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.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone.  Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Robert Lowell




Beneath the trees,

 My lifelong friends in this dear spot,

 Sad now for eyes that see them not,

 I hear the autumnal breeze

Wake the dry leaves to sigh for gladness gone,

Whispering vague omens of oblivion,

 Hear, restless as the seas,

Time’s grim feet rustling through the withered grace

Of many a spreading realm and strong-stemmed race,

 Even as my own through these.


 Why make we moan

 For loss that doth enrich us yet

 With upward yearning of regret?

 Bleaker than unmossed stone

Our lives were but for this immortal gain

Of unstilled longing and inspiring pain!

 As thrills of long-hushed tone

Live in the viol, so our souls grow fine

With keen vibrations from the touch divine

 Of noble natures gone.


 ‘Twere indiscreet

 To vex the shy and sacred grief

 With harsh obtrusions of relief;

 Yet, Verse, with noiseless feet,

Go whisper: ‘_This_ death hath far choicer ends

Than slowly to impearl to hearts of friends;

 These obsequies ’tis meet

Not to seclude in closets of the heart,

But, church-like, with wide doorways, to impart

 Even to the heedless street.’



 Brave, good, and true,

 I see him stand before me now.

 And read again on that young brow,

 Where every hope was new,

_How sweet were life!_ Yet, by the mouth firm-set,

And look made up for Duty’s utmost debt,

 I could divine he knew

That death within the sulphurous hostile lines,

In the mere wreck of nobly pitched designs,

 Plucks heart’s-ease, and not rue.


 Happy their end

 Who vanish down life’s evening stream

 Placid as swans that drift in dream

 Round the next river-bend!

Happy long life, with honor at the close,

Friends’ painless tears, the softened thought of foes!

 And yet, like him, to spend

All at a gush, keeping our first faith sure

From mid-life’s doubt and eld’s contentment poor,

 What more could Fortune send?

 Right in the van,

 On the red rampart’s slippery swell,

With heart that beat a charge, he fell

 Foeward, as fits a man;

But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet

Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet;

 His life her crescent’s span

Orbs full with share in their undarkening days

Who ever climbed the battailous steeps of praise

 Since valor’s praise began.



 His life’s expense

 Hath won him coeternal youth

 With the immaculate prime of Truth;

 While we, who make pretence

At living on, and wake and eat and sleep,

And life’s stale trick by repetition keep,

 Our fickle permanence

(A poor leaf-shadow on a brook, whose play

Of busy idlesse ceases with our day)

 Is the mere cheat of sense.

 We bide our chance,

 Unhappy, and make terms with Fate

 A little more to let us wait;

 He leads for aye the advance,

Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

 Our wall of circumstance

 Cleared at a bound, he flashes o’er the fight,

 A saintly shape of fame, to cheer the right

 And steel each wavering glance.

 I write of one,

 While with dim eyes I think of three;

 Who weeps not others fair and brave as he?

 Ah, when the fight is won,

Dear Land, whom triflers now make bold to scorn,

(Thee! from whose forehead Earth awaits her morn,)

 How nobler shall the sun

Flame in thy sky, how braver breathe thy air,

That thou bred’st children who for thee could dare

 And die as thine have done!


James Russell Lowell

Published in: on September 8, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on For The Union Dead  
Tags: , ,