Boston

Anneliese Harrison on Robert Lowell

Steven Gould Axelrod

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell; nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.

Lowell: On"For the Dead Union"

Robert Lowell's poem, "For the Union Dead" follows the mind of a person as he interacts with the landscape of modern Boston. What he sees dismays him, especially insofar as he compares it with an older Boston. For it is an historical poem, one which tries to show a relation between the past and the present. It tries to show this relation in many ways, but most obviously in its superimposition of scenes from an earlier Boston upon parallel scenes from what the Chamber of Commerce has been calling "the New Boston." Some examples. The old South Boston Aquarium, once the centerpiece of a park overlooking the harbor, has been gutted by vandals. The Boston Common, a Colonial grazing pasture, is being exhumed to provide parking places. Thomas Bulfinch's golden-domed State House must be propped by scaffolding so that "the garage's earthquake" will not topple it. The Memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young Boston Civil War hero, who, along with most of his Negro regiment, was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 is similarly buttressed. These violations of the past are complemented in the poem by today's monuments—"giant-finned cars" and advertisements exploiting the bombing of Hiroshima.

"For the Union Dead" is an historical poem in another sense, also. It is an occasional poem, composed for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in June, 1960. In many ways the poem repeats an earlier ceremony, the dedication of the Shaw Memorial in 1897. On that occasion the speakers were William James, whose topic was "that lonely kind of valor (civic courage we call it in peace times)," which Shaw exemplified, and Booker T. Washington, for whom the Monument stood for "effort, not complete victor." Lowell's poem returns to these themes

[. . . .] 

But the civic courage of Shaw, who "rejoices in man's lovely / peculiar power to choose life and die," but who "is out of bounds now" has been replaced in the twentieth century by "savage servility."

[. . . .]

The poem is an historical poem in still a third sense. The poet himself has suggested that he thinks of it as "a Northern civil War poem," and his replacing the original title "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th" with the present one, "For the Union Dead," suggests a comparison with Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." However, in one very important way at least, the poems are quite different. In each poem a speaker looks back to a more heroic age, but in Tate's he is cut off from the past. In "For the Union Dead" the speaker creates the past.

That statement requires explanation. It can be demonstrated, however, that despite the historical subject, occasion, and theme, the "facts" of history are of little importance in "For the Union Dead." Indeed, nearly every historical observation in the poem is inaccurate.

First, the epigraph, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Shaw had been a member, has been rewritten to translate "They leave all behind to serve the country," instead of the correct "He leaves all behind to serve the country." The motto (omnia relinquit servare rem publicam) is correctly transcribed on the Shaw Memorial. The misquotation may, of course, be just a slip up by the poet, (like the misspelling of Boylston later in the poem) but this change does emphasize that the sacrifice at Fort Wagner was a common one.

Second, contrary to the implication of the poem, excavations for the Boston Common garage were not the reason for the bracing of either the Shaw Memorial or the State House, each one a quarter of a mile away from the blasting. The State House was undergoing restoration; the Memorial was being propped up until the city had managed to allocate funds for its repair. The neglect into which both had fallen speaks eloquently enough to the speaker's point, but not so eloquently as his vision of the active destruction of the past by bulldozers does.

Third, William James's statement that he could "almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," which in the poem seems to suggest the continuing urgency of the issues which Shaw's career raises, seen in the context of his address at the dedication ceremonies, merely praises the verisimilitude of the relief. What James said was this: "Look at the monument and read the story—see the mingling of elements which the sculptor's genius has brought so vividly before the eye. There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march."

Fourth, though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it was not he who referred to his son's troops as "niggers." According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw's grave, replied, "We have buried him with his niggers." The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But the actual reaction of Shaw's father was quite the opposite. He wrote, "Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them.—What a body guard he has."

Fifth, the linking of the "Rock of Ages" with the Mosler advertisement is the speaker in the poem's idea, not the adman's. For although the Mosler Safe Company saw the preservation of one of its safes during the bombing of Hiroshima as an event to be publicized ("The Hiroshima Story Comes To Life With A Bang!"), I have been assured that this company never adopted the slogan "Rock of Ages" in its advertising.

Yet, although the scenes in the poem are historically inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker's purposes. The contrast between old and new is for him a contrast between something intelligent, decent, and past, and something destructive, desolate, and present. The imagery is consistent with the narrator's view of history. Most of it is related either to ascent or to descent, which, as Northrop Frye suggests, are the spatial equivalents of the desirable and the undesirable. The desirable past is seen as an upward movement. Colonel Shaw resembles "a compass-needle"; he has "an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness." He is "riding on his bubble." 

[. . . .]

[T]he tendency of the present is downward. "Dinosaur steamshovels" "gouge" for us "an underground garage." The South Boston Aquarium, the scene at the beginning and at the end of the poem, reflects this historical movement from ascent to descent. Once the "bronze weathervane cod," symbolic of man's dominion over the lower orders of nature, stood atop it. Man no longer has this dominion; in fact he has descended to the lower order himself, as the final lines of the poem make clear. 

giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility  slides by on grease.

 The landscape of the poem then is not so much the city's as it is the poet's. It is not photographed, but felt. It is not history , but autobiography. But the poem is not the work of a modern laudator temporis acti. Though obviously sympathetic to the past, the speaker belongs to the present. His past is an imagined past, the Union soldier is "abstract." The present, however, is real, and the speaker, as much as anyone else, is part of it. He creates the imagined virtues of the historical past, but shares the downward tendency of the present. His nose "crawls like a snail"; he must "often sigh . . . / for the dark, downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," and must "press" and "crouch" like a beast.

In short, this poem is of a piece with that poetry in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean which has a subjective narrator. Comparison with an earlier poem suggests the distance that "For the Union Dead" stands from the poet's former historicism. In "Where the Rainbow Ends" from Lord Weary's Castle, the speaker states:

I saw my city in the Scales; the pans  of judgment rising and descending.

That poem had rhyme, meter, and stanza form; it rested on an equally ordered and orthodox system of belief and values. "For the Union Dead" lacks rhyme and meter, and has a stanza form which serves no prosodic or rhetorical function. As if to correlate with this loss of form, the poem's narrator offers no solutions, no guidance, no control—only his ability to conceive of a nobler way of life may be seen as hopeful. But unlike Colonel Shaw, the speaker cannot direct his life; he has no compass-needle. More than judging the modern condition, he bears witness to it. 

from "The Poet as Historian: 'For The Union Dead' by Robert Lowell." Concerning Poetry 1.2 (Fall 1968).

Helen Vendler: On "For the Union Dead"

Asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, Lowell delivered "For the Union Dead," a poem about a Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw, whose sister Josephine had married one of Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (who, like Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in the war). The poem is thus, though undeclaredly, a family poem; and in it, Lowell quotes from a letter that Charles Russell Lowell wrote home to his wife, Josephine, about her brother's burial: "I am thankful that they buried him with his niggers.' They were brave men and they were his men." "For the Union Dead" honors not only the person of Robert Gould Shaw, but also the stern and beautiful memorial bronze bas-relief b Augustus Saint Gaudens which stands opposite the Boston State House. It represents Colonel Shaw on horseback among the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a regiment entirely composed of Negro soldiers. By his own earlier request, Shaw -- who had the right, as an officer, to have his body brought home for burial -- was buried with his men in a mass grave after the battle of Fort Wagner, in which he and they had fallen. Far from criticizing the Brahmin past from the vantage point of the Catholic present, as he had done in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell now criticizes Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past. It is not he, any longer, who illuminates the past; the past, with its noble but fading light, now illuminates the debased present, of which he is a part.

. . . .

Lowell now conceives of the events of public history as existing solely in commemorative art, on the one hand, and metaphysical "immortality," like that of Shaw, on the other. Past deeds of war have vanished into these aesthetic and virtual forms . . . . With the disappearance of history as firm past reality, the poem tails off into the abjectness of a Boston now ruled by the immigrant Irish, who, like the skunks of Castine, have taken over territory formerly belonging to the Lowells and their kind. The Irish have defaced the historical Common on which Emerson had his transcendental vision; they have undermined the State House and the Saint Gaudens relief in order to build a parking garage; they have abandoned civic responsibility in letting the Aquarium decline; everywhere, reduced to the synecdoche of their vulgar automobiles, their "savage servility / slides by on grease." Lowell's anti-Irish statement, though covert here . . . , shows a new commercialized history replacing an old ethical history. The bas-relief shakes, and the statues "grow slimmer and younger each year" so that they will, if the process continues, disappear altogether . . . . Christian language, the "Rock of Ages," is debased to gross advertisement, heartless in its appropriation of Hiroshima for commercial purposes. What saves the poem from Pharisaic superiority is the speaker's own confessed participation in the degradation he so scathingly observes: "When I crouch" -- he says as he offers the most startling image in the poem -- "When I crouch to my television set / The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."

Lowell has now realized that the inner life, even that of a prophet, cannot remain immune from the corruption it describes. The savage servility he observes, if it is that of the Irish politicians turning Boston into one long financial and ethical scandal, is also that of the poet, representing old Boston, servilely crouching to his television set as the savagery of long-standing segregation victimizes Negro children in the white Protestant South -- as though Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th had died for nothing.

David Kalstone: On "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

Memories of West Street and Lepke" shuttles back and forth between the comfortable Lowell living in Boston in the 1950s and his recall of the year he spent in a New York jail as a conscientious objector. . . . No object in the poem seems to be allowed the independent interest often accorded by [Elizabeth] Bishop. Instead, things bristle with an accusatory significance, all too relevant to the speaker, an "I" not at all relaxed or random in his self-presentation.

Anne Sexton

Born Anne Gray Harvey in Newton, Massachusetts, the child of a wool merchant, Sexton's family lived in Boston suburbs and spent the summers on Squirrel Island, Maine. She married Alfred Sexton in 1948. Experiencing severe depression after her daughters were born in 1953 and 1955, she attempted suicide in 1956. Her doctor recommended writing poetry as an outlet for her feelings, and she attended Boston poetry workshops run by John Holmes and Robert Lowell.

Sylvia Plath

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath grew up in Winthrop. She was raised by her mother after her father died of complications from diabetes when she was eight. Plath was educated at Smith College and at Newnham College of Cambridge University. In 1953, after serving a month as a college guest editor at the New York fashion magazine Mademoiselle, she had a breakdown, and was unwisely subjected to electric shock therapy. She then attempted suicide and was hospitalized for six months, events she later adapted for her novel The Bell Jar (1963).

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, as part of a family with a distinguished literary heritage. Poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell were among his ancestors. This heritage no doubt made his own father's limitations—he was a business failure after his retirement from the U.S. Navy—seem more severe. Lowell enrolled at Harvard, much as the family expected, but after the first of his lifelong series of emotional breakdowns and periods of manic behavior, he transferred to Kenyon College in 1937.