Paul Revere by Cyrus Dallin, North End, Boston



Frederick Douglass's descendants speak on this 4th of July

Sunday, March 23, 2008

For the Union Dead, Robert Lowell

Each time I visit Boston Common, I make sure I stop at Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. This graceful, dignified bas-relief honors the sacrifices of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all-volunteer black regiment in the Union army organized in a Northern state.

The story of the 54th Regiment and Shaw was depicted in the 1989 film "Glory," starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington.

I remember this today, Easter Sunday, a time to reflect on death and renewal. And as I think about these issues and what we are facing in this important election, I recall this poem by Robert Lowell:

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


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 crowded, 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

sand piles 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


Two months after marching through Boston,

half of the regiment was dead;

at the dedication,

William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes


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


Colonel Shaw

is riding on his bubble,

he waits for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

--Robert Lowell


Patrick M said...

Great poem.

No matter what our opinions on the wars our soldiers fight, we must remember that their deaths are given meaning by the fact they die to defend us.

And honored forever they must be.

(manglesd English I know, but we awatched a lot of Star Wars over the weekend, thus the Yoda-speak)

Shaw Kenawe said...

I didn't think your comment was maangled at all.

Honored forever they must be.


I'll be away for a few days.

I hope to be able to post something.

Patrick M said...

But sound like Yoda it does.

Obob said...

that is pretty darn cool. I am rather speechless

Anonymous said...

Great use of a fine poem, which acquires brand new relevance in 2008. I footnote it at

Silkworms Ink said...

A few thoughts about how Robert Lowell is like David Bowie: