Paul Breslin: On "For the Union Dead"

Some of Lowell's poems avoid the rigged rhetoric of "Skunk Hour" by relatively modest ambition, as in "Father's Bedroom"; others make the frustration of the quest for correspondence between self and other part of their theme. And there is at least one justly celebrated poem that takes a third and simpler way: "For the Union Dead."

One virtue of "For the Union Dead" is its restraint of analogies between public and private experience. For once, Lowell treats his public theme as precisely that and not another thing. Although, as Rudman points out, its landscape, the Boston Common, "is a ten minute walk from 91 Revere Street," many thousands of Bostonians have "passed it every day" besides Lowell. As the very name of the Boston Common implies, the poem is set in a public space. Although Lowell does recollect his childhood visits to the aquarium, he mutes the theme of his own unique relationship to the setting and concentrates on its shared meanings. In contrast to "Skunk Hour," the focus shifts away from self and toward environment. The landscape of the Boston Common, far more densely inscribed with cultural signs than that of Castine, Maine, offers readily what Lowell had to force on his surroundings in "Skunk Hour": a storehouse of symbols that reveal the consciousness of the inhabitants, past and present. This landscape, because it is urban and man-made, contains objects that testify, by their very existence, to what the people who made them value—and fail to value. The determinate historical origin of the surrounding objects provides a firm check on the tendency to treat self and environment as mutual reflections. The Shaw Memorial, the Statehouse, and even the unwittingly macabre Mosler Safe advertisement have a public meaning before the poem gets hold of them. "For the Union Dead" stands out in Lowell's work for its unusually firm resistance to solipsism and to conflations of public and private.

Not only does the landscape provide artifacts that were deliberately invested by their makers with public symbolism, it offers a full historical range from colonial times (the State House, the "old white churches") through the nineteenth century (the Shaw memorial itself) to the contemporary Mosler ad, which evokes both the historical present and the immediate historical past ("Hiroshima boiling"). The poem, one might say, is organized by archaeological strata (as Lowell may have wished to suggest by speaking of the "excavation" of the garage).

The two main symbolic artifacts in the poem are the aquarium and the Shaw Memorial, and the relationship between them is crucial to its interpretation. Given the title, the opening of the poem surprises by its obliquity. Lowell opens not with the Civil War monument but with his recollection of childhood visits to the aquarium, and it takes him five stanzas to come round to Colonel Shaw. The connections between the aquarium and the monument only emerge later, but the transition between the two begins in the third stanza. The statement "My hand draws back" signals also a drawing back from recollection into the present. "I often sigh still," the speaker admits, "for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" (FTUD, 70). The fascination with the fish is linked both with a desire to escape from human consciousness into the lower phyla (cf. Eliot's Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the Boors of silent seas") and with regressive nostalgia for childhood or, in later stanzas, the historical past. The fish and reptile "kingdom" is the lowest stratum visible in the "excavation" the poem undertakes—it is our prehistory, the residuum of the animal within the human. The city has been built above it, yet never altogether covers or effaces it. The topmost strata appear mainly in images of mechanism, frantic activity, and ever more rapid change: the steamshovels threaten the Shaw monument, "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and even the Statehouse requires bracing. The aquarium has been closed down, presumably to make way for new construction. And yet the surface and the depths are linked, since Lowell renders his images of mechanism in fishy and reptilean language—" dinosaur steamshovels," or the "giant-finned cars" of the last stanza.

Williamson finds, in the persistence of the fish and reptile, a critique of the very desire to build cities and monuments. He reads "For the Union Dead" as an indictment of civilization much like Norman O. Brown's in Life Against Death. "Man creates cities and technologies partly in order to . . . 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)." The closing of the aquarium becomes emblematic of our repression of the fish and reptile within, and the persistence of the fish and reptile in descriptions of steamshovels, cars, and the monument itself (which "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat") hints at a Brownian return of the repressed, "more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. . . . Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or man's mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere."

Williamson's remarks need to be qualified by the recognition that the aquarium, though it once gave the fish and reptile the "fixed locality" they are now denied, is nonetheless a public building, no less an example of civic architecture than the Statehouse or the Shaw Memorial. Indeed, one might argue that the aquarium is itself a monument, parallel in symbolic function to these other buildings. Just as the Statehouse recalls vanished ideals of government and the Shaw Memorial recalls an ideal of heroism we prefer to ridicule as sentimental, the aquarium, while it remained open, had held up a mirror to our animality. The point is not, in that case, that building monuments and cities denies our animality; on the contrary, the earlier society that still took monuments and civic virtue seriously also found it easier to accept the connection between human and animal nature. If, as Lowell remarked in introducing the poem at a reading in 1960, "we've emerged from the monumental age," so much the worse for us. Instead of Colonel Shaw, leading the first black regiment into battle, we have the nonheroic speaker reduced to spectatorship, watching the civil rights struggles of his own day on television, where "the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons" (FTUD, 72).

In "For the Union Dead," the denial of "animal instincts" and "animal mortality" as part of the human condition is not expressed in the desire to attain immortality through monumental architecture; rather, this denial is akin to the denial of history expressed in the destruction of the aquarium and the near-destruction of the war memorial. It is a failure of memory. To endanger the Shaw Memorial for the sake of a garage is to forget the meaning of Shaw's death or to deny that this meaning still matters. And yet, the presence of those "Negro school-children" on television proves that it still does. To close the aquarium is to forget a more distant past, the common evolutionary origins that bind us to the fish and reptile. To advertise a safe as impervious to a nuclear explosion is to forget a very recent past, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only fifteen years before the poem was written. The forgetfulness of the present is symbolized by the hectic urban renewal everywhere visible in the landscape; the lack of purpose to this activity is symbolized in the fact that the destruction of the landscape will bring forth only a parking lot for the "giant finned cars" of the last stanzas. These cars, too, are monuments in a debased sense, expressing their owners' preoccupation with acquisition and mobility. But here, the representation is unconscious; the society that builds and buys the cars reveals its values without having intended to do so. The cars are a means, not an end: they will take their passengers to any destination. The garage, then, is a means serving a means, and the steamshovels digging the garage are a means serving a means twice removed. Lowell's judgment on monuments, mechanisms, and cities in this poem is finally closer to Allen Tate's than to Norman O. Brown's: what we build reveals what we desire, and only when we desire worthy ends do we build well. "A society of means without ends, in the age of technology," wrote Tate,

so multiplies the means, in the lack of anything better to do, that it may have to scrap the machines as it makes them; until our descendants will have to dig themselves out of one rubbish heap after another and stand upon it, in order to make more rubbish to make more standing room. The surface of nature will then be literally as well as morally concealed from the eyes of men.

Lowell's "civic sandpiles" are a version of Tate's "rubbish heap." But Lowell, more pessimistic even than Tate, fears that we will not be able to keep digging ourselves out but will slide into the ever-nearer "ditch" of extinction.

With the question of Lowell's attitude toward monuments goes that of Lowell's attitude toward heroism. Axelrod argues that Lowell "praises the military valor of Shaw, but also suggests dark, mixed motives beneath that valor"; Philip Cooper finds a "death-wish" in Shaw's acceptance of his commission; Jonathan Crick finds in Shaw the embodiment of "the Puritan virtues" that "also produced the commercial greed that has devastated Boston, and the destruction of war." Williamson observes that the Massachusetts 54th was exploited for propaganda purposes and "trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives"; Shaw was thus "wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise." It is worth remembering that Crick, Cooper, Williamson, and Axelrod were writing during or soon after the war in Vietnam, a historical circumstance that would dispose them toward a cynical view of military heroism like Shaw's. It is hard, from the vantage point of the mid 1980s, to discover irony in Lowell's praise for Shaw:

 

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.

 

The stanza seems all the more unequivocal in the context of Lowell's other work. The "power to choose life and die" must have seemed especially "peculiar" to a poet of futility and divided will, for whom "the simple word," as he later put it, was always becoming "buried in a random, haggard sentence, / cutting ten ways to nothing clearly carried" (H, 132).

What troubles Lowell's meditation on Colonel Shaw is not the possibility that Shaw's heroism is an illusion but rather the possibility that such heroism can no longer exist. For one thing, as the Mosler advertisement reminds us, the individual act of courage has little consequence in a war fought With modern techniques of mass destruction; for another, the problem that Lowell discovers in contemporary Boston is not one that can be solved by a dramatic and clear-cut action like Shaw's. One can't die in battle against the forces of forgetfulness and commercial greed. Even the civil rights movement, which did produce a hero in Martin Luther King, is treated unheroically, from the perspective of a concerned but passive witness for whom participation in events is unimaginable—for a brief moment, one sees the anxious children on television. Like the fish in the aquarium, they are separated from the speaker by a wall of glass. Implicitly, Lowell proposes this way of experiencing public reality as typical of our time.

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Criticism Overview
Title Paul Breslin: On "For the Union Dead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Breslin Criticism Target Robert Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties
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