restricted access Robert Lowell's Monumental Vision: History, Form, and the Cultural Work of Postwar American Lyric
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American Literary History 12.1&2 (2000) 79-112

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Robert Lowell's Monumental Vision:
History, Form, and the Cultural Work of Postwar American Lyric

Michael Thurston

When you emerge from the Boylston stop on the Boston T's Green line, you face the theater district--tall buildings, some with ornate fronts, some much simpler, most with shops or fast-food restaurants on their first floors. Behind you sprawls the Common, with its crisscrossing paths, playground, street musicians, tennis courts, and wrought iron fence. You have to make a couple of left turns to get to the Saint Gaudens monument to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th, the regiment of African-American troops Shaw led in the Civil War. Set at the peak of one of the park's slopes, its front directly opposite the Massachusetts State House, this bronze relief remains a powerful memorial to Shaw's soldiers and their suicidal rush into the guns of Battery Wagner, near Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

Just a few blocks from the Common, along the windingred-painted Freedom Trail, the new Holocaust Memorial rises starkly from its traffic-island park. The Memorial stands near the Fanueil Hall marketplace, "cradle of American liberty" and current host to an upscale pedestrian shopping mall. It catches and refracts sunlight from its strange position, tucked between Government Center and the Bell in Hand, allegedly "America's oldest continuously operating pub." With its 50-foot-high cubic towers, each named for a concentration camp and each constructed of 8-by-3 foot glass panels, each panel engraved with column after column of camp inmate identification numbers, with its gray stone tablets and graven texts by camp survivors, the Shoah Memorial truly sticks like a strange bone, a foreign object, in the north end's red brick and colonial throat.

As Michael North writes, monuments are "microcosmic summations of entire cultures" (30). These two monuments, the [End Page 79] Saint Gaudens relief and the Holocaust Memorial, constitute polar extremes of monumental art, endpoints in the continuum of forms modern American public recollection and commemoration can take. Viewers stand still before the Shaw monument, confronted by the shallow square on which their attention is fixed, but walk through the Shoah Memorial, only occasionally pausing to read amidst a dynamic and mobile experience. While Shaw's individual heroism stands out from his dark bronze background and the identical faces of his infantrymen, no hero emerges from the repetitive and horribly monotonous rhythm of numbers, from the brief memories, comments, and epitaphs, from the gray walls and walkways of the memorial for millions of the more recently, more industrially, murdered. While the texts inscribed around Shaw and his troops, in Latin and in English, celebrate the chosen sacrifice of life in service of the nation, those reproduced along the walkway and inside the glass towers of the Holocaust Memorial acknowledge helplessness in the face of hatred, folly in moments of historical decision. In its monuments a society casts into permanent form its history, that which it determines to remember. And the forms that history fits change with history's contours, with a people's ever-increasing capacity to make more history, to make of human beings the stuff of memory.

All of which seems appropriate for a discussion of Robert Lowell's poetry, not only because much of Lowell's verse seems to have been written with monuments in mind but also because Lowell's own monumental status in postwar American poetry confers upon him the same emblematic and representative function the monument confers upon its figure. 1 How we have learned to read Lowell, in other words, tells us a lot about how we have learned to read the postwar generation of poets he epitomizes. Throughout his career, monuments insistently appear in Lowell's poems to signify important ideas (North 235). Just as importantly, Lowell himself, from the lauded publication of Lord Weary's Castle (1946) through the famous torch-passing appearance with T. S. Eliot, becomes a living monument to a...