Also in Poetry Pages:
Editor's Note: Poetry and the Web (April 11, 2001)
A personal view, on the fifth anniversary of The Atlantic's online Poetry Pages. By Wen Stephenson
Appreciations: "Prufrock, J. Alfred Prufrock" (April 11, 2001)
Christopher Ricks on T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—and its unlikely leading man.
Review: The Voice of the Poet-Critic (April 11, 2001)
Sven Birkerts on newly released recordings of Randall Jarrell—perhaps the most fearsome (and admired) American critic of the twentieth century—reading his own poems.
Previously in Soundings:
Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress" (February 26, 2001)
Read aloud by Linda Gregerson, J. D. McClatchy, and Heather McHugh. Introduction by Linda Gregerson.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "This Lime-tree Bower My Prison" (September 27, 2000)
Read aloud by Steven Cramer, Stanley Plumly, and Thomas Sleigh. Introduction by Steven Cramer.
Elizabeth Bishop, "Sonnet" (March 29, 2000)
Read aloud by Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, and Mark Strand. Introduction by Lloyd Schwartz.
John Clare, "I Am" (December 8, 1999)
Read aloud by David Barber, Carolyn Kizer, and Christopher Ricks. Introduction by David Barber.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds...") (October 27, 1999)
Read aloud by Mark Doty, Linda Gregerson, W. S. Merwin, and Lloyd Schwartz. Introduction by Linda Gregerson.
Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with You" (April 14, 1999)
Read aloud by Lucie Brock-Broido, Steven Cramer, and Mary Jo Salter. Introduction by Steven Cramer.
More Soundings in Atlantic Unbound.
More on poetry in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Click on the names below to hear these poets read "For the Union Dead" (requires RealPlayer):
(For help, see a note about the audio.)
The text reprinted and read aloud here by Bidart and Pinsky is from Robert Lowell's Selected Poems (1977). There are slight differences between this version and the original version, read by Davison, which was published in the November, 1960, Atlantic Monthly. To compare, see the Atlantic version.
From the archives:
"The Country's Changing Measure" (June 1986)
"America is a geographic and social immensity, in which even the voice of a public poet like Lowell could sound coterie, limited by time and temperament and class." By Jack Beatty
Atlantic Unbound | April 11, 2001
Introduction by Peter Davison
he 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.
The first page of "For the Union Dead," in the November, 1960, Atlantic. Click here to read the Atlantic version.
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.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial
A color photograph and brief description of the memorial, posted by the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
The Shaw Memorial Project
An interactive exhibition produced by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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?
Lowell began his poem by entitling it "Col. Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th"—and decently altering the motto to embrace the black soldiers as well as their white commander. But as Lowell, with characteristic diligence, began rewriting, developing the national themes of his poem, he could not help remembering his great-uncle James Russell Lowell's dull "Commemoration Ode," written in 1885 to dedicate Harvard's memorial to those who had died for the Union; and the stilted poem by his longtime friend and mentor, Allen Tate, written in 1926 and called "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Neither had mentioned blacks. Lowell's new poem would take a much more agonized and indignant tone than either of those, for it would serve not only as Lowell's meditation on Boston's attitude toward public life and on America's dubious racial history, but as Lowell's farewell to the city. In September, not long after he had read his poem at the festival on June 4, Lowell, like many other great American writers who had matured before him, moved permanently from his place of birth to New York City.
"For the Union Dead" was first published in The Atlantic Monthly's November, 1960, issue. Four decades later it still "sticks like a fishbone/ in the city's throat."
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 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.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Frank Bidart is co-editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2002. His most recent collection of poems is Desire (1997). Next year he will publish a chapbook titled Music Like Dirt.
Peter Davison is The Atlantic Monthly's poetry editor and the author of The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960 (1994) and The Poems of Peter Davison 1957-1995. His tenth book of poetry, Breathing Room, was published last year.
Robert Pinsky was U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2001, during which time he created the Favorite Poem Project. His most recent collections of poems are Jersey Rain (2000) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
"For the Union Dead," by Robert Lowell, is reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.