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 statues 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.
Shaw is Robert Gould Shaw, white commander of the the all-black Massachusetts 54th, for whom August St. Gaudens crafted the Memorial in Boston. The words are from "For the Union Dead" by Robert Lowell. The poem was published in 1964, which provides the rationale for the reference to the school children.
My Memorial Day meditation will perhaps be somewhat different. I hope you do not find it too off-key.
When I was a child I was drawn as were many young males to tales of martial heroism. As a small child I read and re-read a child's version of the Odyssey. And perhaps that begins my downfall, for I admired more the cleverness of the hero than I did any martial sacrifice.
Still, I was drawn to the idea of military service. Ballantine Books had a paperback series on the World War II, and I read them all by the time I graduated from high school. I knew the names of American heroes, and even some opposing us whom the authors admired. I could list the four Japanese carriers sunk at Midway and tell you about airborne aces. I applied for Naval ROTC only I failed the first part of the physical on my eyesight.
Lowell's poem was written in 1964. In 1963 I participated in the March on Washington, after an extended period of civil rights demonstrations in New York, and that Fall I further participated in demonstrations in Chester PA. When I dropped out of college in 1965, still drawn to the idea of service on behalf of others, I enlisted in the United State Marine Corps. I never came close to combat, but I served with those who had - NCOs with service in Korea, and as time went on more and more who had been "in country" in Southeast Asia. And perhaps that is when my ideas about military service were finally altered.
I am now a Quaker. While not an absolute pacifist I accept the idea that when men go to war it is an admission of failure - that we could not settle our differences otherwise. I already had Quaker leanings while in the Marines, which made for an odd combination. After all, those of us in the Society of Friends attempt always to answer that of God in each person we encounter, while those who serve militarily are trained to kill the person designated as the enemy. The question inevitably arises, are we prepared to kill that of God, to destroy a creature or parts of creation in the name of some cause so great that we can justify such death and destruction?
I acknowledge that we enjoy freedom because there are now, and always have been, those willing to make two sacrifices. The one we acknowledge readily is their willingness to die on behalf of the idea we call American democracy. The one we too readily ignore is their accepting the price of taking lives of others, themselves perhaps prepared to kill on behalf of their nation, their people, their religion, their ideology.
Lowell's poem, which can be read in its entirely here, is not as well known as say the poems from World War I, but like them it challenges the "normal" patriotic reaction on occasions of commemoration. I will not quote the entire poem, but offer one more selection to consider:
My hand draws back. I often sigh 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 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 as lean
as a compass-needle.
I admire the poet's gift, which I lack, to express with a few words deep insights about the human condition. Poets, prophets and holy fools challenge us in our comfort, and force us to think more deeply about important things.
As an adolescent I became deeply fond of the poetry of Walt Whitman, whose admiration for and love of Lincoln was unbounded. I do not remember whether I responded to Whitman because I was already drawn to Lincoln, or that a still nascent attraction was fanned from embers to flames by the poetry. As a sophomore in College we commemorated the one-year anniversary of the death of Jack Kennedy by singing Paul Hindemith's requiem, itself written in commemoration of the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and using the entire text of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." It and the companion poem "O Captain, my Captain" serve to remind us that Lincoln was also a casualty of war, one of the last of our own Civil War. In the poem Whitman works with three images: lilacs as a symbol of death, the great star that droops for the fallen Lincoln, and the small bird who is the poet. Of that small bird he writes:
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou wouldist surely die.)
Whitman's poem is far too long to quote entirely. If you do not know it, today is an appropriate day to ponder it. The various images are powerful, deeply moving, thought-provoking, and can easily be applied to anyone whose sacrifice we remember this day. Allow me to share uninterrupted the 10th, 11th, and 12th stanzas:
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till
there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking
sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves
of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a
wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen
Lo, body and soul--this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides,
and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light,
Ohio's shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover'd with grass and corn.
Death that is removed from our living is not what we remember. The sacrifices that others made is what enables us to enjoy ordinary scenes of life, and the bounteous beauty of the land which so moved Whitman.
As a child I remember riding my bicycle to the war memorial. The end of the parade would take us there, with the list of names of those who had served, with especially commemoration for those who had died. This was not a glorification of death. It was an acknowledgement. Whitman has in the 14th stanza of his poem a "death carol" from which I take the following 8 lines:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love--but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Lowell began his poem with an epigraph in Latin:
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
This is a plural version, replacing the "Relinquit" on the actual St. Gaudens memorial, which was temporarily in a crate as the garage under Boston Common was being constructed. The original is the motto of the Society of Cincinnati. You can choose which version you prefer: "He/They left behind everything to save the Republic.
Lowell was answering a poem by his friend Allen Tate who had written "Ode to the Confederate Dead" which begins
Row after row with strict impunity
The headstones yield their names to the element,
The wind whirrs without recollection;
In the riven troughs the splayed leaves
Pile up, of nature the casual sacrament
To the seasonal eternity of death;
Then driven by the fierce scrutiny
Of heaven to their election in the vast breath,
They sought the rumour of mortality.
and which ends in a fashion which connects with my meditation:
We shall say only the leaves whispering
In the improbable mist of nightfall
That flies on multiple wing:
Night is the beginning and the end
And in between the ends of distraction
Waits mute speculation, the patient curse
That stones the eyes, or like the jaguar leaps
For his own image in a jungle pool, his victim.
What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart? Shall we take the act
To the grave? Shall we, more hopeful, set up the grave
In the house? The ravenous grave?
The shut gate and the decomposing wall:
The gentle serpent, green in the mulberry bush,
Riots with his tongue through the hush--
Sentinel of the grave who counts us all!
Today many will visit graveyards. This particular "celebration" began as "Decoration Day" when the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers alike had flowers placed upon them. It fulfills a human need to acknowledge what others have done on our behalf. And for many we need a physical symbol and place to which we can direct our attention.
Shaw's father thought no memorial was appropriate. You may agree or not as is your wont. For myself, even as I acknowledge the power of place and the force of physical symbolism - and I know few places with more force than the Vietnam Memorial, the Wall - I am drawn beyond these to the memory and image of the poet. Thus I return to Whitman, to "Lilacs," to the end of the magnificent poem, a selection which perhaps can only be fully understood at the completion of the rest of the words, but which even by itself can help us, guide us in turning our grief into something appropriate for this day:
I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.
Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for
the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands--and this for
his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
Some nations have been fortunate to have poets and playwrights as their leaders. We have had one whose gift with words approached that. It was him whom Whitman mourned, and he led this nation in its greatest crisis, when we fought brother against brother. It is his words to which I turn to end this meditation, himself one of the final victims of that titanic struggle. I do so in the belief that he challenges us to do more than merely remember, even more than absorb the insights of the poets. And I find his words so appropriate in our own time of national crisis:
It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.