Here's a poem by Robert Lowell called The Union Dead. The theme of the poem is based on the story of Colonel Shaw who was the white officer who led
the first all black brigade in American history during the American Civil war . Lowell contrast the image of Shaw a member
of a prominent Bostonian family ( like Lowell himself) & the statue of Colonel Shaw in Boston with the civil rights movement
in the the US during the 1960s. The point being that at that time in the 1960s a hundred years later black people are still
struggling to gain equal rights with other members of American society.
Unfortunately the poem still has resonance today in 2005 because a large proportion of Afican-Americans still feel that not
much progress has been made to improve their situation in American society. There is still a great deal of systemic racism
in the US & in Canada. Even though a few African Americans & Afican Canadians have risen to positions of power. But
they are the exception rather than the rule.
Robert Lowell did take part in civil rights marches & was active in the anti-war movement in the US during the Vietnam
War. He also was imprisoned during the Second World War as a conscientious objector so he was not just some academic viewing
all of this from his armchair.
The movie GLORY, which is a great film, is about the first all black brigade in the US military. Their commander is a white
Bostonian - Colonel Shaw . Shaw complained again and again about how his all Black brigade were treated by those in positions
of power & how they were viewed by the white populace & the white Union soldiers.
In the movie version we discover that the creation
of the brigade is meant more as a propaganda tool & is merely for appearances sake. But Colonel Shaw takes his command
seriously & is constantly fighting to get better equipment & even clothing ,blankets & boots etc. for his soldiers.
No one in the military or in Washington expects that
these black men can or should be trained as regular fighting soldiers. At first there is resistance to giving these black
soldiers rifles & ammunition. But Colonel Shaw & his men are determined to prove them wrong as it were.
Anyway the poem is a good example of how poetry changed since the time of 19th century American poets such as Henry David
Thoreau & Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emily Dickinson or even Walt Whitman. Whitman at times sounds so optimistic & somewhat
naive. Whereas Lowell's poem seems filled with resignation & despair; that the injustices in our society continue even
though we have this delusion of progress which has more to do with machines & things like TV & airplanes,automobiles,
space flight & Atomic Bombs rather than the overall improvement of society.
Glory 1989 original Trailer
Robert Lowell For The Union Dead
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 crowded, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sign 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 of 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 a 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 statutes 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 statutes 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.
Robert Lowell Skunk Hour (for Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer is first selectman in our village;
she's in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town....
My mind's not right.
A car radio bleats,
"Love, O careless Love...." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat...
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their solves up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.