Angel of Peace, thou hast wandered too long!
Holmes begins his poem by welcoming the return of this famous Biblical figure.
Holmes starts off by welcoming the Angel of Peace who had been so catastrophically absent during the Civil War. This angel is a familiar figure within Christian iconography; there are several artistic and literary references to this peace-bringing and -symbolizing angel. Interestingly enough, though, there is no actual reference to an angel bearing this name or personifying this virtue within the Bible.
The closest Biblical model for the figure is the familiar angel of the well-known Christmas story. Introduced in the second chapter of Luke, this angel appears before shepherds as they keep watch over their flock and announces the birth of Jesus:
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Nope, nothing about being a Peace Angel. An "Angel of Peace" does appear in two ancient Christian writings, but the writings haven't been accepted as part of the Christian canon. Another Angel of Peace appears in the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text composed several centuries before the birth of Jesus. Yet another appears in the Essene Gospel of Peace, an ancient text allegedly discovered in the Vatican library in 1923. The scholar who claims to have discovered the text, Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, argued that the Church suppressed it because it presented a controversial portrait of Jesus.
Despite the lack of Biblical evidence supporting the poor guy's existence (er, the poor angel's existence), the Angel of Peace remains a familiar concept for most Christians. With that in mind, Holmes began his poem by speaking to the angel directly.
Fly to our ark like the storm-beaten dove!
Holmes nails the Biblical reference in this line, recalling the Genesis account of Noah and the flood.
Holmes' 19th-century audience knew its Bible, so there was no doubt that his audience would understand this reference. In urging the Angel of Peace to return to America just as the dove returned to the ark, he tapped into the widely known account of Noah from the book of Genesis.
According to this Old Testament book, God grew so displeased with humanity that he resolved to destroy all but a tiny remnant through a cataclysmic flood. Deciding that only faithful Noah and his family would be spared, he told the man to build an ark and collect a male and female of every species so that they could ride out the 40-day storm onboard.
For ten months, water covered the earth, but after seeing a mountaintop peek through the water, Noah realized that the flood was receding. He sent out a dove to find land, and the bird returned to the ark with an olive branch as evidence that their trials were coming to and end.
Speed o'er the far-sounding billows of song,
Crowned with thine olive-leaf garland of love
Holmes taps a different cultural tradition in this line. Olive branches have been a symbol of peace since the time of Ancient Rome.
In this line, Holmes urges the Angel of Peace to "speed" back to the war-ravaged and recently re-United States crowned with an "olive-leaf garland of love." The olive branch was viewed as a symbol of peace in Ancient Rome.
In fact, it plays an important part in The Aeneid, Virgil’s epic account of the formation of Rome. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas sails to Evander's city. Its residents, believing Aeneas to be an invader, grab their weapons, but when Aeneas waves an olive branch rather than a sword, he's embraced as a friend.
Joyous we meet, on this altar of thine
Mingling the gifts we have gathered for thee,
Sweet with the odors of myrtle and pine
Brothers once more round this altar of thine!
While the first verse offers a somewhat general prayer for peace, this second specifically calls to mind America's recent conflict.
While Holmes seems to have intended in his first verse to issue a general plea for peace, in this second verse he speaks more directly of the recent Civil War.
Crepe (or sometimes "Crape") Myrtle trees aren't native to the United States; they were introduced into South Carolina in the late 18th century. By the time of Civil War, they were a widespread and distinctive feature of the Southern landscape. Pine trees are native to North America and abundant in the forests of both North and South, but they held iconic status in the Northeast where they were more prevalent. In fact, some New England colonies included pine trees on their colonial flags.
Holmes thus conjured images of Northerners and Southerners joyously coming together, offering gifts made fragrant by the odors of myrtle and pine to the Angel of Peace. Here at this altar they were "brothers once more."
Angels of Bethlehem, answer the strain!
Hark! a new birth-song is filling the sky!
More fun with Bible stories.
In the first two verses, Holmes reaches out to the Angel of Peace in song. In this line, he asks the Angel of Peace's backup singers, the Angels of Bethlehem, to answer. According to the Gospel of Luke, after the Angel of Peace announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, a large group of angels appeared to add some additional dimension to the announcement:
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased."
Holmes now invites this chorus of angels to answer the song sung by Americans pleading for peace. And just as they had helped herald the birth of Jesus, Holmes now asks them to join in the Americans' new "birth-song" of peace.
Didn't think there'd be so much Bible talk? Well, it is called "A Hymn of Peace." What'd you expect?