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 gently 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.
is riding on his bubble.
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
*The epigraph translates as, “They gave up all to serve the public thing.” More generally, "res publica" means "the republic" or "the state," but I like the larger implications the more literal translation makes available.
Robert Lowell is not among my favorite poets, but he wrote a handful of poems that I consider true masterpieces, among them “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” “Skunk Hour,” and my favorite for a number of reasons, “For the Union Dead.” Lowell’s early and, I think, more interesting poems, written under the aegis of such mentors as Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, were heavily influenced by Donne and the other Metaphysicals, by Dylan Thomas, and by Hart Crane (whose fascination with the sea as both haven and danger is echoed in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”). He later turned away from this mode toward the more discursive, speech-like poems of his so-called confessional period, though his confessions were as well rehearsed and carefully crafted as the most blatantly artificial speeches of a masked actor. I find most of these poems too talky and prosaic. But “For the Union Dead” (originally called “Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th”), whose title rebukes or at least responds to Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which mourns an imaginary Southern chivalry, has always deeply moved me.
Ezra Pound defined the epic as a poem containing history, in which case this poem, containing and shaping history, is a little epic. It never makes its judgment of its current moment (and ours) discursively explicit, and the reproach is stronger for its reticence. The poem is almost numerological in its historical engagement. It commemorates the Massachusetts 54th Regiment; the South Boston Aquarium closed in 1954; and Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that led among other things to the hotly contested integration of Little Rock High School that the speaker watches on television, was handed down in 1954.
In my beginning is my end. Like a moebius or ouroboros, the poem circles around, ending where it begins. The speaker starts as a child pressing his face against glass, enthralled by the life on the other side, and ends that way too. The South Boston Aquarium is closed; where water was, is now a desert as much spiritual as material, “a Sahara of snow.” As a child the speaker pressed his nose against the glass of the tanks, watching the “cowed, compliant fish,” the life caged on the other side of glass. The speaker draws his hand back from the glass, drawing back to a present in which once again he is pressed against a barrier, “the new barbed and galvanized//fence on the Boston Common.” Now, though, instead of life, there is a parody of life on the other side, “yellow dinosaur steamshovels,” still caged, but artificial. They grunt as they devour “tons of mush and grass,” not for sustenance, but to gouge out an underground parking garage, which is implicitly a hell, an “underworld.” Instead of nature reproducing itself, parking spaces replicate themselves through Boston.
“Puritan-pumpkin colored girders” prop up “the tingling Statehouse,” and prop up the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze relief of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first black regiment organized in a free state. (Colonel Shaw and the regiment were the subjects of the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick as Shaw, for his role in which Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award.) Shaw, an ardent abolitionist from a family of staunch abolitionists, was killed with most of his men in the assault they led on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, which was never taken by the Union armies. Like the Statehouse, the relief is “shaking,” as the principles it celebrated are undermined, physically by the excavations, symbolically by the spread of materialism and commerce the new parking garage embodies.
“Two months after marching through Boston,/half the regiment was dead,” but their spirits and the ideal of freedom for which they fought lived on: “at the dedication” in 1897, [philosopher and psychologist] William James [brother of novelist Henry James] “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” Now their monument stands as a rebuke to the city: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat,” reminding us of the closed aquarium and its long-dead fish, another emblem of life now out of reach. Colonel Shaw still points the way, even if no one follows any longer: “Its Colonel is as lean/as a compass needle.” Wincing at pleasure (an heir to the Puritans whose only legacy is the orange girders) and suffocating for privacy, he has become a public monument. He no longer has any personal privacy, but he is also suffocated by the “privacy” of an era with no public ideals, in which the “public thing” for which he and his men gave their lives means nothing. “He is out of bounds now”: he and the values he represents are beyond the pale, and he is literally cordoned-off by the fencing surrounding the construction site. Echoing Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” he celebrates humanity’s capacity “to choose life and die.”
All over New England, the churches commemorate the American Revolution, a more honorable rebellion than the South’s struggle to sustain and expand slavery. But the flags over the cemeteries of the Grand Army of the Republic, a patriotic organization of Union veterans, are frayed. The statues of the “abstract Union Soldier,” a contrast to the specificity of Shaw’s monument, wear away each year; they grow younger as the past is forgotten.
The Confederate soldiers defending Fort Wagner threw Shaw’s body into the same ditch with his men, thinking it an insult to bury a white man with a bunch of “niggers.” But Shaw’s father wanted no other monument, knowing that Shaw would have wanted to be laid to rest with his men, not separated from them. Now, in our degraded era, the ditch is nearer than the idealized monument. In a poem written less than fifteen years after the end of World War II, and which explicitly alludes to that war, the ditch also calls up the ditches into which the corpses of Nazi concentration camp victims were thrown. That is the furthest extreme from the ideals for which Shaw and his men fought and died.
“There are no statues for the last war here,” that is, for World War II. There is only the parodic monument of a billboard for a Mosler Safe, which survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; its contents, doubtless money and other valuables, outlived the thousands of human victims whose only value was as a demonstration of the consequences of military might. Lowell deliberately chooses an image from the war with Japan, for , unlike the struggle against the Nazis, or against the Confederacy, there was little moral dimension to that war, just a struggle for control over the Pacific and its resources, the first use of the nuclear bomb now turned to the business of selling safes. The safe embodies the venality of the era, just as the black schoolchildren later in the poem enact the revival of Shaw and his men’s struggle for freedom and equality, for what the Declaration of Independence calls life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“Space is nearer” to us than the principles for which Shaw and his men died, the Soviet Sputnik satellite having been launched in 1957, undermining US convictions of unshakeable superiority. Television is nearer: the speaker presses close to the television images of black schoolchildren integrating Little Rock High School in the same year as Sputnik’s launch, looking at life caged behind glass, in the same way that the child he was pressed up against the glass of the tanks of the aquarium, fascinated but apart. The black schoolchildren, who are only images for him, virtual people on a screen, are as foreign to him as the fish, but they are also more alive than he is.
“The Aquarium is gone.” But now the whole world has become a giant fish tank, ruled by “a savage servility.” The fish, “cowed, compliant,” are outside, caged not by glass or barbed wire but by cowardice and complacency. By now they’re just machines, no longer even alive: “giant finned cars nose forward like fish,” their motion greased by the petroleum that fuels them.