The year 1959 was painful for Robert Lowell. Having published his climactic and groundbreaking volume, Life Studies, he attained a pinnacle of recognition and respect among American poets, winning showers of critical acclaim and the National Book Award for that year. Yet, despite the powerful influence Lowell exerted on American poetry, Boston, his native city, had come to regard him with a sort of proprietary suspicion, for his private life, wounded by bouts of mental illness, had spun out of control. Yet he was still a Bostonian. Between hospitalizations he lived with his wife and baby child in the Back Bay and taught a writing course at Boston University.
Hear Peter Davison read "For the Union Dead"
Boston's self-admiring city fathers never knew quite what to make of this upstart kinsman of James Russell Lowell (first editor of The Atlantic Monthly), Amy Lowell (cofounder of the imagist school of poetry), and A. Lawrence Lowell (former president of Harvard). Nonetheless, the Boston Arts Festival—partly endowed by another relative, the philanthropist Ralph Lowell—in 1960 commissioned Robert Lowell (as it had commissioned Cambridge native E. E. Cummings the previous year) to write and deliver a poem as the keynote for the city's annual exhibit and celebration of the arts in the Boston Public Garden.
In the spring of the year 1960, Lowell, who had written only one poem in all of 1959, was laboring on a poem that would celebrate Robert Gould Shaw (another of the poet's kinsmen), Colonel of the 54th Regiment of Negro Infantry, who in 1897 had been memorialized by the erection of an inspired relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens opposite Bulfinch's Massachusetts State House. The sculpture, which depicted both Shaw and his doomed soldiers, was placed halfway between the Union Club on Park Street, founded in the 1860s by partisans of the Northern cause, and the Somerset Club on Beacon Street, to which belonged a number of the textile manufacturers whose interests, along with those of King Cotton, lay with the Confederacy.
The centennial of the Civil War was approaching, and Lowell, always aware of the shadows cast by history, dredged through his reading and his memory to compose a poem that, read aloud to a throng in the open air of the Boston Public Garden, would speak not only to the city's condition and to its history, but to the shadowy imminence of the long-overdue civil-rights revolution. He was aided in this project by his Kentuckian wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who was editing a selection of the letters of William James. (James had been present at the Saint-Gaudens dedication.) Everything in Lowell's nature combined to compose this powerful poem, which seems to many readers the most sublime he ever wrote, the poem most completely suited to his talent, his voice, and his vision of America.
It was characteristic of Lowell not to soften the past or the present. The Boston Common, that hallowed acreage that reaches from the State House down to the Public Garden, had once served as Ralph Waldo Emerson's family cow pasture, as it would later also serve as a parade ground for Union soldiers, white and black. In 1960 the Common was undergoing a typical twentieth-century exploitation, being plowed up by bulldozers to serve as the site for a cavernous underground garage. Few other poets would even have mentioned this enterprise, but Lowell perceived the building of the garage in a harsh and intimate light. He had, after all, been born only a stone's throw away, across from the house of Julia Ward Howe at the top of Chestnut Street, some of the houses on which had been designed by Bulfinch himself. Was the Boston Common not the place where young Bobby had been taken to play as a child? In what light could the heroism of a Robert Gould Shaw be appreciated when after only a hundred years the cherished common ground of Boston's, and Lowell's, past was being transformed into a stable for machines? And how could an onlooker in 1960 assess the motto that Saint-Gaudens had inscribed upon his memorial sculpture ("Omnia Reliquit Servare Rem Publicam"), the Latin declaration that Colonel Shaw—only Colonel Shaw, not his martyred black soldiers—had given up everything to save the State?