This year marks the centennial of Robert Lowell’s birth, and not for that reason alone the time seems right to look again at one of his poems. While much of his writing is intensely private, even confessional, he also had a powerful public voice. When he was only twenty-six, he spent several months in jail as a conscientious objector, in protest of the terms of unconditional surrender the Allies were planning to impose on Germany and Japan. Later he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and became a champion of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, with our nation once more bitterly divided, his words may acquire a new resonance.
Lowell wrote “For the Union Dead” in 1960 on a commission for the Boston Arts Festival. Thus, most members of his original audience would probably have been familiar with the monument that stands at the heart of the poem, the Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common. It shows a white officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, riding alongside the ranks of his black troops, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, leaving town in 1863 to join the war effort. Two months after marching through Boston / half the regiment was dead. Theirs was the first regiment formed of black recruits after the Emancipation Proclamation, and their show of courage in the assault on Fort Wagner changed the course of the Civil War.
Since monuments usually exude a sense of stability, it is remarkable that Lowell shows us the Shaw Memorial in a precarious position. 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. As the ground vibrates from the movements of backhoes digging up the Common to make room for more parking spaces underground, only a makeshift support seems to be keeping the memorial from falling over. The commotion has even the Statehouse in the previous stanza shaking.
By now, of course, the parking garage then under construction has been in operation for decades, with the Shaw Memorial standing placidly upright at the northeast corner of the Common. However, when Lowell points to the danger posed, in the name of economic development, to a monument commemorating a hard-won milestone in the country’s progress toward racial justice, he is clearly worried about political shock waves as much as physical ones. Lowell wrote “For the Union Dead” in 1960 when America was convulsed with civil discord, and it is convulsed with civil discord as we read the poem today.
While emphasizing the vulnerability of the Shaw Memorial as a symbol of a society struggling toward an ideal union, however, Lowell does not mask its imperfection. Shaw’s father wanted no monument / except the ditch, / where his son’s body was thrown / and lost with his “niggers.” As Lowell would point out when reciting the poem, this shocking statement comes from a confederate commander intent on robbing the young white officer of what, to his mind, would have constituted an honorable burial. But not to the Shaw family. They treasured the ditch as a communal grave for black and white, and even forbade the removal of their son to one of the segregated cemeteries of the Grand Army of the Republic. If there had to be a monument, they wanted the names of all the regiment’s casualties inscribed on it. They were finally added to the back of the Shaw Memorial in 1981.
Lowell must have shared the misgivings of the Shaw family about the memorial designed by Saint-Gaudens. When he describes the figures on the relief as bell-cheeked, he may be alluding to the fact that the sculptor fashioned them after models whose features fit his artistic agenda. They are no more portraits of actual black veterans than the stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier on town squares that doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns. Thus the Shaw Memorial contains only one portrait, that of Robert Shaw.
It would have been easy for Lowell to replace the monument’s focus on a single white hero with that on a single black one in his poem. Sergeant William Harvey Carney, who brought back the regiment’s flag from the failed assault on Fort Wagner despite being repeatedly wounded in the process, would have made for an obvious subject. In fact, Carney had already been celebrated in verse and image, received a thunderous ovation at the dedication of the Shaw Memorial, and would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor. But Lowell chose to do something else.
The bronze relief shows Colonel Shaw riding toward an inscription: OMNIA RELINQUIT SERVARE REM PUBLICAM, “He leaves everything in order to save the Republic.” The phrase, which functions almost as a caption for the scene, does not make for good Latin, as Lowell, who graduated from Kenyon summa cum laude with a degree in Classics, would have known.
Its true flaw, however, is not one of grammar but of perspective. The survival of a republic does not depend on a single leader, whether white or black, female or male, admirable or appalling; it depends on people coming together as a group, a community, a plural. Hence in the epigraph for “For the Union Dead,” Lowell has changed “he leaves” to “they leave”: OMNIA RELINQUUNT SERVARE REM PUBLICAM. It’s a change worth striving for.