As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace
| Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
| Since God is marching on.'
| "He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never
| He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;
|15 Oh, be swift, my soul to answer him, be jubilant, my feet!
| Our God is marching on.
| "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across
| With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
| As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
|20 While God is marching on."
In this third volume there is much less of the obscure, the fantastic, the
forced. A lyrical series called "Her Verses," says a fine
critic, "are so charged with wild passion, that they recall Mrs.
Browning's 'Sonnets from the Portuguese,' with more
of the Sappho, and less of the saint," Mrs. Howe has not yet mastered
her splendid powers. When she has fully possessed herself America will yet be
prouder of her one great woman-poet; for Harriet Prescott writes too few verses
for her fame's sake, and all the other women too many.
Mrs. Howe's last book is just published. It is called "From the
Oak to the Olive; a Plain Record of a Pleasant Journey," and is the
story of a trip from London to Athens, by way of Paris, Marseilles, Rome,
Naples, and Venice. This Journey was undertaken in 1867, to assist in
distributing American supplies to the destitute and heroic Cretans. The road is
old enough, but the traveler had new eyes. Her book is filled with lovely
pictures of scenery and people, of high life, of low life, of clear
character-drawing, and quaint fancies. More than this, it is profoundly
thoughtful, and goes
straight to the heart of institutions,
manners, and habits of thinking.
With the private life of an author, or a queen, the public has no business at
all. Whether Mrs. Howe stands in the kitchen eating bread and honey, or sits in
the parlor counting out her money, may not be told in these pages. But certain
things that any person in society may know are the property of the gentle
reader. She has auburn hair, and large, sad eyes, "where soul seems
concentrate in sight." Her mouth is her fine and expressive feature,
though her whole face is mobile. Her bell-like voice and her pure enunciation
have a charm like music, and the eloquence of her fine hands is irresistible;
her wit is brilliant, ready, merciless, and her sarcasm polished and swift as
the axe of the headsman Rudolph. Her friends know that music is her passion,
swaying her whole being; that the drama is to her the Beautiful Art, as she has
written of it in a noble poem called "Hamlet at the Boston;"
that she found the infancy of her children a constant miracle of beauty, and
that now, they pet and rule her as if she were the child; that the dignity of
her nature, forcing her to accept simplicity as the best good, makes all
luxurious and showy living distasteful to her, while her sense of symmetry and
harmony delights in order and elegance.
For the rest, in the winter she dwells in Boston, abode of the blest, and in
summer she lives in an enchanted glade, the loveliest place on earth, which
nobody can enter without the magic password, and about which all that the world
will ever know is written in tinted lines, and called, "In my
Valley." The lesson of her life is earnest work, and more than any one
of her sex in America, perhaps, she has demonstrated that it is
wisdom for Women to learn the Alphabet.