For the Union Dead

I achieved a long held ambition today; to stand in front of the memorial in Boston that Auden wrote about in one of my favourite poems, For the Union Dead. The memorial is along the Boston Common. I walked past it last night, but it was  too dark, so came back this morning. Here’s a photo, and the original poem.

P1100286 (Medium)

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.

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.

P1100287 (Medium)

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One thought on “For the Union Dead

  1. You, too, are standing with stones. And these stones, like them all, together with the bronze, have a message beyond the ‘visuacy’ of the monument itself. I spent a lot of time in tears in Boston. The poignancy of the history, the courage of individuals, the strength of purpose, the bonds created within groups of men, the horror of mankind at war..it all saddened, yet enriched me…as does all history..some literature…and travel.
    Thanks for the poem.
    Enjoy the rest of your visit.

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