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For the Union Dead

In his elegy 'For the Union Dead', the 20th Century American poet Robert Lowell raised from their mass graves the black soldiers who died in battle against slavery.

Frederick Douglass, who after escaping from his owner became a prominent leader in the movement to abolish slavery, said in 1852 that to the American slave, Independence Day was: 

“...a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham […] a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

In spite of his denunciation, Douglass went on to express faith in the “genius of the American Institutions” and the “great principles” contained in the Declaration of Independence, as well as the growing abolitionist movement which would end slavery a decade or so later.

The “great principles” were undermined by, among other things, the slaveocracy in the south which, until the civil war defeated it, threatened to expand north and westwards in order that its economy could survive.

Frederick Douglass


A century after Douglass gave this speech, Robert Lowell (1917-1967) – one of the 20th Century’s leading American poets – wrote his famous poem For the Union Dead, exposing the gap between the bourgeois revolutionary ideals, for which the Yankees ostensibly fought, and the reality of his own era which he felt was oblivious to its own, or any other, history; in particular the abolitionist cause of a century before.  In a letter written in 1964, he stated:  “In my poem [For] the Union Dead, I lament the loss of the old Abolitionist spirit; the terrible injustice, in the past and the present, of the American treatment of the Negro is the greatest urgency to me as a man and as a writer.”

The epigraph Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam (“they gave up all to serve the republic”) announces a public poem, an ode.  Thus the autobiographical opening stanzas strike us as unexpected, inauspicious even, and we wait for them to connect to something more interesting:

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.

The image of desolation in a waste of snow is a nostalgic one, but already something more complex than mere nostalgia is taking place.  As well as the grand expectations raised by the epigraph, we notice other details.  The glass barrier constrains both boy and fish equally, pointing up the boy’s inability to connect with the natural world and undermining any simple celebration of idyllic childhood.  His reaction to the fish is intense and sympathetic (the physical word “tingled) to the point of identification, as if the derelict aquarium embodies the narrator’s own lifeless state of mind in adulthood, from which standpoint he is recalling his boyhood attempts to reach out and touch life. 

In the manner of a film edit, we cut to the narrator’s consciousness in the present.

My hand draws back.  I often sigh still
for the dark downward 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.

The hand “draws back” from the memory.  The narrator longs for the “dark downward vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile”, that is, for a purer, preconscious state than he can attain in the present world.  But as we have seen, this is no simple pastoral; even during childhood, the yearned for thing was unreachable, the natural world tamed into compliance.

The caesura after “fish and reptile” switches us in time once again, but only briefly, to a specific “morning last March”.  Echoing the boy leaning against the glass, the narrator presses against the jagged steel fencing round Boston Common in his hopeless desire for the “vegetating kingdom”.  The hard sounds of  “barbed and galvanized” and the penal/bellicose associations of “barbed” (with its trace of ‘barbarian’ savagery) provide a strong contrast to the organic softness of the earth which the diggers are mauling, digging downwards as he himself would like to do, but in their case doing so destructively rather than searching for life.  The steamshovels seem wild behind “their cage”.  Though they are compared to dinosaurs, reptiles – that is, part of nature – they are the opposite of natural.  The external form contains a destructive content, inimical to life. 

Surveying the scene, the narrator pictures the city as a kind of plaything for infantile modern developers, who give no thought to the consequences of their actions, like the childlike consumerist culture altogether, without depth, purpose or responsibility.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.

Given free rein (“Parking spaces luxuriate”), consumerism engulfs even the Statehouse, that symbol of the founding fathers’ state power, which is hedged in and literally undermined by the new destructive forces.  Again the word “tingling” appears, but now evoking not a feeling for life’s intensity but the frailty of the old order.

A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

The statue of a civil war officer, Colonel Shaw, and his “Negro infantry” is equally vulnerable, the “plank splint” a pathetic defence against the “earthquake”, whose man-made power is emphasised by the proliferation of hard ‘g’sounds: galvanized, grunting, gouge, girdle, girders, garage.

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.

Now we revolve backwards into history.  Indeed, the poem itself enacts a growing historical awareness, with its various different timeframes linking past to present and back again, so that our relation to history becomes one of its main themes.

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.

In focusing on the monument, the poem at last takes on a monumental quality itself, outgrowing its own autobiographical beginnings the way a child develops.  The autobiographical has been woven into a historical context and gained gravitas, having been understood as part of a wider world.  The epigraph, we realise, is the inscription on the statue-­ except that Lowell has changed the original Latin verb "Relinquit" (singular) to "Relinquunt" (plural), at a stroke broadening out the sacrifice from that of the Colonel alone to encompass the black soldiers too; all of whom laid down their lives for the republic.

The anger of “sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat” has already been prefigured by the tone change of: “Two months after marching through Boston/half the regiment was dead”, whose stark brevity strikes a cold note after the satirical “Puritan-pumpkin coloured girders” and the “civic/sandpiles”.  The fishbone image suggests that the men’s sacrifice for freedom cannot be swallowed, assimilated and forgotten; it refuses to go away.  The Colonel points, like a compass, to the truth, which he protects with the vigilance of a wren, a tiny creature, yet fiercely alive.  Puritanical, he “seems to wince at pleasure” and longs for “privacy”, for which he “suffocates” because his deeds were done not for public praise but for deeper moral and political reasons.  The notion of suffocation picks up the breathing motif which began with the fish in the aquarium emitting bubbles as they comply with the public gaze, in direct contrast to the Colonel’s desire for privacy.  We see the same motif in the apparent breathing of the “Negroes” which William James, philosopher and brother to the writer Henry – members of another Brahmin Boston family like the Lowells – found so lifelike.

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.

Apart from the fact that the statue has been fenced off, the Colonel is also “out of bounds” ideologically, the modern era insulated from his values.  He “rejoices in man’s lovely/peculiar power to choose life and die”.  This one joyful phrase in the entire poem surprises the reader after the depiction of the colonel as puritanically upright.  The strange diction (“rejoices”, “lovely”) to describe self-sacrifice suggests a kind of secular saint, whose happiness is derived from promulgating the public good.  Life becomes meaningful when devoted to the betterment of humankind; dying for a noble cause can be a greater contribution to life than living.

The viewpoint now moves further up and out, sweeping like an aerial cinematic shot over New England:

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…

The old revolutionary spirit is now “sparse”, its flags “frayed”, its vigour gone.  The “Grand Army of the Republic” – the influential British Legion-type organisation of civil war veterans – with its capital letters has an ironic as well as an elegiac tinge, its grandiosity anachronistic. 

What America once stood for has been eroded, like the statues of the war dead.  The echoing sounds of “doze” and “muse” stress the quietude and impotence of the once vigorous fighter now regressing “each year” to boyhood (“grow slimmer and younger”).  Once more we are reminded of the yearning, passive boy at the poem’s start, now linked to the notion of a society kept perpetually infantile by having been deprived of a knowledge of its own history.

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The mass grave integrates officer and men, white and black, but this is no liberal tokenism.  Colonel Shaw (1837-1863) commanded the first enlisted black regiment in the civil war, one of the few white men who believed in the African American’s right to fight and die under the US flag.  The father’s abolitionist understanding of the purpose of his son’s death is deeply felt and moving. 

Colonel Robert Shaw. His regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, was made up of runaway and emancipated slaves.


Now the poem’s connections speed up, shifting once more – from the civil war to more recent warfare.  It is a natural thought progression from the mass grave of the ditch to the mass annihilation of WW2. 

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here.

The mass grave is closer than ever now, an integral part of the unremitting savagery that is modern life.  Remembrance has become debased, taking the form not of statues but of advertisements:

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.

The attenuated and forgotten memorials to the best spirit of America are less robust than the Mosler bank vault that survived the Hiroshima blast.  Lowell made up the brand name Rock of Ages, referencing the hymn title so emblematic of American sincerity and twisting it out of recognition.  He links banking, epitomised by the indestructible safe, to war, which destroys life but not the profit system.  The internal rhyme of Boylston, a major commercial thoroughfare in Boston, with “boiling” reinforces the connection. 

The obscene image of mass murder exploited for commercial purposes, of capitalism boasting of its durability amidst the ruins it itself has created, carries a great satirical charge.  The furious disgust here is a long way from the memory of the aquarium, of the dreamy imaginative world in which the boy, his nose soft and wet as a snail, could feel almost fishy himself.  

The matching lines “The ditch is nearer” and “Space is nearer” frame the contradiction between the primitive and the sophisticated poles of the modern era.  The same jarring disjunction appears again when the “drained faces of Negro school-children” – still struggling for basic civil rights which their forebears failed to secure after the civil war – appear on a modern appliance, a TV.  The narrator’s own sense of impotence is revealed by his posture, crouching at the television like his boyish self transfixed by the fish behind glass. 

However, the schoolchildren, suffering for their cause, are not submissive like the fish – Lowell is referring to the protests for integrated education at Little Rock Central High school in 1957-8 – and instead suggest the onward march of history, even if sealed off from the narrator behind glass.  The balloons imply helplessness, rising off the edge of the TV screen – perhaps literally as the vertical hold goes awry – far from the world they might change.  And yet their ascent (once again the breath/air motif) remains unstoppable, like struggle, like hope.

Immediately following comes the equally ambiguous image of the Colonel “riding on his bubble”:

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The picture is again one of being carried upwards helplessly, away from reality.  But at the same time, he is “riding on his bubble” as if on a steed, carried forward by it through time, until the moment his vision might bear fruit.  The “break” (the bursting of the bubble, bringing him back into the world – like the boy wishing to connect with the fish) is “blessèd” – the archaic, biblical accent lends a millenarist note – because it will at last free the Colonel from historical irrelevance.

The Aquarium is gone.  Everywhere
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

The aquarium, once the repository of his childhood musings, represents not hope exactly but the possibility of imagination.  In that sense, it is an equivalent of the democratic spirit now lost.

The cars recall the fish, but the meekness has been replaced by “savage servility”, the seemingly paradoxical phrase hissing at us angrily with its ‘s’ sounds, which carry through the final line.  Epitomising the individualistic, asocial sense of privacy that came with postwar affluence, car culture here conjures a people blindly obedient to the forces that rule them.  This sealed-off privacy is in sharp contrast to the deeply felt inwardness of the colonel, whose heroism was the public act of a private man.

No longer confined to their tank, the fish are “Everywhere”, grotesque in their size, mechanised versions of the natural, like the reptilian diggers.  They slide by, friction-free, sustained by oil, disengaged from the real, history forgotten, meaning lost.  Though there is no political solution being offered here, there is a clear sense of something important being at stake.  The constant reminder of the continuity between the helpless boy and the helplessly despairing adult man might have given the whole work an overly depressive outlook, except that its rage lifts it beyond despair to something like a yearning for revolution – as evinced by the visionary quality of the colonel awaiting “the blessèd break”.

Lowell’s poem wrestles with the excision from American life of any historical awareness of slavery and racism, of its own revolutionary traditions, of democracy.  Yet while denouncing the frictionless present, the poem nevertheless reveals that history is happening all the same.  As James Baldwin put it:  “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”  The poem, which takes us from the contemplation of a world lost to an expansive, visionary condemnation of society, is itself a process, involving the reader, an honest scrutiny of the limits of bourgeois decency overcome by capitalist rapacity.  The very absence of friction, as exemplified by the world of advertising, is primitive, “savage” in trying to smooth away “man’s lovely, / peculiar power” to affect history.

 

 

 

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 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
Aad 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.



Robert Lowell, 1917-1977



Selected Poems, Robert Lowell, is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (available at £8.18 from Amazon)