Trampling Out the Vintage: Analyzing Verse 1 of Battle Hymn of the Republic

The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is first and foremost a call to arms. It is an inspirational song designed to inspire the people of the Union during the American Civil War (1861-1864) to fight for the cause of freedom. The first verse is a direct reference to Chapter 19 of the book of Revelation in the Bible.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True...He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.1

Compare this with:

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.

At this stage in the Book of Revelation, John sees Christ returning to establish an earthly kingdom. It is as if Julia Ward Howe is having her own "revelation" not unlike that of John on the island of Patmos. Only, it is a vision of her own time. So she sees the coming of the Lord and, as in the Bible, he is coming to dispense justice and God's righteous retribution. At this point we are not told what has sparked God's anger. Nevertheless, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, most listening to the hymn would already know that she means the sin of slavery.

This verse also recalls verses 30 and 31 from the 25th Chapter of Jeremiah, "He will shout like those who tread the grapes ... He will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword." All of this evokes the Old Testament God of Israel, an intensity, an inevitability.

As one would expect from a battle hymn, the images are all about war. We already have the "terrible, swift sword" which is vivid and powerful and comes from the first verse in the 27th Chapter of Isaiah. And we are given the pervasive image of marching feet which runs through every verse as well as the refrain of the "Battle Hymn". The very tune itself is one that seems composed to get every person out of the pew and on the road to war.

< The Writing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic | The Watch-fires: Analyzing Verse 2 of the Battle Hymn of the Republic >

  1. Holy Bible New International Version from Revelation Chapter 19

Interesting Fact:

Many works in literature take their title from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, including Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

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