The Cortland Review


Denise Duhamel
An interview and reading with poet Denise Duhamel. David Lehman hosts this special audio program as part of the Best American Poetry on the Air series

Terri Witek
  How Robert Shaw Became Robert Lowell in "For the Union Dead:" The sculpture of August Saint-Gaudens, the engravings of Albrecht Durer, and the writings of Robert Lowell.

William Neumire
The Rules of Paradise: William Neumire reviews the lifecycle exploration in D. Nurkse's latest book.

Terri Witek

Terri Witek is the author of Fools and Crows (Orchises Press, January, 2003), Courting Couples, winner of the 2000 Center for Book Arts prize, as well as Robert Lowell and Life Studies: Revising the Self (University of Missouri Press, 1993). She teaches at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
Terri Witek


How Robert Shaw Becomes Robert Lowell in "For the Union Dead"

Like many great American poets, Robert Lowell was an audacious reviser. Though he practiced misspelling "Lowell" on his mother's casket while writing "Sailing Home From Rapallo," the poet's more usual method in his drafts, especially during the Life Studies years and just after, typically displays a different type of bravado. His poems from this period tend to be written widely (and sometimes nearly wildly), then deeply cut: in the end, surviving images and lines, rearranged to make the finished poems, act like a series of carefully spaced signal fires. To watch Lowell's ideas shift in this manner then rise up reconfigured is to observe a master craftsman at work.

It's especially notable that Lowell's drafts from this era display the same tendency no matter how apparently dissimilar the original material. When he was transforming his autobiographical prose for Life Studies, for example, Lowell's task was to sift out the more narrative elements for the transition into lyric poetry. When he wasn't beginning with narrative source material, Lowell tended to construct dense webs of association then winnow; this project never seems less difficult than the prose to poetry translation, as if the distance between draft and finished poem was at this period in his career (as it was not, for example, in the History and Notebook years) something he actively sought. Surely he chose such heavily associative subjects that he didn't leave himself much choice. At the time this often meant coralling one's ancestors; this was certainly an early move in "For the Union Dead," commissioned for the June, 1960 Boston Arts Festival in Boston Garden, home to the famous Augustus Saint-Gaudens bas-relief of Colonel Robert Shaw which was already inscribed with a poem on the subject by James Russell Lowell. Fortunately for Robert Lowell's commissioned task and absolutely suited to his method, these powerful dead heroes, artists, and, (in the case of both Shaw and Lowell), literal ancestors had been recontextualized by the twentieth century: their Union had literally been shaken into new days by such events as the explosion of the atomic bomb and the Civil Rights movement and allowed to fall into the hands of a successor who was both a proponent of free verse and a conscientious objector. That, as has been much-discussed, Robert Lowell felt the need both to differentiate himself from these ancestors and to distinguish his poem from earlier renditions of the subject is most literally suggested by a comment Lowell made about the poem's construction: the poet claims he added "early personal memories" to "For the Union Dead" in order to avoid "the fixed, brazen tone of the set-piece and official ode." 1 Inserting himself into the poem, that is, would allow the poet to treat the Shaw material so as to avoid the qualities of both the literal set-piece in bronze, Saint-Gaudens' sculpture, and James Russell Lowell's engraved, memorializing, "official" verse.

To wrest this material from his predecessors, Lowell needed both to recast it into his own particular medium and to unseat the fixed and heroic figure of the historical Colonel Shaw. In draft, Lowell had tried to write about Shaw and the moment of his death in an all-too narrative conclusion he eventually made triumphant in "For the Union Dead" by virtue of a double-dealing revision of it into "'s lovely/peculiar power to choose life and die—" (Lowell, 71). But what he seemed more attracted to in his earlier, more narrative drafts were other Shaw stories, particularly those about boyhood, as in this example:

so we are grateful you managed to supercede
those fond, early out of key anecdotes
how you ran away from school to your mother
or shaved your beard and mustache
and passed for a girl at the ball...

For the Robert Shaw of this version, heroism would have had to come at the price of an all-too interesting childhood: as Lowell says in draft, "...As a boy you were too like us/ for us to profitably wish to be in your shoes." The revising poet knows that, like Shaw, he must "supercede" such interesting "anecdotes" to create a central figure who is neither the buffoonish caricature of the more narrative drafts nor the differently "brazen" Shaw of the Saint-Gauden memorial and the James Russell Lowell poem, yet who will both reconfigure and dramatically recreate their shared figure's complex triumph.

In the most literal terms, this means he will substitute memories from his own childhood for the "out of key anecdotes" of Shaw's. Lowell is even more associative in making this move, however, than the many fine critical readings of "For the Union Dead" suggest, and his remarks on the subject of "personal memory" are typically both packed and disingenuous. By considering an early association Lowell made and then cut in the drafts of the poem which would become one of the great American poems, we can see the labrynthine and truly subversive way Robert Lowell worked himself into the center of "For the Union Dead." We can also begin to think of poetic revisions as he did, with something of the Devil's own daring.

The addition of Lowell as a character in his poem is the most discussed aspect of the poet's revisions: however, a less spectacular but certainly crucial decision was to bring Saint-Gaudens' sculpture itself into the drafts—a move that invited the poet to use art rather than history as an organizing principle. In doing this he was able to free himself from the temptation to arrange his poem in a Shaw-like straightforward march or, as some versions have it, "One Gallant Rush." This method let Lowell work his subject out and back from several perspectival vanishing points so that association by way of images would create the poem's most prominent pattern. By discussing Shaw through the medium of the Saint-Gaudens memorial, Lowell is also able to extend his gallery to include other suggestively similar works of art: he claims that Saint-Gaudens' Robert Shaw is like "Sintram," thus summoning into the drafts both Baron La Motte-Fouque's 1814 romance, Sintram and His Companions, and the engraving it's based on, Albrecht Dürer's famous "Knight, Death and the Devil." 2

"Knight, Death and the Devil"
Albrecht Dürer, 1513

These are interesting choices, and obviously compelling ones to Lowell, who used them in drafts of several other poems, too, though each time, the reference is eventually cut. The most unusual usage is when he compares his grandfather's splintery gray and watchful house to "Dürer's Sintram" 3 —notably, the color and vigilance he assigns to the house also show up in "For the Union Dead." These qualities seem related to the physical qualities of Dürer's print, its dense lines and graduated grays. But it's easier than that to see why Lowell thought of "Knight, Death and the Devil" in connection with the Saint-Gaudens sculpture: at the center of both is a classically posed military figure who is nearly upstaged by the background.

That Lowell summons up other works of art in which the background offers a challenge suggests that he is prepared to embrace similar difficulties in revising "For the Union Dead" away from the central figure of Robert Shaw, and that his examples are of complex artistic triumph also predicts his success. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in fact, had remarked that the decision to include background in his sculpture was the first important revision of his idea: he had originally wanted to make a free-standing statue. When the sculptor, challenged by Shaw's parents to include the men who died with their son, traded the free-standing figure for a bas-relief with a horseman at its center, the memorial was on the way to becoming the triumphant public art that it remains today. The addition of the soldiers of the 54th regiment is considered to be Saint-Gaudens' most daring and successful revision, far more important than the sculptor's four-times re-worked angel of death or the beautifully rounded horse, the original of which was felled by pneumonia and died as a result of the casting process. Saint-Gaudens in fact became enthralled by the project, which fast outgrew his commissioned time and money. So interested was he in displaying a variety of African-American faces that Saint-Gaudens modelled clay heads based on 40 different men on the street before choosing sixteen individual profiles for the memorial, and in the process he pushed the sculpture so far forward that it could no longer be accurately called bas-relief. 4

Robert Shaw Memorial
Augustus Saint-Gaudens
(Click image for enhanced view)

Although we know less about its particular making, the relation of background to foreground is equally important in "Knight, Death and the Devil". Some Dürer critics have objected to the heavily worked background of the plate, claiming that the scenery is of a different tradition than the foreground and overcomplicated a fine study of a man on a horse (Dürer himself called his print only "The Rider"). But in a now-classic work on Dürer reprinted four times between 1943 and 1950, Erwin Panofsky argues that it is precisely the background which endows the engraving with its essential meaning: he describes blanking it out only to be left with a figure who is "stiff and over-elaborated." What Dürer got out of the background, Panofsky argues, is the sense of what the central figure—a Christian knight—must overcome in the dark world through which he travels. And the sense that he travels at all is provided by the background through which he, his horse, and his faithful dog point their profiles to indicate "unconquerable progress" (Panofsky, 151-154).

What Saint-Gaudens achieves when he converts his original idea for a statue into relief sculpture is a similar sense of "progress": individually striking as they are, the men of the 54th all face in the same direction, ready to march forward to deaths which are by implication waiting just over the edge of the stone frame. This narrative is implied rather than enacted, however, as is Dürer's Knight's narrative. This sense of both implied and withheld story gives both Dürer's engraving and Saint-Gaudens' memorial much of their considerable power: that the stories are withheld lets both works press their emblematic and literal details forward for our consideration. These summoned sources work powerfully, too, for the poet who, in his final choices for "For the Union Dead," also suggests and withholds various narrative possibilities by bringing forward what is essentially background material. In all three works of art, the achieved effect is of a central figure both set in motion and reworked from behind so that their implied progress is called into question. At the same time, and as a result of this carefully crafted placement in space, the worlds they inhabit seem simultaneously both fully foregrounded and in possession of extraordinary depth.

In both engraving and relief sculpture, of course, this depth is literally made. The Renaissance engraver pushes his burin into the copper plate, the nineteenth-century relief sculptor pours molten metal into a mold which itself has been shaped over another material. Both processes involve production both inward and outward and a literal reversal that seems no less than magical: from incised and then inked plate are lifted prints which reverse the plate's image, from molds filled from the back with hot metal, taut figures spring forward into view.

That the process of bringing forward what was behind is risky is part of the technical challenge, of course. Most literally, how much and how deeply can a plate be incised? How far forward can relief sculpture go before it either cracks or transgresses the unseen plane before it? In terms of Lowell's medium, how far can a lyric poem stretch its images before they refuse to connect? In Saint-Gaudens' sculpture, Dürer's engraving and Robert Lowell's poem, such questions become part of the subject matter and the source of each piece's lovely, peculiar power. Shaw and his soldiers overcome the difference in their conceptions and march off together with the Angel of Death mirroring their forward motion in air. Dürer's "Rider," on the other hand, is issued a literal challenge from what's just deeper in the background than himself: Death and the Devil triangulate behind him, and Death's horse seems ready to step ahead of the Knight's horse, halting him in his tracks. In Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead," Robert Shaw's story is destabilized by the poet's own background, which presses forward into what the poem will eventually even refer to as "space."

The technical challenge this presents is clearly worth it to Lowell, as the alternative works of public art he summons into his poem after excising "Dürer's Sintram" demonstrate. That the stone statues of the Union soldiers stand in contrast to more vital, difficult art is obvious: while fully rounded, the stone soldiers are downright dozy if not quite dead, their narratives neither moving forward nor acquiring depth. Without the pressure of something behind them, that is, they become younger and thinner, abstracted youths in sideburns; fixed in their New England greens, they are set-pieces, close cousins to the caricaturish pre-heroic Robert Shaw of Lowell's early drafts.

They are, in other words, precisely what Robert Lowell does not want his poem to be. Better to threaten the poem's central figure and the poem's cohesion than have it and its listeners fall into a musing doze around the poet at a festival on Boston Common. That the threat is aimed directly at what stands in the poem's center is made clear by Lowell's most daring rethinking of the Shaw material by way of the Saint-Gaudens sculpture: the poet trades out Shaw's means of "progress" by taking away a crucial symbol of the classical military hero—like the still more literal sculptor, he kills a horse. Thus, what was an organizing piece of subject matter in the sculpture becomes a vanishing point in the poem; for both the forward motion and "unquenchable progress" of the works of art he summons into his drafts, Lowell then substitutes his own symbol system, one which adroitly rounds the material into his own.

There are many excellent, if somewhat bemused, readings of the fact that Lowell offers Robert Shaw riding on a twentieth-century "bubble." Certainly, there have been very helpful discussions of the way this particular image recurs in various ways throughout the poem, linking the lost aquarium, the cheeks of the soldiers, the exploding bomb, the ballon-faced children and fish-finned cars. The images of loss and death are so often reversed into breath and life by means of this imagery in the finished poem that Lowell's own comment preserved in the drafts about "the blessed break"—that at last black Americans seem to be getting one—perhaps isn't as odd as it appears. Yet while Lowell was adding what he calls "personal memory" to the drafts in order to achieve his lovely, peculiar poem, it seems important that the bubble image, his own most original contribution to the material, had been recently used in the Life Studies drafts. One more public use of it, of course, had appeared in the Schopenhauer quotation that opens "To Speak of Woe that is in Marriage" which refers to the "supersensible soap bubbles" by which the future generation "presses into being" (Lowell, 88). Unsurprisingly, the aquarium imagery to which the bubbles are linked in "For the Union Dead" has a more private connection as well: its locus classicus is not only the South Boston Aquarium of Lowell's childhood but the Payne Whitney clinic of his adulthood, where, after the deaths of his parents, he was asked to reconsider his childhood, his "early personal memories," in an attempt to mediate his manic depression.

That Lowell brings forward these associations from his personal background helps him authoritatively claim the movement of the poem which would become "For the Union Dead" away from both narrative sweep and out-of-key anecdote and complicates even the background- to-foreground move. Bubbles press both outward and up: they swell, bell and 'blessedly break.' In his drafts of autobiographical prose, Lowell links such imagery directly to himself. While the adult Lowell character in "For the Union Dead" can't touch the bubbles and ballooned faces he yearns toward because they are behind glass, the Lowell of the autobiographical prose considered himself within the glass: a resident of what he called a "balanced" or sometimes "unbalanced" aquarium where all conditions are carefully calibrated for survival. 5  In the poems taken from this material, Lowell claims something of a bubble existence for himself. In the prose drafts, Lowell had referred to the "yeasty rise" of his madness, and when he revises a portion of his prose into "Waking in the Blue," he uses images of physical expansion: "I weigh two hundred pounds/ this morning." This state he contrasts with the "pinched, indigenous faces" of his "shaky future": the "thoroughbread mental cases/ twice my age and half my weight."

That such associations from "personal memory" occurred to Lowell when he was constructing "For the Union Dead" is suggested not just by the similar pattern of the images but also by Lowell's excised reference to Dürer's classical hero "Sintram." Unsurprisingly, Lowell has reversed the order of creation in his reference—Dürer didn't make art out of an old tale of Sintram as he did out of the Biblical story of St. Jerome or the miracle of St. Eustace and the Stag. Rather, Sintram was a creation of the early nineteenth century, and like the Saint-Gaudens memorial and Robert Lowell's poem, was the result of a "commission": a friend gave Baron La Motte-Fouque a copy of "Knight, Death and the Devil" and asked him to create a tale from it, a request the author includes in an explanatory postscript at the end of the story he eventually wrote. While Sintram and His Companions is perhaps unfamiliar to us, it was well-known and loved by the Victorians: Little Women's Jo, for example, wished for the book in which it's contained, Undine and Sintram, as a Christmas present. From the first, this gothic tale is organized less around dramatic forward movement than around a cyclical series of encounters in which the troubled Prince Sintram is harrassed by two mysterious figures he eventually identifies as Death and the Devil. Instead of moving with narrative inexorability toward a final, fatal encounter, by the time Sintram confronts his challengers for the last time they've already met so often they no longer hold a threat to the Prince: he has seen through all the Devil's strategems, and the skeletal Death seems now only a not-unkind fellow traveller. Indeed, the story of Sintram is finally about how the hero manages not to defeat Death and the Devil, but how he learns to make them his "Companions." This is a clever act of homage to Dürer's engraving, of course, since it doesn't alter the Knight's pose, but gradually changes the meaning of the relationship of this central figure to his background. And, in a neat psychological reversal, Sintram's Companions, who initially seem to appear at random from a dense Germanic forest, are eventually seen as as creatures from within the hero: they are externalizations of that which had terrorized Sintram since childhood: his yearly bouts of Christmas madness. Robert Lowell, himself subject to cyclical swells of manic depression and cure, thus brings into the poem with "Dürer's Sintram" not only the great engraving but a narrative in which the hero confronts his inner demons in the form of emblematic public encounters and learns to think of them as part of his journey.

By a most complex series of associations, then, Robert Lowell manages to work himself into the center of "For the Union Dead." He offers himself as a both a challenge to and a twentieth century descendent of Robert Shaw, not only as the bemused child and adult of the poem, but, more audaciously, in the image pattern which both unhooks the poem's implied narratives and offers itself as the poem's source of movement so neatly that Robert Shaw ends up astride an image from the poet's personal lexicon. Like Sintram, when he externalizes what's within, he finds "Companions": in other words, he invents a way for his poem's public and private symbol systems to meet. And, brilliant reviser that he is, Robert Lowell then cuts most of this out, leaving us with a poem which is both light on the page and utterly significant: anything but a "set-piece." And yet Lowell is finally such a great example as a reviser because, while he invents broadly then cuts deeply, there is a sense in his poems that nothing is ever quite lost. In the hands of a master, the burin digs down but not too far through, the figures push from the copper but don't crack, the bubbles swell but, despite their inherent tendencies, don't break, even blessedly. Ah, we protest, but the hero's wonderful horse, four-legged ballast of the sculpture, the engraving, and the romance has been so thoroughly recast that only a bulging flank remains. Perhaps. But we may be simultaneously appeased and disconcerted to notice that Colonel Robert Shaw has acquired, by the end of Lowell's revisions, "a greyhound's gentle tautness": Robert Lowell may have nearly banished the horse within his defiant bubble, but he's kept a little piece of "Dürer's Sintram" by giving his central figure the attributes of Dürer's engraved, heraldic dog.



1. Lowell includes a one-page typed discussion of the poem in the drafts of "For the Union Dead" housed in the Houghton Library. All subsequent references to drafts will be to the documents in this collection.

2. Steven Gould Axelrod refers to this connection in "Family Resemblance: Amy Lowell's 'Towns in Color' and Robert Lowell's 'For the Union Dead.'" Modern Philology 97/4 May 2000: 554-562.

3. This poem appears in the "Uncollected Poems, 1951-1959" section of the drafts.

4. Of the interesting discussions of this piece, see particularly Dryfhout, 222-229, and the National Gallery of Art Website, cited below.

5. Draft versions appear in "At Payne Whitney" in the Houghton Library collection. A version of the story may also be found in Collected Prose, 346-363.



© 2002 The Cortland Review