"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, May 30, 2014

Poetry: “For the Union Dead” by Robert Lowell

Today is Memorial Day, the day to honor our fallen soldiers.  I know; we celebrated the holiday on Monday, but that’s only for the three day weekend.  True Memorial Day is May 30th.  As it turns out, this is Friday, so let this suffice as a Faith Filled Friday entry.  No greater sacrifice can be imagined than the loss of life for ones fellow brothers and sisters.  It has been tallied—a rough estimate, I’m sure—that there has been 1,321,612 American dead fighting wars since our founding Revolutionary War to the current Wars on Terror.   

Here is a poem in honor of their sacrifice.  It’s by Robert Lowell, one of the leading American poets post WWII.  Perhaps ironically he was a conscientious objector during WWII (even being jailed for it) and a strong Vietnam War opponent.  He was a pacifist, but even pacifists honor war dead.  Lowell, by the way, converted to Roman Catholicism. 

The poem describes coming upon the sculptured relief of The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.  Robert Shaw was a white Union Colonel who led a black infantry regiment during the Civil War and was killed at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863.  The story of his regiment was dramatized in the movie Glory.     

The Latin inscription translates to “They leave all behind to protect the state.”   

For the Union Dead
by Robert Lowell.

“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.  


The poem is written in Lowell’s “confessional” style, that is from a very personal perspective and casual phrasing.  It’s pure free verse with just natural American English rhythm.  It’s a rather odd poem, but a fine one.  He starts the poem with a visual of the aquarium, which now has been boarded up and closed down.  Time has passed; fishes are no longer there, presumably dead, which leads in stream-of-conscious to think of long gone dinosaurs.  The fishes under water remind of the dead soldiers of the regiment buried in a ditch.  The sculpture stands almost alive, the truest memorial. 

Here is a photo of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture of Shaw and his regiment.




Lord, remember our dead.  May all of our soldier’s sacrifices have been for noble causes and may they rest in eternal peace with our deepest gratitude.  Through Christ, we pray.

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