I usually post a photo of one of my favorite sculptures in Boston, The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, which is installed across the street from the Massachusetts State House, on the Boston Common.
"Commissioned from the celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the early 1880s and dedicated as a monument in 1897, the Shaw Memorial has been acclaimed as the greatest American sculpture of the nineteenth century.
The relief masterfully depicts Colonel Shaw and the first African American infantry unit from the North to fight for the Union during the Civil War. The sculpture combines the real and allegorical, and presents a balance of restraint and vitality."
I also include, with the post, Robert Lowell's moving poem about the Shaw Memorial in which Lowell ties in the yet unresolved issues of the Civil War with the mindless consumerism that grips the nation in his poem “For the Union Dead”. It is one of my favorite poems; and when I visit the Shaw Memorial, as I often do, I think of Lowell's poem that so perfectly limns the relief and its setting in the Boston Common.
"One of Lowell’s best-known works, Union Dead is a multi-layered poem set in the heart of Boston. On the surface, it is an elegy to the heroic Massachusetts 54. The soldiers fought with valor and moral integrity while trying to preserve the Union and end slavery. A closer examination reveals a country that blindly worships Capitalism. Following consumerism alone has left the country directionless. Lowell watches the steam shovels atwork and comments that avarice is literally and figuratively shaking the Massachusetts Statehouse, “Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse.” Lowell is nostalgic for the Boston of his youth and for a country, real or imagined, whose moral integrity was intact. Lowell is raising an objection to a country that commodifies the nuclear age, he objects to the new realism; he objects to the triumph of
commercialism over morality, he objects to a country that has forsaken spirituality for physicality:“On Boylston Street a commercial photograph shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler safe, the “Rock of Ages” that survived the blast. Space is nearer.”
The space that Lowell speaks of is just that--Nothingness. Extinction of the human race will be the cost if we cannot move to higher moral ground."
FOR THE UNION DEAD
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 crowded, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sign 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 of 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 a 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 statutes 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 statutes 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 blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Also this Memorial Day, a new exhibit on the Boston Common:
Over 200 volunteers spent Wednesday [May 23] planting flags for Memorial Day on the grounds of Boston Common in downtown Boston in honor of those who served and died for our country.
The 33,000 flags represent all of the fallen soldiers from Massachusetts who have died since the civil war.