We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, Boston, Massachusetts. Photograph: Wikipedia
Every teacher knows that moment of coming into a classroom as another teacher is packing up. The one leaving apologizes for running late, the newcomer for arriving early. Equations or conjugations are erased from the blackboard, reading assignments chalked up. Because I have taught at the same college for many years, many years in a very few rooms, and because the years pass at greater and greater speeds, I sometimes wonder if one day the teacher I encounter will be me. “Don’t worry about that,” I’ll say to me, as I hasten to erase the board, “I’ll get it.” “Oh it’s no problem,” I’ll reply, adding something blandly asinine, like “I always find erasing weirdly therapeutic.” I’m most vulnerable to these speculations in the spring, which begins tentatively here but always succeeds in wiping out winter’s memory. Seemingly without effort, it touches the black branches and they burgeon with newest life, as though it were the oldest trick in the book. “That’s because I am the oldest trick in the book,” says spring. In colder months, students had precipitated in impossibly fresh accumulations. They wanted something from us, and we gave them something else. Whatever we wanted from them, they gave us something else in turn. Then it was spring, and they dressed in flowers and vanished. Oldest trick in the book.
More and more I think that my book, though not a book of spells, contains only old tricks. Spring is when the snowdrops appear in the shadows, and papers appear under my office door, essays on Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” For years now—five? seven? ten?—the assignment in my course on postwar poetry has asked students to write on this delicate, ungainly monument of mid-century modernism. There are many other great poems from the late 1950s and early ’60s, yet I slide down a path of least resistance, defaulting to the same poem for the same assignment, year after year. A colleague, who is not named Prudence, asks me: How can you tolerate them, the same arguments, the same misreadings, even the same successes?
Why do I have no answer? Because (I think), tolerance is not the point, nor is sameness. What beckons me is the poem’s ever-changing variety. Through the fixed frame of the assignment, through the panes of my students’ scrutiny, I watch the poem shift, loom, cringe, shimmer, and divide. I have come to regard the poem as a kind of landmark, as though if I looked, I could just make it out from my window, there, just this side of April, a loose-jointed column of quatrains, striding like a Giacometti over the flatland and never arriving.
The poem, which Lowell read in 1960 at the Boston Arts Festival, commemorates Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first regiment of black soldiers recruited during the Civil War. During the assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, many in the regiment were killed, among them Shaw himself. A bas-relief monument by Augustus St. Gaudens, dedicated in 1897, stands at the edge of Boston Common, across from the Massachusetts State House, and at the center of Lowell’s poem.
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.
The 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.
Written at the height of the civil rights movement, the poem portrays the racial conflict of the Civil War as hardly resolved, menaced not only by segregation in the South and pockets of prejudice throughout the country, but more generally by a pervasive and insidious debasement of national purpose. For Lowell, the dearly bought freedoms for which the men of the Massachusetts 54th died have been sold out for the “savage servility” of consumer capitalism, with its ostentation of “giant finned” automobiles, for whose sake the common ground of the city is hollowed to accommodate underground parking spaces.
In Lowell’s work, public outrage is never distinct from private anguish. The weakness of the monument finds a correlate in Lowell’s private helplessness as he mourns the loss of the South Boston Aquarium, abandoned and empty now, surviving only in the way the ruin of a childhood survives in each of us. What the aquarium once held so equably, “the dark, downward kingdom of fish and reptile,” has been transformed into a dispensation of insatiable, mechanized appetites, where “dinosaur steamshovels” gouge out the “underworld garage.” We may object to the whiff of nostalgia. We may question whether, even for someone named Lowell, what eats the heart of the Commonwealth must eat perforce the heart of the man. But we cannot doubt that the triumphant death of these soldiers was a disaster both private and public.
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 blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The stanza about Shaw’s father sticks like a fishbone in the poem’s throat, and in my students’. Some ignore it. Of those who discuss it, most see in it a condemnation of the father’s racism, and they join their voices to this condemnation. The poem, in its compression, in preferring the single gesture over elaboration and explication, permits this misreading, seems even to invite it. However, the letters and chronicles on which Lowell based the poem admit no such surmise. They reveal that Shaw’s father believed an officer could ask for no higher honor than to be buried with his men, those whom others had called “niggers,” men who, along with Shaw, had answered the call to serve shoulder-to-shoulder the just cause of emancipation. Given access to the epistolary record and to contemporary accounts, students invariably discover in the poem a deeper and stranger complexity than they had first surmised.
The familiar postures of righteousness and moral triumphalism yield to a sadder acknowledgment of the costs and uncertain gains of mortal sacrifice. Students sense how frail those gains always were. They sense how much my generation and those before us have betrayed, in the pursuit of ease, in the embrace of frictionless convenience.
Prudence argues that I should not teach the poem, not now at least, not this year. Prudence is not oblivious of the fevers racking the globe: the flaring, smoldering wars; the uncontainable waste of Fukushima, its long plume blent with the unappeasable memory of Hiroshima. Nor is she ignorant of the fevers at home, in McKinney, Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island; the hoarse cries for justice, satisfaction, air. Prudence has listened to the acrimonious debates over “trigger warnings” on campus, has witnessed the outrage and incomprehension with which each side regards the other. Prudence knows this herself, having received a disciplinary complaint for reading out loud in class these pivotal lines from Derek Walcott’s “Schooner Flight”:
I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation . . .
Not now, says Prudence, not while everyone is up in arms. Prudence says: give it a rest.
And yet I have given the assignment, naked of disclaimers. Why? asks Prudence. How can I be sure I’m not being a tenured dick? What can I say, to Prudence, to myself? That I want my students to find their way to a place where public righteousness is a frail and trembling structure, as frail and trembling as individual memory? That I want them to glimpse a cause that reckons nothing nobler than to be buried and lost with the despised? That I want them to consider that a critique of one’s culture is always a critique of oneself?
Yes. That. And not only that. Also to consider that the automatization of our complacency, the mechanism of our degradation, is now so advanced that even a student is no longer a student, no longer a kind of hero (as Marianne Moore once instructed us) but should be approached as a triggerable mechanism, as simple as it is dangerous, rudimentary and unpredictable, capable of little save harm and pain. To consider it a base servility indeed that seeks to placate the arbiters of sanctioned speech. To call it a malignant and insidious violence that would persuade us our very freedom is what endangers us most.
I want my students to hear what I hear Lowell saying in the poem: that terrible though it may be—the freedom to decry, lament, arraign, deplore, deride, extol, name and rename—is a part of the “lovely, peculiar” freedom whereby a life may be chosen, not merely endured, not merely consumed, but given.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.