Robert Lowell: For the Union Dead

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In 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, at the age of thirty), were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized. Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-fifties began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death from a heart attack at age 60. Robert Lowell served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death in 1977. 


Source: Poets.org;  http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/10 

 

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Volunteer Army of the United States


For the Union Dead

Asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, Lowell delivered "For the Union Dead," a poem about a Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw, whose sister Josephine had married one of Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (who, like Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in the war). The poem is thus, though undeclaredly, a family poem; and in it, Lowell quotes from a letter that Charles Russell Lowell wrote home to his wife, Josephine, about her brother's burial: "I am thankful that they buried him with his niggers.' They were brave men and they were his men." "For the Union Dead" honors not only the person of Robert Gould Shaw, but also the stern and beautiful memorial bronze bas-relief by Augustus Saint Gaudens which stands opposite the Boston State House. It represents Colonel Shaw on horseback among the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a regiment entirely composed of Negro soldiers. By his own earlier request, Shaw -- who had the right, as an officer, to have his body brought home for burial -- was buried with his men in a mass grave after the battle of Fort Wagner, in which he and they had fallen. Far from criticizing the Brahmin past from the vantage point of the Catholic present, as he had done in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell now criticizes Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past. It is not he, any longer, who illuminates the past; the past, with its noble but fading light, now illuminates the debased present, of which he is a part. 

Source: "On 'For the Union Dead'" by Helen Vendler for Modern Poetry: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/uniondead.htm 


For the Union Dead
 

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam. 

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
 
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
 
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
 
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
 
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
 
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
 
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
 
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
 
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
 
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
 
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
 
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
 
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
 
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
 
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
 
Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.
 
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
 

From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell.  All rights reserved.

 

History

History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had--
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter's moon ascends--
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull's no-nose--
O there's a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.