Colonel Shaw

Alan Williamson

Lowell's nearest approach, in For the Union Dead, to an image of moral political action is to be found in the title poem. As the title suggests, "For the Union Dead" is in some ways a deliberate reply to Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," which revolves around the same two figures, the poet-outsider and the dead hero. But where Tate suffers so intensely at the lack of a personal release into action that the hero is almost totally idealized, Lowell questions - with similar anguish - whether the active man can ever measure up to the moral completeness of the outsider's vision.

Lowell's active man, Colonel Shaw, is in many ways highly vulnerable to Lowell's usual critique of the disparity between ideals and realities, and of political theatricality. Like Governor Endecott, Shaw is a gloomy, soul-searching man who ends by being wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise. He accepts the command of the Massachusetts 54th, a Negro regiment officered by whites, trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives, heavily exploited for Union propaganda, and massacred in its very first battle. Yet Shaw has redeeming qualities. Though he is engaged in a theatrical venture, he - and his father - desire nothing for themselves but "privacy." "When he leads his black soldiers to death, / he cannot bend his back": meaning, perhaps, that he cannot recant his decision - the absolutism of the idealist - but also that he accepts its consequences personally, and will not provide himself with a security that his men do not have. When Shaw's body is thrown (vindictively, by the Confederates) into a mass grave with his troops, Shaw's father recognizes the appropriateness of this end in the light of his son's principles, and the implicit racism of those Northerners who see in the act only an outrage. He wants no other monument but "the ditch."

The dislike of monuments, the fear that abstract images will too effectively distance unpleasant realities, becomes a central theme in the poem. The exemplary contrast to Shaw is William James, who, "at the dedication [of the monument] . . . could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," and who seemingly found in this artistic resurrection some sort of emotional compensation for their real deaths. (It may be relevant here that James's one unbookish brother, Garth Wilkinson James, was Colonel Shaw's adjutant, and suffered a wound that left him a semi-invalid for life, in the battle in which Shaw was killed. In spite of his invalidism, the younger James went South during Reconstruction and attempted to run a communal, integrated plantation. William James himself was prevented by poor eyesight from fighting in the Civil War. But even without this information, the contrast between James and Shaw is clear enough.) Later in the poem, the increasing modern romanticization of the Civil War, the "statues of the abstract Union Soldier" that "grow slimmer and younger each year," form a bitter contrast to the country's continuing indifference to racial injustice. Indeed, that indifference is itself encouraged by a distancing medium: the television screen where frightened black faces, become, like the cast bronze of the statue, mere "balloons."

It might be said that Colonel Shaw is a bit of a monument in his action, stonelike, unbending. Yet because he knows concretely, and undergoes in his own person, the full consequences of his choice, he remains a meaningful contrast to all the abstractionists in the poem, from William James to the television set; he represents a compromised, but still living, still responsible connection between ideology, or image, and reality.

The central issue of the poem can be stated in another way: given that mere rebellion or dissociation is unsatisfactory, what can man do with his inner monsters - his bear, snake, and horseshoe crab - that will somehow go beyond them and complete his humanity? "For the Union Dead" probably contains a greater profusion of animal imagery, for its length, than any other poem by Lowell. Nowhere are the organs, acts, and motives of man, the shapes and forms of his self-expression, more insistently animal than here. Yet the simple equation of animal images with brutality, instinct, and raw power that works in the tyrant passages is no longer viable here, although the yearning for a "dark downward and vegetating kingdom" suggesting a subrational unity of consciousness, even a return to the womb, is certainly akin to Caligula's desires. For, in this poem, gentle and humane qualities, and even those faculties of rational choice that seem exclusively human, are seen in animal terms. "The cowed, compliant fish" suggest an analogous quality of blind endurance in the Negroes; but Colonel Shaw's own angry "vigilance is "wrenlike," his ability to combine gentleness with discipline, principle, and readiness for action is "a greyhound's." The imagery thus serves to remind us how far man is a part of evolution, his fate the common destiny of living creatures, his most distinctly human qualities, more refined analogues of traits that animals, too, have had to develop for biological survival.

This line of thought is the key to the importance of the elegy on the aquarium with which the poem begins and ends. Imagistically, the passage functions as an overture on many levels, but its overriding emotional tone is nostalgia: Lowell mourns the loss of a curiosity about other living beings that made people want aquariums. Modern men no longer wish to acknowledge their kinship with the animal world, but prefer the comforts and thrills given them by machines, televisions, urban centers oriented around the "civic sandpiles" of underground garages. Here, Lowell's thought begins to parallel - and may, indeed, be influenced by - Norman 0. Brown's in Life Against Death. In Brown's view, man creates cities and technologies partly in order to identify with them and thereby 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). But, Brown says, in culture as in individual neurosis, what is repressed reappears, and is more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. This is also Lowell's vision, as revealed in the last stanza of the poem:

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

Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or his mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere.

In turning to the seemingly impersonal power of machines, man is condemned to endless repetition not only of animal motives but of animal forms, his final point of reference for both form and purpose being his own biologically evolved nature. The same point is made earlier in the phrase "yellow dinosaur steamshovels," with the added suggestion that the end product of man's self-perfection will be his self-destruction. Protected from the knowledge of his animality and mortality by the spurious permanence and orderliness of the machine-world, man becomes not only more powerful, but also more dangerous, because he is spared direct responsibility: he is so shielded from the horror of reality that he can not only commit the Hiroshima bombing, but then use it to advertise a safe. Or perhaps the meaning is almost the reverse: modern man is so terrified of technological war that he can endure its image only when aided by a further identification with the inanimate permanence of - money! Suspect though the monuments are, their disappearance from the modern city is the sign of something far worse: an almost schizophrenic dissociation of the fact that war happens to living human beings, which, again, liberates man's cruelty.

If Lowell's dark vision of advanced civilization parallels Norman 0. Brown's, his image of a hero closely resembles Brown's psychological ideal, not in that ideal's more notorious sexual aspects, but in the conception of a willing self-surrender to time and death. For the portrait of Colonel Shaw provides a moral resolution to the question of animality and death, as to that of political abstraction. Imagistically, as I have shown, Shaw is in touch with his animal nature, and able to draw from it his most heroic qualities; further, his acts are finally justified by his willingness to accept physical suffering and death in a brutal, unvarnished form, to accept "the ditch" of mass burial. The very next stanza menaces mankind with a death of a different order: "The ditch is nearer." This ditch is a many-layered symbol, bringing together nuclear annihilation, the absolute zero of outer space, the blank terror in the faces of the Negro schoolchildren, the hollowness of ideals out of touch with real circumstances, the bubble on which Colonel Shaw suffers, waiting for the "blessed break."

Taken together, the two ditches pose an inexorable alternative: Yeats's "blind man's ditch" of natural birth and death, with its ugliness and uncertainties, as against an abstracted, centerless existence, whose quest for perfection of power easily metamorphoses into pointless and suicidal violence. But what is at issue is more than a restatement of the perverse argument that the tyrant is more pitiable than the tyrannicide, the monster than the abstractionist; for Colonel Shaw provides a pattern of the action that is quintessentially human: "he rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die." Man, who alone has rational knowledge of death, alone can voluntarily accept it, philosophically as well as in particular circumstances, for the sake of a complete and life-giving response to existence. It is paradoxical but moving that this act is said to make Shaw rejoice, surely a rare word in Lowell. Shaw's attitude is the diametrical opposite of the effort of the threatened identity to include the entire world in its own being, the effort that unites tyrant and tyrannicide, Satan and mechanized man: that might be called man's less lovely, equally peculiar, power to choose death and live.

The ideal implied in the portrait of Colonel Shaw is explicitly stated in the concluding passage of moral advice in Lowell's translation of juvenal's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," a passage which Lowell (unlike his source, according to an essay by Patricia Meyer Spacks) calls the portrait of a "hero":

pray for

a healthy body and a healthy soul,

a soul that is not terrified by death,

that thinks long life the least of nature's gifts,

courage that takes whatever comes - this hero

like Hercules, all pain and labor, loathes

the lecherous gut of Sardanapalus.

This hero, though something of a tyrannicide in his "loathing," has managed to conquer the tyrannous "gut" motives of oral absorption. He finds his basic integrity not in his acts but in the amount of "pain and labor" in his life, the burden of responsibility and moral insight that he is able to bear. And, as with Shaw, his greatest moral success is seen in his triumph, not over worldly temptation, but over the fear of loss of identity in death. This idea of an only barely activist heroism of insight dominates the political poetry, and to some extent the personal poetry in "For the Union Dead."

From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.

Thomas Travisano: On "For the Union Dead"

Lowell's "For the Union Dead" vastly expands the context of individual experiences of loss presented in more concentrated form in the previous poems. In a succession of subtly linked vignettes, Lowell probes the personal, intellectual, cultural, and political ramifications of an array of locally defined losses. Vanished buildings, displaced monuments, misplaced childhoods, crumbling traditions, frayed dignity, and annihilated cities are represented in successive quatrains through the eyes of a historically aware individual—apparently a dramatized avatar of the poet-reviewing the changes rapidly overtaking his native city and its once dominant Brahmin culture. The texture of the poem fluctuates between graphic, hypercharged super-realism and a curiously distanced, dreamlike reverie. It alludes to Lowell's childhood tellingly in its second stanza, and a "cowed," childlike confusion in the face of unfathomable experience is invoked again later in the poem.

But perhaps most tellingly, Lowell objectifies the process of loss by his persistent attention to visual objects. Often these visual objects are monuments of some public note. After an Latin epigraph that slightly but significantly alters the motto to the Saint-Gaudens statue dedicated to Colonel Shaw's regiment (the altered version translates as "They relinquished everything to serve the Republic" instead of "He relinquished . . ."), the poem proper begins by examining visual evidence of other forms of relinquishment. This examination starts with a public monument whose significance seems largely personal, the "old South Boston Aquarium." Not yet torn down, this structure has relinquished its old function. It "stands / in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. . . . / The airy tanks are dry" (FUD 70). A diminished survivor, the aquarium is just the first of many attenuated monuments that populate the poem. Soon center stage shifts to Saint-Gaudens's "shaking Civil War relief," now "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and to the neighboring Statehouse, another monument, that relinquishes its own traditional centrality and dignity. Braced and held upright by girders and gouged out underneath to make room for a parking garage, it appears as a symbolic victim of the modern, mechanical dynamism that persistently displaces the traditional past.

Such local cultural attrition provides the context for losses of a different order. These begin, of course, with reflections on the death of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment during the Civil War, losses that, despite their tragic nature, had a lofty social purpose. But this is balanced by modern destruction of a still more devastating order, represented by a advertising poster of "Hiroshima boiling." This visual object points with casual indifference toward two dominant postmodern fears that disturbed all four of these poets: the threat of nuclear holocaust and the onset of a devouring commercialism. For example, the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 dismayed Randall Jarrell as profoundly as the firebombing and massive destruction of Hamburg did Lowell (see also Jarrell's own quietly heartbreaking "The Angels at Hamburg" for his response to the destruction by firestorm of this German city, where the death toll, by some estimates, exceeded that of Nagasaki.) The age of nuclear anxiety that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (so vividly crystallized in Lowell's "Fall 1961") provides a backdrop for Lowell's mature poetry as well as for the poetry of Berryman and Jarrell. And there is evidence in the polemical essays of Jarrell's prose collection A Sad Heart at the Supermarket and in poems like "Next Day," as well as throughout Berryman's Dream Songs, of the degree to which the burgeoning of a callous and triumphant commercialism in the fifties and sixties disturbed them. During these same years, Bishop moved to Brazil in part to evade the mass-production culture that was increasingly dominating her native land.

Just as Lowell's "For the Union Dead" presents its catalog of losses, so, too, does it present a peculiar, and parallel, catalog of survivors: almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but it stands. Its "cowed, compliant fish" may be no more, but a "bronze weathervane cod" still sits atop the roof, even though it "has lost half its scales" (FUD 70). Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:

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

These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static and attenuated simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations. Some of the poem's many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, and live on in the form of monuments, statues, pictures, and other visual objects. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer physical erosion and a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect. But there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs, who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe, whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial, mindless, and mechanistic order.

By contrast, the displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors. It preserves in vicarious stasis its "bronze Negroes," who maintain a curious simulation of life (William James could "almost hear [them] breathe"), a life mirrored by the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s]," who "doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns." But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" because it is an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in downtown Boston. This is true in part because racism and racial tension also survive, as does a replica of the ditch in which Colonel Shaw and his black Massachusetts volunteers were buried without the customary military honors by the Confederate soldiers who mowed them down at Fort Wagner. The form of that ditch is further replicated in the very "underworld garage" being gouged beneath the Statehouse. The continuing reality of racism reappears in "the drained faces of Negro school-children" whom the narrator observes on television attempting to integrate southern schools (FUD 70-72). But Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem's protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized. His predicament bears more than a passing resemblance to the speaker's long dead "uncle Charles," of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid"—another Union officer and leader of "colored volunteers," buried on that occasion in Concord and with full military honors, attended by "Phillips Brooks and Grant." Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing. For this

    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.

His wincing at pleasure, his erect, and perhaps narrow moral rigidity ("lean / as a compass-needle") is derived from a culture growing from deeply rooted Puritan beliefs in public probity and Election, out of keeping with a pleasure-seeking and profoundly commercialized contemporary culture. He yearns to escape from history's spotlight. Understanding the value of sacrifice for a higher good, he remains inflexible in its pursuit, and this places him on the margins of contemporary culture.

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.

Though Colonel Shaw represents an almost oppressive maturity, childhood remains a constant presence throughout the poem, and the gestures and wishes of childhood persist in the adult. The child's awareness is introduced in the second stanza, which generates much of the poem's continuing imagery, imagery persistently identified both with the poem's central observer and with the city's modern urban planners. The child whose "nose crawled like a snail on the glass" of the aquarium parallels the adult who "pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence on the Boston Common." The child's impulse "to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish" suggests a temptation toward violent gesture that is echoed throughout the poem. Of course, fish don't have noses or make bubbles, as the poet surely knew, so this must be a memory, that, like so many of the objects in the poem, has suffered metamorphosis. Though the impulse to violence is later transferred to other figures, we see it first in the speaker. His yearning for "the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" reflects a yearning to reach back through the premoral awareness of early childhood to the amoral aware- ness of the lower vertebrates (FUD 70).

The body of the poem frequently echoes this yearning to escape from cognition and the pain of historical awareness and self-consciousness and responsibility, an escape that the leaders of Boston seem already to have achieved. It might also imply a yearning for the freedom to act on baser instinct, a freedom shared by the lower vertebrates but rejected by Colonel Shaw. The "Parking spaces" that "luxuriate like civic / sandpiles in the heart of Boston" suggest this lingering childishness in the minds of the city's urban planners. But the speaker of the poem is not exempt. When he crouches before his television set to watch the "Negro school-children," he is mimicking his own action as a child peering through the glass of the fish tank; the school children whose faces "rise like balloons" echo the bubbles the child saw in the fish tank and seem just as trapped as the fish (FUD 70-72). The child is thus complexly imaged as both aggressor and victim, in a separate world from the adult, yet inexorably linked to adult consciousness.

Dream textures weave in and out of the poem, despite its prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, and dream-logic knits the various strands. The poem's logic resembles the subtle, associational logic of dreams, with its many surrealistic images, its curious doublings and transformations. The "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier" may be lost in a dream, as "they doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns," but the central dream-figure is Colonel Shaw himself. When last seen:

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

The bubble he rides survives, with typical dream logic, from the fish tank, and from the faces of the school children who "rise like balloons." Colonel Shaw yearns to escape the vicarious simulation of life in which he is trapped, to depart a world that has a stable place for him neither in its public environs nor in its collective awareness, and to achieve the "privacy" for which he continually "suffocates." Shaw's final heroism may be the fact that he lingers still, in spite of his yearning to depart.

In his review of Lord Weary’s Castle, Jarrell noted that Lowell's "poems often use cold as a plain and physically correct symbol for what is constricted and static" in contemporary culture (P&A 210). In "For the Union Dead" Lowell uses the temporary displacement of Saint Gaudens's bronze relief of Colonel Shaw and his black regiment in a context awash in parking lots, finned cars, and crass commercialization, to create "a plain and physically correct symbol" for the violent yet barely conscious displacement of mourning in the postmodern world.

from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Makeup of a Postmodern Aesthetic. UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by UP of Virginia.