On "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 b 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.
. . . .
Lowell now conceives of the events of public history as existing solely in commemorative art, on the one hand, and metaphysical "immortality," like that of Shaw, on the other. Past deeds of war have vanished into these aesthetic and virtual forms . . . . With the disappearance of history as firm past reality, the poem tails off into the abjectness of a Boston now ruled by the immigrant Irish, who, like the skunks of Castine, have taken over territory formerly belonging to the Lowells and their kind. The Irish have defaced the historical Common on which Emerson had his transcendental vision; they have undermined the State House and the Saint Gaudens relief in order to build a parking garage; they have abandoned civic responsibility in letting the Aquarium decline; everywhere, reduced to the synecdoche of their vulgar automobiles, their "savage servility / slides by on grease." Lowell's anti-Irish statement, though covert here . . . , shows a new commercialized history replacing an old ethical history. The bas-relief shakes, and the statues "grow slimmer and younger each year" so that they will, if the process continues, disappear altogether . . . . Christian language, the "Rock of Ages," is debased to gross advertisement, heartless in its appropriation of Hiroshima for commercial purposes. What saves the poem from Pharisaic superiority is the speaker's own confessed participation in the degradation he so scathingly observes: "When I crouch" -- he says as he offers the most startling image in the poem -- "When I crouch to my television set / The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."
Lowell has now realized that the inner life, even that of a prophet, cannot remain immune from the corruption it describes. The savage servility he observes, if it is that of the Irish politicians turning Boston into one long financial and ethical scandal, is also that of the poet, representing old Boston, servilely crouching to his television set as the savagery of long-standing segregation victimizes Negro children in the white Protestant South -- as though Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th had died for nothing.
From The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995), 13-17.
Lowell's "For the Union Dead" vastly expands the context of individual experiences of loss presented in more concentrated form in the previous poems. In a succession of subtly linked vignettes, Lowell probes the personal, intellectual, cultural, and political ramifications of an array of locally defined losses. Vanished buildings, displaced monuments, misplaced childhoods, crumbling traditions, frayed dignity, and annihilated cities are represented in successive quatrains through the eyes of a historically aware individualapparently a dramatized avatar of the poet-reviewing the changes rapidly overtaking his native city and its once dominant Brahmin culture. The texture of the poem fluctuates between graphic, hypercharged super-realism and a curiously distanced, dreamlike reverie. It alludes to Lowell's childhood tellingly in its second stanza, and a "cowed," childlike confusion in the face of unfathomable experience is invoked again later in the poem.
But perhaps most tellingly, Lowell objectifies the process of loss by his persistent attention to visual objects. Often these visual objects are monuments of some public note. After an Latin epigraph that slightly but significantly alters the motto to the Saint-Gaudens statue dedicated to Colonel Shaw's regiment (the altered version translates as "They relinquished everything to serve the Republic" instead of "He relinquished . . ."), the poem proper begins by examining visual evidence of other forms of relinquishment. This examination starts with a public monument whose significance seems largely personal, the "old South Boston Aquarium." Not yet torn down, this structure has relinquished its old function. It "stands / in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. . . . / The airy tanks are dry" (FUD 70). A diminished survivor, the aquarium is just the first of many attenuated monuments that populate the poem. Soon center stage shifts to Saint-Gaudens's "shaking Civil War relief," now "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and to the neighboring Statehouse, another monument, that relinquishes its own traditional centrality and dignity. Braced and held upright by girders and gouged out underneath to make room for a parking garage, it appears as a symbolic victim of the modern, mechanical dynamism that persistently displaces the traditional past.
Such local cultural attrition provides the context for losses of a different order. These begin, of course, with reflections on the death of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment during the Civil War, losses that, despite their tragic nature, had a lofty social purpose. But this is balanced by modern destruction of a still more devastating order, represented by a advertising poster of "Hiroshima boiling." This visual object points with casual indifference toward two dominant postmodern fears that disturbed all four of these poets: the threat of nuclear holocaust and the onset of a devouring commercialism. For example, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 dismayed Randall Jarrell as profoundly as the firebombing and massive destruction of Hamburg did Lowell (see also Jarrell's own quietly heartbreaking "The Angels at Hamburg" for his response to the destruction by firestorm of this German city, where the death toll, by some estimates, exceeded that of Nagasaki.) The age of nuclear anxiety that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (so vividly crystallized in Lowell's "Fall 1961") provides a backdrop for Lowell's mature poetry as well as for the poetry of Berryman and Jarrell. And there is evidence in the polemical essays of Jarrell's prose collection A Sad Heart at the Supermarket and in poems like "Next Day," as well as throughout Berryman's Dream Songs, of the degree to which the burgeoning of a callous and triumphant commercialism in the fifties and sixties disturbed them. During these same years, Bishop moved to Brazil in part to evade the mass-production culture that was increasingly dominating her native land.
Just as Lowell's "For the Union Dead" presents its catalog of losses, so, too, does it present a peculiar, and parallel, catalog of survivors: almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but it stands. Its "cowed, compliant fish" may be no more, but a "bronze weathervane cod" still sits atop the roof, even though it "has lost half its scales" (FUD 70). Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static and attenuated simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations. Some of the poem's many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, and live on in the form of monuments, statues, pictures, and other visual objects. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer physical erosion and a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect. But there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs, who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe, whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial, mindless, and mechanistic order.
By contrast, the displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors. It preserves in vicarious stasis its "bronze Negroes," who maintain a curious simulation of life (William James could "almost hear [them] breathe"), a life mirrored by the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s]," who "doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns." But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" because it is an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in downtown Boston. This is true in part because racism and racial tension also survive, as does a replica of the ditch in which Colonel Shaw and his black Massachusetts volunteers were buried without the customary military honors by the Confederate soldiers who mowed them down at Fort Wagner. The form of that ditch is further replicated in the very "underworld garage" being gouged beneath the Statehouse. The continuing reality of racism reappears in "the drained faces of Negro school-children" whom the narrator observes on television attempting to integrate southern schools (FUD 70-72). But Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem's protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized. His predicament bears more than a passing resemblance to the speaker's long dead "uncle Charles," of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid"another Union officer and leader of "colored volunteers," buried on that occasion in Concord and with full military honors, attended by "Phillips Brooks and Grant." Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing. For this
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.
His wincing at pleasure, his erect, and perhaps narrow moral rigidity ("lean / as a compass-needle") is derived from a culture growing from deeply rooted Puritan beliefs in public probity and Election, out of keeping with a pleasure-seeking and profoundly commercialized contemporary culture. He yearns to escape from history's spotlight. Understanding the value of sacrifice for a higher good, he remains inflexible in its pursuit, and this places him on the margins of contemporary culture.
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.
Though Colonel Shaw represents an almost oppressive maturity, childhood remains a constant presence throughout the poem, and the gestures and wishes of childhood persist in the adult. The child's awareness is introduced in the second stanza, which generates much of the poem's continuing imagery, imagery persistently identified both with the poem's central observer and with the city's modern urban planners. The child whose "nose crawled like a snail on the glass" of the aquarium parallels the adult who "pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence on the Boston Common." The child's impulse "to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish" suggests a temptation toward violent gesture that is echoed throughout the poem. Of course, fish don't have noses or make bubbles, as the poet surely knew, so this must be a memory, that, like so many of the objects in the poem, has suffered metamorphosis. Though the impulse to violence is later transferred to other figures, we see it first in the speaker. His yearning for "the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" reflects a yearning to reach back through the premoral awareness of early childhood to the amoral aware- ness of the lower vertebrates (FUD 70).
The body of the poem frequently echoes this yearning to escape from cognition and the pain of historical awareness and self-consciousness and responsibility, an escape that the leaders of Boston seem already to have achieved. It might also imply a yearning for the freedom to act on baser instinct, a freedom shared by the lower vertebrates but rejected by Colonel Shaw. The "Parking spaces" that "luxuriate like civic / sandpiles in the heart of Boston" suggest this lingering childishness in the minds of the city's urban planners. But the speaker of the poem is not exempt. When he crouches before his television set to watch the "Negro school-children," he is mimicking his own action as a child peering through the glass of the fish tank; the school children whose faces "rise like balloons" echo the bubbles the child saw in the fish tank and seem just as trapped as the fish (FUD 70-72). The child is thus complexly imaged as both aggressor and victim, in a separate world from the adult, yet inexorably linked to adult consciousness.
Dream textures weave in and out of the poem, despite its prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, and dream-logic knits the various strands. The poem's logic resembles the subtle, associational logic of dreams, with its many surrealistic images, its curious doublings and transformations. The "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier" may be lost in a dream, as "they doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns," but the central dream-figure is Colonel Shaw himself. When last seen:
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessèd break.
The bubble he rides survives, with typical dream logic, from the fish tank, and from the faces of the school children who "rise like balloons." Colonel Shaw yearns to escape the vicarious simulation of life in which he is trapped, to depart a world that has a stable place for him neither in its public environs nor in its collective awareness, and to achieve the "privacy" for which he continually "suffocates." Shaw's final heroism may be the fact that he lingers still, in spite of his yearning to depart.
In his review of Lord Wearys Castle, Jarrell noted that Lowell's "poems often use cold as a plain and physically correct symbol for what is constricted and static" in contemporary culture (P&A 210). In "For the Union Dead" Lowell uses the temporary displacement of Saint Gaudens's bronze relief of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment in a context awash in parking lots, finned cars, and crass commercialization, to create "a plain and physically correct symbol" for the violent yet barely conscious displacement of mourning in the postmodern world.
from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Makeup of a Postmodern Aesthetic. UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by UP of Virginia.
In "For the Union Dead," slipped at the last moment into Life Studies' paperback publication and, later, published as the concluding poem in the volume titled for it, we find one of Lowell's most effective meditations on monuments. The poet has reached a thematic and formal stance that struggles to embrace flux and instability, that finds precisely in these some room for breath, for life, for limited resistance to the world's dehumanizing pressures. Commissioned by the Boston Arts Festival in 1960 and originally titled "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th," this poem forgoes much of the obvious formal tautness of Lowell's earlier poems on monuments (though it remains quite powerfully controlled). In this, the poem seems to justify the impromptu comment Lowell made in introducing it when he read it in 1960: "We've emerged from the monumental age" (qtd in Rudman 132).
Bostonians, and Americans generally, could certainly feel, in 1960, that the certainties of "monumental ages" were no longer to be had. The international Communist "threat," already bifurcating Europe and Asia, gained a foothold in the western hemisphere with Fidel Castro's 1959 overthrow of the pro-American, capitalist Batista regime in Cuba. And even the stability offered by low unemployment and fairly high wages was dramatically threatened by racial conflicts throughout the country. Since the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, periodic demonstrations and outbreaks of violence held the nation's attention. Beginning in February, 1960, just as Lowell began work in earnest on "For the Union Dead," four freshmen from a historically black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, began their sit-in at the local Woolworth's lunch counter, garnering wide media attention and sparking not only public debate over segregation but also similar demonstrations.
Boston itself was also unsettled in 1960, especially by changes wrought to the city's landscape and lifestyle by a city government working to create a "New Boston" from the wreckage of what historian Thomas O'Connor has called "the ethnic ascendancy" of the 1920s through 1940s. Under Mayor John Collins, Boston was transformed through a series of "urban renewal" projects, including not only the Charles Street Parking Garage but also the Prudential Center between Copley Square and Massachusetts Avenue, and the Government Center project, which transformed the area once occupied by the notorious Scollay Square. With plans for a new aquarium, to be built on the waterfront near the Long Wharf, the old South Boston aquarium was demolished. With more and more corporate headquarters and industrial plants moving out of the city to set up shop along Route 128's ring, Boston's demographics changed as well. The poor, especially racial minorities and white ethnics, remained in the city while many affluent white families emigrated to the suburbs, and racial tensions between black residents of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and Irish-Americans in South Boston began the long intensification that would finally erupt in the busing controversy of the 1970s.
"For the Union Dead" at once thematizes and formally registers the unsettled terrain of Boston and the U.S. circa 1960. The poem is composed of quatrains of uneven lines stitched together by alliteration and assonance instead of meter and rhyme; the line lengths seem determined by the rhythms of speech and breath instead of set syllabic or stress counts. In the looser, casual syntax of the Life Studies poems, "For the Union Dead" works through the decay and dissolution of the city's monuments (and the nation's), from the abandoned South Boston Aquarium to the Saint Gaudens bas relief of Shaw and his black troops, to the Statehouse that faces it, to all the thinning, dwindling Union soldiers on the greens of innumerable New England towns. Modern America threatens the ennobled and ennobling past with its commercialism, its crass ignorance of history, its tendency toward mechanized destruction. Here, though, Lowell does not strive to save the monument, to build a poetic stay, a verbal version of the plank splint that supports Shaw against the steamshovels' earthquake. Rather, he affirms the wishes of the Colonel's father, who "wanted no monument / except the ditch / where his son's body was thrown / and lost with his niggers.'" Shaw is stiff and powerless: "he cannot bend his back," "he is out of bounds." But Shaw remains somehow dangerous in way the others do not. "Wrenlike," possessing the qualities of a greyhound, Shaw remains somehow alive. Even in his inanimate condition, Shaw both guides (as a "compass needle") and endangers; a fishbone in the throat of this city's finned inhumanity, Shaw threatens to choke Boston. He stands as a double warning: action, however heroic, once frozen in commemorative bronze is threatened by the present's new priorities; but whoso would so easily forget their history, whoso would sell their heroic birthright for a few parking spaces, becomes inhuman, reptilian or fishlike, savage and servile.
Amidst all of the shaking going on, "For the Union Dead" does include a figure able to withstand the twentieth century's capacity for violence, a figure not fraught with the uncertainties that beset the Shaw memorial, a figure explicitly counterposed to the war memorials Saint Gaudens' relief exemplifies:
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.
How different, though, this "monument" is from the powerlessly stiff and threatened generals and soldiers. We might first notice that the elevated Christian rhetoric that characterized Lowell's late-forties voice is itself parodied here, reduced to a dumb steel box. More than this, not even an outmoded, impotent, and ultimately threatened individual heroism inheres in this "monument." The interlinear assonance of "Boylston" and "boiling" make that totality abundantly clear; Boylston street is every bit as threatened by the bomb as Hiroshima was. Who can control this new power with which we can make the air boil? The ditch grows nearer, indeed. And all that will remain after our wholesale destruction is an airless box of iron, locked up to keep thieves out. While it "survive[s] the blast" of modern society's most advanced means yet for self-destruction, the safe protects nobody and nothing of human or historical value. A safe haven for money, the Mosler advertised on Boylston Street (directly across the Common from the Shaw memorial) epitomizes the commercial concerns who benefit from war and the signal lack of concern that allows consumers to buy into the slogan's celebration.
I want to suggest an alternative shaped by the notion that the poem's most effective cultural work is done not only by its specific political or ethical "content" -- in this case a critique of contemporary American society as forgetful and acquisitive -- but through its structured provocation to feel a set of conflicts and questions, in the way it invites readers to deliberate amidst a set of fraught circumstances. In other words, I want to propose a reading of what Lowell has built in this monumental poem in an effort not only to determine but provisionally to share the ends he might have desired.
The way to that desire lies through the (admittedly meager) resources for hope the poem makes available. But if monuments are endangered by bulldozers and blithe disregard, and if the safe is safe only for capital, where is the human hope that redeems this elegiac public poem? It hovers, I would argue, first in the speaker's implication of himself in the destructive culture he criticizes, and, ultimately, in his attempt to shift his identification from the monument to a multiple, living, and problematic other. The speaker's identification with the aquarium and with Shaw make him as vulnerable as they are, and he finally sidelines himself, becoming a guilty spectator crouched servilely before his television. We might add that the speaker's regretful "sigh" for the "dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" in the third stanza aligns him with the "finned cars" and "savage servility" of the poem's conclusion as well. But we can go further still and find Lowell's self-implication woven more thoroughly through the poem's fabric of figure and image. Helen Vendler, like most critics, cites Lowell's clear disapproval of the parking garage, itself a suggestive synecdoche for changes wrought in the city's landscape, the changes I describe above. In this light, we might read Lowell himself into the "Puritan-pumpkin colored girders" that brace the Statehouse. But while Vendler argues that Lowell's "indictment of those who have sanctioned the gouging out of the underground garage" works as a criticism of "Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past" (16), the municipal government, after the election of John Collins in 1959, was in the hands of an administration that defined itself precisely by its opposition to the Irish-American political machine of James Michael Curley (and to the ruthlessness with which outgoing Mayor John B. Hynes's West End Development Plan had been implemented without the input and over the protests of Boston residents). And the project was funded by the state government housed across the street from Shaw's monument, a government still in the hands of Cabots, Lodges, and the like. The underworld garage is gouged out not by a corrupt gang of "immigrant Irish" pols, but by the New Boston avatars and the Statehouse's direct descendants of Lowell's beloved "New England past." We must, therefore, read Lowell not only in the girders but also in the Statehouse (and the state which sanctions the construction). Of course, the repetition of "tingling" from the second stanza suggests this too; Lowell's hand, tempted to "burst the bubbles," shares a sensation with the Statehouse. And, by extension, Lowell's hand carries the agency behind the "blessed break" that Shaw awaits, the bursting of the bubble that Shaw rides. Lowell himself, finally, lurks not only in the ditch, but in its diggers as well. And, speaking the speaker's words as their own, taking up his position, the poem's readers take up all these implications too.
On its own, this self-implication (or incrimination) offers nothing more positive than a perhaps salutary awareness of one's own inescapable complicity in the forgetful and destructive culture the poem represents. But "For the Union Dead" also preserves some cautiously encouraging signs of life. These are found not in some aspect of the speaker's self or in the heroic past, but in "negroes." Those depicted in the bas relief seem (at least to William James) to breathe, and those whom Lowell sees when he crouches to his t.v. "rise like balloons," which themselves resemble bubbles rising from the dark and vegetative kingdom of the old Aquarium, the bubble on which Shaw rises, waiting "for the blessed break." These references, I want to emphasize, do not link blacks to the "cowed compliant fish," themselves an analog for both the "dinosaur steamshovels" and the "giant finned cars." Rather, the "Negro school-children" and the "bell-cheeked Negro infantry" possess what even Shaw, who seems "to suffocate," does not: breath. At the same time, I must acknowledge Lowell's clear ambivalence toward "negroes." But Lowell does find power where it actually resides -- in those who are not monumentalized and can therefore do what no monument can: breathe and, with their breath, "rise." The foot soldiers survive and breathe. Unnamed and publicly unremembered, they are more human than their leaders' graven images because, to borrow Martha Nussbaum's phrase, their goodness, their humanity, is fragile.
More importantly, the school-children who demonstrate for integrated schools represent a living history, a breathing and vulnerable and powerful force that at once threatens the order represented by Brahmin Boston and by Shaw himself (the order with which Lowell is himself identified in and outside this poem) and offers a set of values worthy of idealization, a community with which to identify precisely because it poses a threat. In the new condition imposed by the atomic bomb, Lowell realizes that humanity is reserved for those who suffer history, not those who make it. And in "For the Union Dead" it is with these that Lowell casts his lot, becoming one of "us" both in our "dark downward" reptilian aspects and our fragile and aspiring aspects -- locked in with the common and their humble fate, locked not so unhappily out of the Common as monument park, as cemetery.
In this, a poem that breathes more freely than any in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell embraces all that threatens monuments and takes a breath, indeed takes up breath as the better thing than sculpture for remembering history and making it live in our difficult present. Or, better, he finds a way to make bronze breathe, to forge through the poem's tautly structured openness a powerful connection between monument and the masses. Those who serve the republic, as the poem's epigraph has it, give up everything. But those who see, remember, breathe and tell, those who bring history into the present not as static statuary but as living speech, relinquish only their old hope of named, individual, immortality. "For the Union Dead" provisionally completes an arc from the monumental aspirations of Lord Weary's Castle and its author to the rather more modest but more powerful expression of a fully human speaker's fully human responses to history. In this way it records and recommends a shift in Lowell's sense of poetry's mission in postwar America, a shift from static inscription to responsive speech. No longer does Lowell attempt to concretize his personal reaction and set it up for others to admire or emulate. Rather, Lowell now offers a delicate web of referents and significances, at once personal and public, that moves with our breath. As Shaw seems so precariously poised as to fall if blown on, so Lowell's speaker in "For the Union Dead," a speaker so closely identified with Lowell as to be indistinguishable from him, provides a point for our idealization.
From "Robert Lowell's Monumental Vision: History, Poetic Form, and the Cultural Work of Postwar Lyric" [American Literary History, forthcoming 2000].
Lowell's poem, "For the Union Dead" follows the mind of a person as he
interacts with the landscape of modern Boston. What he sees dismays him,
especially insofar as he compares it with an older Boston. For it is an
historical poem, one which tries to show a relation between the past and the
present. It tries to show this relation in many ways, but most obviously in its
superimposition of scenes from an earlier Boston upon parallel scenes from what
the Chamber of Commerce has been calling "the New Boston." Some
examples. The old South Boston
Aquarium, once the centerpiece of a park overlooking the harbor, has been gutted
by vandals. The Boston Common, a Colonial grazing pasture, is being exhumed to
provide parking places. Thomas Bulfinch's golden-domed State House must be propped by scaffolding so that "the garage's
earthquake" will not topple it. The Memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw,
the young Boston Civil War hero, who, along with most of his Negro regiment, was
killed in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 is similarly buttressed. These
violations of the past are complemented in the poem by today's
monuments—"giant-finned cars" and advertisements exploiting the
bombing of Hiroshima.
the Union Dead" is an historical poem in another sense, also. It is an
occasional poem, composed for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in
June, 1960. In many ways the poem repeats an earlier ceremony, the dedication of
the Shaw Memorial in 1897. On that occasion the speakers were William James,
whose topic was "that lonely kind of valor (civic courage we call it in
peace times)," which Shaw exemplified, and Booker T. Washington, for whom
the Monument stood for "effort, not complete victor." Lowell's poem
returns to these themes
. . .]
the civic courage of Shaw, who "rejoices in man's lovely / peculiar power
to choose life and die," but who "is out of bounds now" has been
replaced in the twentieth century by "savage servility."
[. . . .]
poem is an historical poem in still a third sense. The poet himself has
suggested that he thinks of it as "a Northern civil War poem," and his
replacing the original title "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th"
with the present one, "For the Union Dead," suggests a comparison with
Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." However, in one very
important way at least, the poems are quite different. In each poem a speaker
looks back to a more heroic age, but in Tate's he is cut off from the past. In
"For the Union Dead" the speaker creates the past.
statement requires explanation. It can be demonstrated, however, that despite
the historical subject, occasion, and theme, the "facts" of history
are of little importance in "For the Union Dead." Indeed, nearly every
historical observation in the poem is inaccurate.
the epigraph, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Shaw had been
a member, has been rewritten to translate "They leave all behind to serve
the country," instead of the correct "He leaves all behind to serve
the country." The motto (omnia
relinquit servare rem publicam) is correctly transcribed on the Shaw
Memorial. The misquotation may, of course, be just a slip up by the poet, (like
the misspelling of Boylston later in the poem) but this change does emphasize
that the sacrifice at Fort Wagner was a common one.
contrary to the implication of the poem, excavations for the Boston Common
garage were not the reason for the bracing of either the Shaw Memorial or the
State House, each one a quarter of a mile away from the blasting. The State
House was undergoing restoration; the Memorial was being propped up until the
city had managed to allocate funds for its repair. The neglect into which both
had fallen speaks eloquently enough to the speaker's point, but not so
eloquently as his vision of the active destruction of the past by bulldozers
William James's statement that he could "almost hear the bronze Negroes
breathe," which in the poem seems to suggest the continuing urgency of the
issues which Shaw's career raises, seen in the context of his address at the
dedication ceremonies, merely praises the verisimilitude of the relief. What
James said was this: "Look at the monument and read the story—see the
mingling of elements which the sculptor's genius has brought so vividly before
the eye. There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can
almost hear them breathing as they march."
though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it
was not he who referred to his son's troops as "niggers." According to
the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the
remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the
location of Shaw's grave, replied, "We have buried him with his
niggers." The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry.
But the actual reaction of Shaw's father was quite the opposite. He wrote,
"Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove
his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies,
among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only
desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument
over him and them.—What a body guard he has."
the linking of the "Rock of Ages" with the Mosler advertisement is the
speaker in the poem's idea, not the adman's. For although the Mosler Safe
Company saw the preservation of one of its safes during the bombing of Hiroshima
as an event to be publicized ("The Hiroshima Story Comes To Life With A
Bang!"), I have been assured that this company never adopted the slogan
"Rock of Ages" in its advertising.
Yet, although the scenes in the poem are historically inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker's purposes. The contrast between old and new is for him a contrast between something intelligent, decent, and past, and something destructive, desolate, and present. The imagery is consistent with the narrator's view of history. Most of it is related either to ascent or to descent, which, as Northrop Frye suggests, are the spatial equivalents of the desirable and the undesirable. The desirable past is seen as an upward movement. Colonel Shaw resembles "a compass-needle"; he has "an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness." He is "riding on his bubble."
. . .]
tendency of the present is downward. "Dinosaur steamshovels"
"gouge" for us "an underground garage." The South Boston
Aquarium, the scene at the beginning and at the end of the poem, reflects this
historical movement from ascent to descent. Once the "bronze weathervane
cod," symbolic of man's dominion over the lower orders of nature, stood
atop it. Man no longer has this dominion; in fact he has descended to the lower
order himself, as the final lines of the poem make clear.
finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
landscape of the poem then is not so much the city's as it is the poet's. It is
not photographed, but felt. It is not history , but autobiography. But the poem
is not the work of a modern laudator
temporis acti. Though obviously sympathetic to the past, the speaker belongs
to the present. His past is an imagined past, the Union soldier is
"abstract." The present, however, is real, and the speaker, as much as
anyone else, is part of it. He creates the imagined virtues of the historical
past, but shares the downward tendency of the present. His nose "crawls
like a snail"; he must "often sigh . . . / for the dark, downward and
vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," and must "press"
and "crouch" like a beast.
short, this poem is of a piece with that poetry in Life
Studies, For the Union Dead and Near
the Ocean which has a subjective narrator. Comparison with an earlier poem
suggests the distance that "For the Union Dead" stands from the poet's
former historicism. In "Where the Rainbow Ends" from Lord Weary's Castle, the speaker states:
saw my city in the Scales; the pans
of judgment rising and descending.
That poem had rhyme, meter, and stanza form; it rested on an equally ordered and orthodox system of belief and values. "For the Union Dead" lacks rhyme and meter, and has a stanza form which serves no prosodic or rhetorical function. As if to correlate with this loss of form, the poem's narrator offers no solutions, no guidance, no control—only his ability to conceive of a nobler way of life may be seen as hopeful. But unlike Colonel Shaw, the speaker cannot direct his life; he has no compass-needle. More than judging the modern condition, he bears witness to it.
from "The Poet as Historian: 'For The Union Dead' by Robert Lowell." Concerning Poetry 1.2 (Fall 1968).
Lowell's nearest approach, in For the Union Dead, to an image of moral political action is to be found in the title poem. As the title suggests, "For the Union Dead" is in some ways a deliberate reply to Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which revolves around the same two figures, the poet-outsider and the dead hero. But where Tate suffers so intensely at the lack of a personal release into action that the hero is almost totally idealized, Lowell questions - with similar anguish - whether the active man can ever measure up to the moral completeness of the outsider's vision.
Lowell's active man, Colonel Shaw, is in many ways highly vulnerable to Lowell's usual critique of the disparity between ideals and realities, and of political theatricality. Like Governor Endecott, Shaw is a gloomy, soul-searching man who ends by being wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise. He accepts the command of the Massachusetts 54th, a Negro regiment officered by whites, trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives, heavily exploited for Union propaganda, and massacred in its very first battle. Yet Shaw has redeeming qualities. Though he is engaged in a theatrical venture, he - and his father - desire nothing for themselves but "privacy." "When he leads his black soldiers to death, / he cannot bend his back": meaning, perhaps, that he cannot recant his decision - the absolutism of the idealist - but also that he accepts its consequences personally, and will not provide himself with a security that his men do not have. When Shaw's body is thrown (vindictively, by the Confederates) into a mass grave with his troops, Shaw's father recognizes the appropriateness of this end in the light of his son's principles, and the implicit racism of those Northerners who see in the act only an outrage. He wants no other monument but "the ditch."
The dislike of monuments, the fear that abstract images will too effectively distance unpleasant realities, becomes a central theme in the poem. The exemplary contrast to Shaw is William James, who, "at the dedication [of the monument] . . . could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," and who seemingly found in this artistic resurrection some sort of emotional compensation for their real deaths. (It may be relevant here that James's one unbookish brother, Garth Wilkinson James, was Colonel Shaw's adjutant, and suffered a wound that left him a semi-invalid for life, in the battle in which Shaw was killed. In spite of his invalidism, the younger James went South during Reconstruction and attempted to run a communal, integrated plantation. William James himself was prevented by poor eyesight from fighting in the Civil War. But even without this information, the contrast between James and Shaw is clear enough.) Later in the poem, the increasing modern romanticization of the Civil War, the "statues of the abstract Union Soldier" that "grow slimmer and younger each year," form a bitter contrast to the country's continuing indifference to racial injustice. Indeed, that indifference is itself encouraged by a distancing medium: the television screen where frightened black faces, become, like the cast bronze of the statue, mere "balloons."
It might be said that Colonel Shaw is a bit of a monument in his action, stonelike, unbending. Yet because he knows concretely, and undergoes in his own person, the full consequences of his choice, he remains a meaningful contrast to all the abstractionists in the poem, from William James to the television set; he represents a compromised, but still living, still responsible connection between ideology, or image, and reality.
The central issue of the poem can be stated in another way: given that mere rebellion or dissociation is unsatisfactory, what can man do with his inner monsters - his bear, snake, and horseshoe crab - that will somehow go beyond them and complete his humanity? "For the Union Dead" probably contains a greater profusion of animal imagery, for its length, than any other poem by Lowell. Nowhere are the organs, acts, and motives of man, the shapes and forms of his self-expression, more insistently animal than here. Yet the simple equation of animal images with brutality, instinct, and raw power that works in the tyrant passages is no longer viable here, although the yearning for a "dark downward and vegetating kingdom" suggesting a subrational unity of consciousness, even a return to the womb, is certainly akin to Caligula's desires. For, in this poem, gentle and humane qualities, and even those faculties of rational choice that seem exclusively human, are seen in animal terms. "The cowed, compliant fish" suggest an analogous quality of blind endurance in the Negroes; but Colonel Shaw's own angry "vigilance is "wrenlike," his ability to combine gentleness with discipline, principle, and readiness for action is "a greyhound's." The imagery thus serves to remind us how far man is a part of evolution, his fate the common destiny of living creatures, his most distinctly human qualities, more refined analogues of traits that animals, too, have had to develop for biological survival.
This line of thought is the key to the importance of the elegy on the aquarium with which the poem begins and ends. Imagistically, the passage functions as an overture on many levels, but its overriding emotional tone is nostalgia: Lowell mourns the loss of a curiosity about other living beings that made people want aquariums. Modern men no longer wish to acknowledge their kinship with the animal world, but prefer the comforts and thrills given them by machines, televisions, urban centers oriented around the "civic sandpiles" of underground garages. Here, Lowell's thought begins to parallel - and may, indeed, be influenced by - Norman 0. Brown's in Life Against Death. In Brown's view, man creates cities and technologies partly in order to identify with them and thereby escape his two greatest fears, his animal instincts (purged in the cleanness of mechanical processes)and animal mortality (denied in the seeming permanence of steel and stone). But, Brown says, in culture as in individual neurosis, what is repressed reappears, and is more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. This is also Lowell's vision, as revealed in the last stanza of the poem:
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or his mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere.
In turning to the seemingly impersonal power of machines, man is condemned to endless repetition not only of animal motives but of animal forms, his final point of reference for both form and purpose being his own biologically evolved nature. The same point is made earlier in the phrase "yellow dinosaur steamshovels," with the added suggestion that the end product of man's self-perfection will be his self-destruction. Protected from the knowledge of his animality and mortality by the spurious permanence and orderliness of the machine-world, man becomes not only more powerful, but also more dangerous, because he is spared direct responsibility: he is so shielded from the horror of reality that he can not only commit the Hiroshima bombing, but then use it to advertise a safe. Or perhaps the meaning is almost the reverse: modern man is so terrified of technological war that he can endure its image only when aided by a further identification with the inanimate permanence of - money! Suspect though the monuments are, their disappearance from the modern city is the sign of something far worse: an almost schizophrenic dissociation of the fact that war happens to living human beings, which, again, liberates man's cruelty.
If Lowell's dark vision of advanced civilization parallels Norman 0. Brown's, his image of a hero closely resembles Brown's psychological ideal, not in that ideal's more notorious sexual aspects, but in the conception of a willing self-surrender to time and death. For the portrait of Colonel Shaw provides a moral resolution to the question of animality and death, as to that of political abstraction. Imagistically, as I have shown, Shaw is in touch with his animal nature, and able to draw from it his most heroic qualities; further, his acts are finally justified by his willingness to accept physical suffering and death in a brutal, unvarnished form, to accept "the ditch" of mass burial. The very next stanza menaces mankind with a death of a different order: "The ditch is nearer." This ditch is a many-layered symbol, bringing together nuclear annihilation, the absolute zero of outer space, the blank terror in the faces of the Negro schoolchildren, the hollowness of ideals out of touch with real circumstances, the bubble on which Colonel Shaw suffers, waiting for the "blessed break."
Taken together, the two ditches pose an inexorable alternative: Yeats's "blind man's ditch" of natural birth and death, with its ugliness and uncertainties, as against an abstracted, centerless existence, whose quest for perfection of power easily metamorphoses into pointless and suicidal violence. But what is at issue is more than a restatement of the perverse argument that the tyrant is more pitiable than the tyrannicide, the monster than the abstractionist; for Colonel Shaw provides a pattern of the action that is quintessentially human: "he rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die." Man, who alone has rational knowledge of death, alone can voluntarily accept it, philosophically as well as in particular circumstances, for the sake of a complete and life-giving response to existence. It is paradoxical but moving that this act is said to make Shaw rejoice, surely a rare word in Lowell. Shaw's attitude is the diametrical opposite of the effort of the threatened identity to include the entire world in its own being, the effort that unites tyrant and tyrannicide, Satan and mechanized man: that might be called man's less lovely, equally peculiar, power to choose death and live.
The ideal implied in the portrait of Colonel Shaw is explicitly stated in the concluding passage of moral advice in Lowell's translation of juvenal's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," a passage which Lowell (unlike his source, according to an essay by Patricia Meyer Spacks) calls the portrait of a "hero":
a healthy body and a healthy soul,
a soul that is not terrified by death,
that thinks long life the least of nature's gifts,
courage that takes whatever comes - this hero
like Hercules, all pain and labor, loathes
the lecherous gut of Sardanapalus.
This hero, though something of a tyrannicide in his "loathing," has managed to conquer the tyrannous "gut" motives of oral absorption. He finds his basic integrity not in his acts but in the amount of "pain and labor" in his life, the burden of responsibility and moral insight that he is able to bear. And, as with Shaw, his greatest moral success is seen in his triumph, not over worldly temptation, but over the fear of loss of identity in death. This idea of an only barely activist heroism of insight dominates the political poetry, and to some extent the personal poetry in "For the Union Dead."
From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.
Some of Lowell's poems avoid the rigged rhetoric of "Skunk Hour" by relatively modest ambition, as in "Father's Bedroom"; others make the frustration of the quest for correspondence between self and other part of their theme. And there is at least one justly celebrated poem that takes a third and simpler way: "For the Union Dead."
One virtue of "For the Union Dead" is its restraint of analogies between public and private experience. For once, Lowell treats his public theme as precisely that and not another thing. Although, as Rudman points out, its landscape, the Boston Common, "is a ten minute walk from 91 Revere Street," many thousands of Bostonians have "passed it every day" besides Lowell. As the very name of the Boston Common implies, the poem is set in a public space. Although Lowell does recollect his childhood visits to the aquarium, he mutes the theme of his own unique relationship to the setting and concentrates on its shared meanings. In contrast to "Skunk Hour," the focus shifts away from self and toward environment. The landscape of the Boston Common, far more densely inscribed with cultural signs than that of Castine, Maine, offers readily what Lowell had to force on his surroundings in "Skunk Hour": a storehouse of symbols that reveal the consciousness of the inhabitants, past and present. This landscape, because it is urban and man-made, contains objects that testify, by their very existence, to what the people who made them value—and fail to value. The determinate historical origin of the surrounding objects provides a firm check on the tendency to treat self and environment as mutual reflections. The Shaw Memorial, the Statehouse, and even the unwittingly macabre Mosler Safe advertisement have a public meaning before the poem gets hold of them. "For the Union Dead" stands out in Lowell's work for its unusually firm resistance to solipsism and to conflations of public and private.
Not only does the landscape provide artifacts that were deliberately invested by their makers with public symbolism, it offers a full historical range from colonial times (the State House, the "old white churches") through the nineteenth century (the Shaw memorial itself) to the contemporary Mosler ad, which evokes both the historical present and the immediate historical past ("Hiroshima boiling"). The poem, one might say, is organized by archaeological strata (as Lowell may have wished to suggest by speaking of the "excavation" of the garage).
The two main symbolic artifacts in the poem are the aquarium and the Shaw Memorial, and the relationship between them is crucial to its interpretation. Given the title, the opening of the poem surprises by its obliquity. Lowell opens not with the Civil War monument but with his recollection of childhood visits to the aquarium, and it takes him five stanzas to come round to Colonel Shaw. The connections between the aquarium and the monument only emerge later, but the transition between the two begins in the third stanza. The statement "My hand draws back" signals also a drawing back from recollection into the present. "I often sigh still," the speaker admits, "for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" (FTUD, 70). The fascination with the fish is linked both with a desire to escape from human consciousness into the lower phyla (cf. Eliot's Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the Boors of silent seas") and with regressive nostalgia for childhood or, in later stanzas, the historical past. The fish and reptile "kingdom" is the lowest stratum visible in the "excavation" the poem undertakes—it is our prehistory, the residuum of the animal within the human. The city has been built above it, yet never altogether covers or effaces it. The topmost strata appear mainly in images of mechanism, frantic activity, and ever more rapid change: the steamshovels threaten the Shaw monument, "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and even the Statehouse requires bracing. The aquarium has been closed down, presumably to make way for new construction. And yet the surface and the depths are linked, since Lowell renders his images of mechanism in fishy and reptilean language—" dinosaur steamshovels," or the "giant-finned cars" of the last stanza.
Williamson finds, in the persistence of the fish and reptile, a critique of the very desire to build cities and monuments. He reads "For the Union Dead" as an indictment of civilization much like Norman O. Brown's in Life Against Death. "Man creates cities and technologies partly in order to . . . escape his two greatest fears, his animal instincts (purged in the cleanness of mechanical processes) and animal mortality (denied in the seeming permanence of steel and stone)." The closing of the aquarium becomes emblematic of our repression of the fish and reptile within, and the persistence of the fish and reptile in descriptions of steamshovels, cars, and the monument itself (which "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat") hints at a Brownian return of the repressed, "more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. . . . Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or man's mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere."
Williamson's remarks need to be qualified by the recognition that the aquarium, though it once gave the fish and reptile the "fixed locality" they are now denied, is nonetheless a public building, no less an example of civic architecture than the Statehouse or the Shaw Memorial. Indeed, one might argue that the aquarium is itself a monument, parallel in symbolic function to these other buildings. Just as the Statehouse recalls vanished ideals of government and the Shaw Memorial recalls an ideal of heroism we prefer to ridicule as sentimental, the aquarium, while it remained open, had held up a mirror to our animality. The point is not, in that case, that building monuments and cities denies our animality; on the contrary, the earlier society that still took monuments and civic virtue seriously also found it easier to accept the connection between human and animal nature. If, as Lowell remarked in introducing the poem at a reading in 1960, "we've emerged from the monumental age," so much the worse for us. Instead of Colonel Shaw, leading the first black regiment into battle, we have the nonheroic speaker reduced to spectatorship, watching the civil rights struggles of his own day on television, where "the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons" (FTUD, 72).
In "For the Union Dead," the denial of "animal instincts" and "animal mortality" as part of the human condition is not expressed in the desire to attain immortality through monumental architecture; rather, this denial is akin to the denial of history expressed in the destruction of the aquarium and the near-destruction of the war memorial. It is a failure of memory. To endanger the Shaw Memorial for the sake of a garage is to forget the meaning of Shaw's death or to deny that this meaning still matters. And yet, the presence of those "Negro school-children" on television proves that it still does. To close the aquarium is to forget a more distant past, the common evolutionary origins that bind us to the fish and reptile. To advertise a safe as impervious to a nuclear explosion is to forget a very recent past, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only fifteen years before the poem was written. The forgetfulness of the present is symbolized by the hectic urban renewal everywhere visible in the landscape; the lack of purpose to this activity is symbolized in the fact that the destruction of the landscape will bring forth only a parking lot for the "giant finned cars" of the last stanzas. These cars, too, are monuments in a debased sense, expressing their owners' preoccupation with acquisition and mobility. But here, the representation is unconscious; the society that builds and buys the cars reveals its values without having intended to do so. The cars are a means, not an end: they will take their passengers to any destination. The garage, then, is a means serving a means, and the steamshovels digging the garage are a means serving a means twice removed. Lowell's judgment on monuments, mechanisms, and cities in this poem is finally closer to Allen Tate's than to Norman O. Brown's: what we build reveals what we desire, and only when we desire worthy ends do we build well. "A society of means without ends, in the age of technology," wrote Tate,
so multiplies the means, in the lack of anything better to do, that it may have to scrap the machines as it makes them; until our descendants will have to dig themselves out of one rubbish heap after another and stand upon it, in order to make more rubbish to make more standing room. The surface of nature will then be literally as well as morally concealed from the eyes of men.
Lowell's "civic sandpiles" are a version of Tate's "rubbish heap." But Lowell, more pessimistic even than Tate, fears that we will not be able to keep digging ourselves out but will slide into the ever-nearer "ditch" of extinction.
With the question of Lowell's attitude toward monuments goes that of Lowell's attitude toward heroism. Axelrod argues that Lowell "praises the military valor of Shaw, but also suggests dark, mixed motives beneath that valor"; Philip Cooper finds a "death-wish" in Shaw's acceptance of his commission; Jonathan Crick finds in Shaw the embodiment of "the Puritan virtues" that "also produced the commercial greed that has devastated Boston, and the destruction of war." Williamson observes that the Massachusetts 54th was exploited for propaganda purposes and "trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives"; Shaw was thus "wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise." It is worth remembering that Crick, Cooper, Williamson, and Axelrod were writing during or soon after the war in Vietnam, a historical circumstance that would dispose them toward a cynical view of military heroism like Shaw's. It is hard, from the vantage point of the mid 1980s, to discover irony in Lowell's praise for Shaw:
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.
The stanza seems all the more unequivocal in the context of Lowell's other work. The "power to choose life and die" must have seemed especially "peculiar" to a poet of futility and divided will, for whom "the simple word," as he later put it, was always becoming "buried in a random, haggard sentence, / cutting ten ways to nothing clearly carried" (H, 132).
What troubles Lowell's meditation on Colonel Shaw is not the possibility that Shaw's heroism is an illusion but rather the possibility that such heroism can no longer exist. For one thing, as the Mosler advertisement reminds us, the individual act of courage has little consequence in a war fought With modern techniques of mass destruction; for another, the problem that Lowell discovers in contemporary Boston is not one that can be solved by a dramatic and clear-cut action like Shaw's. One can't die in battle against the forces of forgetfulness and commercial greed. Even the civil rights movement, which did produce a hero in Martin Luther King, is treated unheroically, from the perspective of a concerned but passive witness for whom participation in events is unimaginable—for a brief moment, one sees the anxious children on television. Like the fish in the aquarium, they are separated from the speaker by a wall of glass. Implicitly, Lowell proposes this way of experiencing public reality as typical of our time.
from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.
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