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‘Union Dead’ reckoning

Marking the golden anniversary of a monumental Boston poem

Robert Lowell reading his poem “For the Union Dead’’ in the Public Garden 50 years ago today. Robert Lowell reading his poem “For the Union Dead’’ in the Public Garden 50 years ago today. (John M. Hurley/Globe Staff/File)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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Boston has never been an especially poetical place, as New York can be or San Francisco is. It’s too small, too pinched, too prosaic with its “bricky air,’’ as Robert Lowell wrote in his poem “The Public Garden.’’ Yet Boston can lay claim to a poetic masterpiece specific to itself, a poem for which it provides both setting and inspiration. It’s Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.’’ Both tribute and indictment, it’s a poem that still speaks to what makes Boston the city it is.

Lowell gave the first public reading of “For the Union Dead’’ 50 years ago today, as part of the Boston Arts Festival. There were 4,000 listeners. The crowd responded with such enthusiasm he read it twice. “Poet on the Common Hushes Roar of the City,’’ stated a headline in the next day’s Globe. Should it be taken as an indication of Boston’s indifference to poetry that Lowell’s actual reading took place in the Public Garden?

Indifference is not the same as unfamiliarity. As first a literary and then an academic capital, Boston and environs have been home to many writers of poetry: from America’s first published poet, Anne Bradstreet, in the 17th century, to the former US Poet Laureates Robert Pinsky and Louise Gluck today.

In between there have been Phillis Wheatley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, various Harvard students (Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery), Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Frank Bidart.

Bidart is one of Lowell’s literary executors. Plath and Sexton studied with him. Bishop was one of his closest friends. Two other Boston poets were relations, his cousin Amy Lowell and great-grand-uncle James Russell Lowell. He’s as close to a central figure as Boston poetry has had.

Born in Boston in 1917, Lowell grew up in a family of faded fortunes in a city of faded fortunes. “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency,’’ Lowell’s mother lamented of their Beacon Hill address, 91 Revere St. That address would provide the title for Lowell’s celebrated memoir of his upbringing. Lowell marveled at his mother’s social anxiety. “We were less than 50 yards from Louisburg Square,’’ he wrote, “the cynosure of old historic Boston’s plain-spoken, cold roast elite — the Hub of the Hub of the Universe. Fifty yards!’’

Lowell was enough of a son of that old historic Boston to attend Rivers Country Day School, St. Mark’s, and Harvard — and skeptical enough of it to transfer to Kenyon, convert from Episcopalianism to Catholicism, and spend much of his adult life in New York (that worst affront Boston can suffer from one of its children). The point is that Lowell knew Boston intimately yet kept his distance. It was from that dual vantage point he wrote “For the Union Dead.’’

Lowell worked on the poems for nearly six months, starting in January 1960. He was living on Marlborough Street and teaching at Boston University. The year before, he had published his intensely personal collection “Life Studies,’’ which essentially invented the genre of confessional poetry.

Although it has autobiographical elements, “For the Union Dead’’ is far more formal — “the most composed poem I’ve ever written,’’ Lowell once said. He knew it would be read to an audience, and there is a marked aspect of civic occasion. There are references to shared history and public spaces: Hiroshima and “the drained faces of Negro school-children’’ on television news broadcasts; the Common, Boylston Street, the State House, and the Saint-Gaudens monument to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment across Beacon Street from the State House.

The poem begins with a defunct public place, “old South Boston Aquarium’’ — “Its broken windows boarded,’’ “its airy tanks dry’’ — which Lowell had visited as a boy. This awareness of decay and nostalgia for a lost, better past (a very Boston feeling) will be sustained throughout the poem. It’s not the aquarium on which the poem hinges, though, but the Saint-Gaudens relief, one of the great works of public art on the North American continent.

The soldiers Saint-Gaudens portrayed are the Union dead of the title. The regiment’s enlisted men were all African-American. The monument recalls a past of noble sacrifice even as it speaks to a present marked by racial turmoil. The urgency of race, a constant in the city’s history since at least the time of the abolitionists, will be the other defining Boston element in the poem, along with resistance to change. Soon enough, the two would braid together in real life, and in a way Lowell would have found unimaginable, with the opposition to court-ordered desegregation, in the ’70s.

Whites led the regiment, most notably the unit’s commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw (he was very distantly related to Lowell by marriage). Shaw and many of his men died in an assault on Fort Wagner, outside Charleston, S.C. Lowell writes of Shaw with admiration, “when he leads his black soldiers to death,/ he cannot bend his back.’’ The poet’s words convey a sense of Yankee rectitude as unyielding as the solidity of Saint-Gaudens’s bronze. Lowell then alludes to the aquarium and weaves the relief into the city’s long nautical tradition with one of the poem’s two most famous passages: “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.’’

Behind the men of the 54th lies the Common. They could almost be guarding it. At the time Lowell wrote the poem, large tracts alongside Charles Street were being torn up for the Boston Common parking garage. “Behind their cage,/ yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting’’ as they “gouge[d] their underworld garage.’’

In Lowell’s view, the Common, like the aquarium, is being sacrificed on the altar of a harsher, uglier future. The New Boston of the ’60s was just emerging. The Prudential Center, its capstone, would open in 1964. Another, more appealing product of urban renewal would be the New England Aquarium, which opened in 1969. It’s difficult to imagine Lowell responding to that appeal, though.

“Boston is becoming a city of superhighways and parking places,’’ Lowell told the audience in the Public Garden before he began to read. “That kind of void is what we are facing.’’

The racial progressivism of “For the Union Dead’’ obscures how intensely conservative the poem is. It belongs to a literary tradition Boston has excelled at almost from the city’s founding, the jeremiad. The original jeremiads — the name comes from Jeremiah, the Old Testament master of castigation — were sermons. They denounce the moral failings of society, contrasting the shoddiness of the present with the damning example of a shining past.

Boston was America’s original city upon a hill — a topographical position from which descent must inevitably follow, much as pride goeth before a fall. The other famous passage from “For the Union Dead’’ is the concluding stanza. Its combination of mournfulness and accusation, regret and righteousness, is like an X-ray of the jeremiad, joined once again to nautical imagery that ties the poem all the closer to Boston’s past:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

The Hub of the Universe, in Lowell’s view, has become just another market for Detroit (the Hubcap of the Universe?). Half a century later, the finned cars have become SUVs and Detroit is in far worse economic shape now than Boston was then. It would be interesting to know if Lowell walked to the Public Garden to give his reading or drove.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.