Robert Lowell: Secular, Puritan and Agnostical

Chris Watson

Abstract


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

"For the Union Dead" ends with this image of Boston in the middle of the twentieth century. The poem has previously referred to other images from the present and the past, one of them the public monument representing Colonel Shaw and a regiment of black infantry who fought in the Civil War. The speaker comments that:

their monument sticks like a fishbone in the city's throat.

The impact of the poem's ending is heightened by reference to its epigraph: "Relinquunt omnia servare Rem Publicam", almost meaning "they gave up everything to serve the Republic." Lowell links the debasement of language with other losses discerned in modern Boston, modem America, the modem world. The poem refers lo "graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic". Even a century ago, let alone in a Roman context, the notion of "republic" suggested a common commitment to the public realm , the common weal. Here is a society with no such focus, but one which has parodies of it, summed up as he implies elsewhere, by the values of the "'Republican" Party, the dominant party in the USA of the 1950s. Likewise the notion of service is parodied by the grease-smooth ''servility" of this consuming and greedy society; this people is neither truly free nor does it serve; neither does it want lo know about those who have, those whose service was intimately linked with their religious commitment.

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