Alan Williamson: On "For the Union Dead"
Lowell's nearest approach, in For the Union Dead, to an image of moral political action is to be found in the title poem. As the title suggests, "For the Union Dead" is in some ways a deliberate reply to Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which revolves around the same two figures, the poet-outsider and the dead hero. But where Tate suffers so intensely at the lack of a personal release into action that the hero is almost totally idealized, Lowell questions - with similar anguish - whether the active man can ever measure up to the moral completeness of the outsider's vision.
Lowell's active man, Colonel Shaw, is in many ways highly vulnerable to Lowell's usual critique of the disparity between ideals and realities, and of political theatricality. Like Governor Endecott, Shaw is a gloomy, soul-searching man who ends by being wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise. He accepts the command of the Massachusetts 54th, a Negro regiment officered by whites, trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives, heavily exploited for Union propaganda, and massacred in its very first battle. Yet Shaw has redeeming qualities. Though he is engaged in a theatrical venture, he - and his father - desire nothing for themselves but "privacy." "When he leads his black soldiers to death, / he cannot bend his back": meaning, perhaps, that he cannot recant his decision - the absolutism of the idealist - but also that he accepts its consequences personally, and will not provide himself with a security that his men do not have. When Shaw's body is thrown (vindictively, by the Confederates) into a mass grave with his troops, Shaw's father recognizes the appropriateness of this end in the light of his son's principles, and the implicit racism of those Northerners who see in the act only an outrage. He wants no other monument but "the ditch."
The dislike of monuments, the fear that abstract images will too effectively distance unpleasant realities, becomes a central theme in the poem. The exemplary contrast to Shaw is William James, who, "at the dedication [of the monument] . . . could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," and who seemingly found in this artistic resurrection some sort of emotional compensation for their real deaths. (It may be relevant here that James's one unbookish brother, Garth Wilkinson James, was Colonel Shaw's adjutant, and suffered a wound that left him a semi-invalid for life, in the battle in which Shaw was killed. In spite of his invalidism, the younger James went South during Reconstruction and attempted to run a communal, integrated plantation. William James himself was prevented by poor eyesight from fighting in the Civil War. But even without this information, the contrast between James and Shaw is clear enough.) Later in the poem, the increasing modern romanticization of the Civil War, the "statues of the abstract Union Soldier" that "grow slimmer and younger each year," form a bitter contrast to the country's continuing indifference to racial injustice. Indeed, that indifference is itself encouraged by a distancing medium: the television screen where frightened black faces, become, like the cast bronze of the statue, mere "balloons."
It might be said that Colonel Shaw is a bit of a monument in his action, stonelike, unbending. Yet because he knows concretely, and undergoes in his own person, the full consequences of his choice, he remains a meaningful contrast to all the abstractionists in the poem, from William James to the television set; he represents a compromised, but still living, still responsible connection between ideology, or image, and reality.
The central issue of the poem can be stated in another way: given that mere rebellion or dissociation is unsatisfactory, what can man do with his inner monsters - his bear, snake, and horseshoe crab - that will somehow go beyond them and complete his humanity? "For the Union Dead" probably contains a greater profusion of animal imagery, for its length, than any other poem by Lowell. Nowhere are the organs, acts, and motives of man, the shapes and forms of his self-expression, more insistently animal than here. Yet the simple equation of animal images with brutality, instinct, and raw power that works in the tyrant passages is no longer viable here, although the yearning for a "dark downward and vegetating kingdom" suggesting a subrational unity of consciousness, even a return to the womb, is certainly akin to Caligula's desires. For, in this poem, gentle and humane qualities, and even those faculties of rational choice that seem exclusively human, are seen in animal terms. "The cowed, compliant fish" suggest an analogous quality of blind endurance in the Negroes; but Colonel Shaw's own angry "vigilance is "wrenlike," his ability to combine gentleness with discipline, principle, and readiness for action is "a greyhound's." The imagery thus serves to remind us how far man is a part of evolution, his fate the common destiny of living creatures, his most distinctly human qualities, more refined analogues of traits that animals, too, have had to develop for biological survival.
This line of thought is the key to the importance of the elegy on the aquarium with which the poem begins and ends. Imagistically, the passage functions as an overture on many levels, but its overriding emotional tone is nostalgia: Lowell mourns the loss of a curiosity about other living beings that made people want aquariums. Modern men no longer wish to acknowledge their kinship with the animal world, but prefer the comforts and thrills given them by machines, televisions, urban centers oriented around the "civic sandpiles" of underground garages. Here, Lowell's thought begins to parallel - and may, indeed, be influenced by - Norman 0. Brown's in Life Against Death. In Brown's view, man creates cities and technologies partly in order to identify with them and thereby escape his two greatest fears, his animal instincts (purged in the cleanness of mechanical processes)and animal mortality (denied in the seeming permanence of steel and stone). But, Brown says, in culture as in individual neurosis, what is repressed reappears, and is more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. This is also Lowell's vision, as revealed in the last stanza of the poem:
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or his mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere.
In turning to the seemingly impersonal power of machines, man is condemned to endless repetition not only of animal motives but of animal forms, his final point of reference for both form and purpose being his own biologically evolved nature. The same point is made earlier in the phrase "yellow dinosaur steamshovels," with the added suggestion that the end product of man's self-perfection will be his self-destruction. Protected from the knowledge of his animality and mortality by the spurious permanence and orderliness of the machine-world, man becomes not only more powerful, but also more dangerous, because he is spared direct responsibility: he is so shielded from the horror of reality that he can not only commit the Hiroshima bombing, but then use it to advertise a safe. Or perhaps the meaning is almost the reverse: modern man is so terrified of technological war that he can endure its image only when aided by a further identification with the inanimate permanence of - money! Suspect though the monuments are, their disappearance from the modern city is the sign of something far worse: an almost schizophrenic dissociation of the fact that war happens to living human beings, which, again, liberates man's cruelty.
If Lowell's dark vision of advanced civilization parallels Norman 0. Brown's, his image of a hero closely resembles Brown's psychological ideal, not in that ideal's more notorious sexual aspects, but in the conception of a willing self-surrender to time and death. For the portrait of Colonel Shaw provides a moral resolution to the question of animality and death, as to that of political abstraction. Imagistically, as I have shown, Shaw is in touch with his animal nature, and able to draw from it his most heroic qualities; further, his acts are finally justified by his willingness to accept physical suffering and death in a brutal, unvarnished form, to accept "the ditch" of mass burial. The very next stanza menaces mankind with a death of a different order: "The ditch is nearer." This ditch is a many-layered symbol, bringing together nuclear annihilation, the absolute zero of outer space, the blank terror in the faces of the Negro schoolchildren, the hollowness of ideals out of touch with real circumstances, the bubble on which Colonel Shaw suffers, waiting for the "blessed break."
Taken together, the two ditches pose an inexorable alternative: Yeats's "blind man's ditch" of natural birth and death, with its ugliness and uncertainties, as against an abstracted, centerless existence, whose quest for perfection of power easily metamorphoses into pointless and suicidal violence. But what is at issue is more than a restatement of the perverse argument that the tyrant is more pitiable than the tyrannicide, the monster than the abstractionist; for Colonel Shaw provides a pattern of the action that is quintessentially human: "he rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die." Man, who alone has rational knowledge of death, alone can voluntarily accept it, philosophically as well as in particular circumstances, for the sake of a complete and life-giving response to existence. It is paradoxical but moving that this act is said to make Shaw rejoice, surely a rare word in Lowell. Shaw's attitude is the diametrical opposite of the effort of the threatened identity to include the entire world in its own being, the effort that unites tyrant and tyrannicide, Satan and mechanized man: that might be called man's less lovely, equally peculiar, power to choose death and live.
The ideal implied in the portrait of Colonel Shaw is explicitly stated in the concluding passage of moral advice in Lowell's translation of juvenal's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," a passage which Lowell (unlike his source, according to an essay by Patricia Meyer Spacks) calls the portrait of a "hero":
a healthy body and a healthy soul,
a soul that is not terrified by death,
that thinks long life the least of nature's gifts,
courage that takes whatever comes - this hero
like Hercules, all pain and labor, loathes
the lecherous gut of Sardanapalus.
This hero, though something of a tyrannicide in his "loathing," has managed to conquer the tyrannous "gut" motives of oral absorption. He finds his basic integrity not in his acts but in the amount of "pain and labor" in his life, the burden of responsibility and moral insight that he is able to bear. And, as with Shaw, his greatest moral success is seen in his triumph, not over worldly temptation, but over the fear of loss of identity in death. This idea of an only barely activist heroism of insight dominates the political poetry, and to some extent the personal poetry in "For the Union Dead."
|Title||Alan Williamson: On "For the Union Dead"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Alan Williamson||Criticism Target||Robert Lowell|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||04 Jun 2020|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell|
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