… A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girdersbraces the tingling Statehouse,shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shawand his bell-cheeked Negro infantryon St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief …
… 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.
Across from the Massachusetts State House stands Augustus St. Gaudens’ bronze relief of Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, an all-African American infantry. Shaw was a son of wealthy abolitionists and Unitarians, who led the infantry into two battles in South Carolina in July of 1863. As Lowell’s poem states, within two months of leaving Boston, (nearly) half the infantry was dead. Shaw’s body was thrown in the same ditch as his men; an exhumation was refused by his parents.
Robert Lowell wrote For the Union Dead in 1960, as a reaction to the Civil Rights movement nationally and what he saw as the superficiality, venality, and cowardice of Boston politics and business-as-usual. The “excavations” were of the Boston Common, as the Common Garage was being built.
Lowell sees in Shaw and his regiment an eternal defiance, a challenge to accepting things as-they-are, even unto death. Lowell is haunted by the unfinished business of the Civil War, as he watches the Civil Rights movement happen on that most passive of media, the TV. Self-implicated, Lowell marks our own quotidian business, the smallness of our politics; how our “savage servility/slides by on grease”.
There are things that haven’t aged that well about Lowell’s poem: Neither Shaw’s soldiers nor the “Negro schoolchildren” are depicted with any uniqueness or agency. They are objects of interest, or pity; not subjects who act on their own behalf. Perhaps this is intentional, part of Lowell’s self-indictment.
In our age of continued segregation, gratuitous imprisonment, vote suppression, poverty, inequality — the whole mortally sticky web of injustice — that sculpture surely still ought to “stick like a fishbone/in the city’s throat”. Shaw, his parents, his men, did not accept the intolerable with servility. “He waits for the blessèd break” — his ghost haunts us, waiting for liberation, waiting to become superfluous, “historical”. Every lawmaker, every tourist, every protestor on Beacon Street before the Golden Dome ought to sense the sculpture’s challenge, right beneath the ribs.