By David Havird
In April 1974 Robert Lowell read at the University of South Carolina. This wasn’t Lowell’s first visit to the state in April. In 1947, according to Paul Mariani, “At Easter . . . he was in Charleston, South Carolina, ‘admiring the old houses,’ and visiting Fort Sumter, ‘horrified by the flat, coastal desert that surrounds it.’” (Mariani, in Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, quotes from the poet’s letter to his aunt Sarah Winslow.) It was, of course, the Rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 that started the Civil War, and it was the Union assault on Fort Wagner, on nearby Morris Island, in 1863, by a “bell-cheeked Negro infantry” led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (whose sister married a Lowell) that Lowell commemorates in “For the Union Dead.”
If “St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,” the bronze monument depicting Colonel Shaw and the African American 54thMassachusetts Infantry, links Boston Common to Charleston Harbor, perhaps (or so Mariani implies) the “parking spaces,” which “luxuriate like . . . sandpiles in the heart of Boston” brought to Lowell’s mind the sandy spit where Fort Wagner stood and “half the regiment,” after the unsuccessful assault, lay dead—to be interred in a mass grave, a “ditch,” by the victorious Confederates. According to the historian Thomas J. Brown, at least some of the Confederate casualties repose in Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery, the decoration of whose graves, among other Confederate veterans’ graves, in 1866 occasioned an “Ode” by Henry Timrod, the unofficial poet laureate of the Confederacy. Lowell’s visit to South Carolina in 1974 culminated in a pilgrimage to Timrod’s grave in a churchyard in downtown Columbia across the street from the Capitol.
If you want to picture Lowell as he looked while on that pilgrimage, find in Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography of the poet the 1974 photo of Lowell with his almost shoulder-length, scraggly gray hair—he’s wearing a dark suit and a knit tie with horizontal stripes. You can’t see on his feet the Clarks sand suede wallabees, which amused my mother, who mistakenly recognized them as Hush Puppies. In her judgment these would have gone all right with the red chamois-cloth shirt and baggy brown cords that Lowell had on at James Dickey’s house the previous morning, but not with a suit, much less a dark blue suit. Then, however, he’d kept on his bedroom slippers—playing Auden, Maxine Dickey archly observed. Anyway, there Lowell is on the ground, knee up, hands on the weedy-looking grass, posing in front of his cousin Harriet Winslow’s headstone in Washington, D.C.
Lowell’s three-day visit to Columbia was sponsored by the university’s student union, and I (as the student who invited him) played host. I didn’t know it when we made that culminating pilgrimage, but thanks to Brown—his Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (2015)—I now know, 40 years later, that “Timrod’s grave was an important symbolic site in the struggle over the postwar direction of the white South.” I’ve also learned from Brown that Lowell “had theatrically fallen to his knees before the landmark,” the granite boulder marking Timrod’s grave. I think, Why not?
No doubt, as Kay Redfield Jamison asserts (in Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire), “New England was critical to how Lowell came to be.” All the same, Lowell’s Southern relations were extensive—a matter of blood as well as friendship and marriage. As familial connections deeply rooted in North Carolina may have inspired his diversion to Fort Sumter, perhaps his relationship with the Southern poets who were his mentors piqued an interest in Timrod.
Without a doubt, my Southern heritage had predisposed me to take an interest in “sites of Confederate memory.” For me as a son of the South and a 21-year-old aspiring poet, the pilgrimage to Timrod’s grave with my favorite poet—with Robert Lowell, this self-conscious Bostonian (whose maternal grandmother hailed from the Carolinas)—stirred thoughts at once about my regional heritage and my literary one. Personally, reading “91 Revere Street,” I could relate to Lowell, or so I made believe, feeling as I did “the egotistic, slightly paranoid apprehensions of an only child.” (I was hardly “mentally ill.”) But without quite consciously knowing so, I was “learning to live in history.” (So Lowell says of himself in an altogether other context, the aftermath of a love affair, in Notebook.) “What is history?” he asks and answers: “What you cannot touch.”
Why shouldn’t Lowell at least have dropped to a knee? Except that he didn’t. Still, behind “For the Union Dead,” a personal poem occasioned by a public festival, stands “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” a private, even “solipsistic” poem by Allen Tate; and behind Tate’s “ode” there’s Timrod’s Parnassian “Ode” (“Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead, at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, S.C., 1867”). “An abolitionist counterpart” to Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead”—this is how Steven Gould Axelrod (in Robert Lowell: Life and Art) describes Lowell’s poem. In fact, Tate’s ironic ode doesn’t so much as glance at slavery. “Counterpart” better describes the stance of Lowell’s commemoration of the Union dead to Timrod’s “Ode,” which at least refers, if vaguely, to “a fallen cause” of which the Confederate dead are “martyrs” (though it’s the “defeated valor” as embodied by those martyrs that Timrod celebrates). Timrod’s “few war poems,” writes F. O. Matthiessen in his introduction to The Oxford Book of American Verse (in which I first read Timrod’s “Ode” when I was 15), “which state the Southern cause with deep conviction, endure with a classic hardness.” At any rate, as Brown incisively demonstrates, the lineage from Timrod’s “Ode” to Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” and to Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” also includes Kevin Young’s “For the Confederate Dead” and Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guards.” Would Young or Trethewey have dropped to a knee at Timrod’s grave? Or Bob Dylan? In 2006 Timrod enjoyed a burst of fame when Dylan, in the album Modern Times, “sampled” (but did not “plagiarize”), as Robert Polito judiciously puts it, lines of Timrod’s verse. Point taken.
But Tate, for whom Timrod, according to Matthiessen, was “the best Southern poet of his time,” was Lowell’s principal mentor. “I can think of no pleasanter honor than to follow Tate, Warren and Miss Welty,” read Lowell’s reply to my invitation. The student-sponsored award, the University of South Carolina Award for Distinction in Literature, that was now bringing Lowell to South Carolina had brought Tate and Robert Penn Warren, another of Lowell’s mentors, to the university in 1973. (Welty had received the award in absentia.) This reply of Lowell’s had arrived from England, where he was now living with his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, and experiencing a “second fatherhood” with their two-year-old son, Sheridan—England, where you couldn’t get superhot mustard, or so Lowell later insisted. The return address was Milgate Park, Bearsted, Maidstone, Kent. The flimsy, blue “air letter” was dated January 26. “Terrible to think,” the letter continued, “(yet like the like the [sic] sun I see out the window coming glaringly through the gray cloud) it is now nearly forty years ago I first visited Allen Tate on the Cumberland and must have changed my life. I see,” he added, “my image has misled; I meant the sun is what I see looking backward, the clouds are not the present but also what I see looking backward.” That visit to Tate, who had read at the university the previous spring, took place in 1937 when Lowell, then a college sophomore, withdrew from Harvard and apprenticed himself to Tate, pitching a green umbrella tent from Sears on his lawn. Lowell vividly recounts the episode in “Visiting the Tates” (Allen and his wife, the novelist Caroline Gordon). Indoors, as this self-described young “puritan” and “abolitionist” observed, a Confederate flag hung above the fireplace. While sometimes wry, Lowell’s account is self-deprecating and affectionate, even reverential to the older poet: “Like a torn cat, I was taken in [by Tate] when I needed help, and in a sense I have never left.” His description of Tate’s manner relates as keenly to his own: “Out of splutter and shambling comes a killing eloquence”—and all the more so when he exclaims, “How often something smashes through the tortured joy of composition to strike the impossible bull’s-eye!”
Lowell’s letter to me—his reflection on how crucial to him was that visit to Tate—echoes an observation to Peter Taylor in 1973: “In solitary moments I remember that Allen more or less saved me, once in 1937 and then again in 1941–42.” In 1942–43—Lowell is off a year—he was (along with his first wife, the novelist Jean Stafford) a houseguest of Tate and Gordon, this time in Monteagle, Tennessee. There he labored at the poems that made up Land of Unlikeness (1944), poems whose subsequent revisions found their way into Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), Lowell’s first commercially published (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) collection.
Peter Taylor, a native Tennessean whose stories about the denizens of Nashville, Memphis, and St. Louis were enshrined in two volumes by The Library of America in 2017 (and who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 novel A Summons to Memphis), became Lowell’s best friend for life when they were housemates at Kenyon College. (At Lowell’s funeral Taylor read “Where the Rainbow Ends,” the last poem in Lord Weary’s Castle—the only deviation from the Episcopal liturgy). There their housemaster, himself a Nashville native with a newly earned master’s degree from Vanderbilt, was Randall Jarrell, and he also became a fast friend of Lowell’s for life. To Kenyon they had all three—Jarrell, Taylor, and Lowell—followed John Crowe Ransom, who had been Tate’s professor (and Jarrell’s) at Vanderbilt, when he moved from Nashville to Gambier, Ohio, in 1938.
As Lowell’s formative literary (as well as personal) friendships were with Southern boys, his principal mentors were all of them Southerners, and they had all contributed to the Agrarian symposium I’ll Take My Stand (1930) and before that to The Fugitive, the poetry journal whose publication from 1922–1925 signaled a literary renascence in the South: Tate, Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren, whose student Lowell became at Louisiana State University in 1940. And it so happened that Lowell’s Boston psychiatrist, who contrived to send the adolescent Lowell south (after the boy’s fight with his father), had himself been one of the Fugitive poets. Of Merrill Moore, Lowell writes ambivalently (in a late poem, “Unwanted), “I will not admit / his Tennessee rattling saved my life.”
I’ve wondered half-seriously if the old agrarian South, before the “city habits” of the Tates’ cosmopolitan houseguests (the British novelist Ford Madox Ford; his companion, the painter Janice Biala; and her sister, Ford’s secretary) “exhausted the only cistern”—I’ve wondered if that Old South on the Cumberland isn’t somewhere in the old South Boston aquarium’s “dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile” for which Lowell “often sigh[s] still,” sighs because the “airy tanks are dry” and “Parking spaces luxuriate like civic / sandpiles” and “giant finned cars nose forward like fish” and the culture, a desiccated urban culture, subsisting as it does on industry and commerce, sees as its “Rock of Ages” a “Mosler Safe.”
If Moore’s “Tennessee rattling” maybe saved his life and that visit to Tate on the Cumberland “must” have done so, what of his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, who “faced the kingdom of the mad— / its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye— / and dragged [him] home alive”? Hardwick hailed from Kentucky. So what if “the shrill verve of [her] invective scorched the traditional South”! Still she was a “Southern belle,” at least by Tate’s reckoning, and so by extension was the couple’s daughter. As Tate, in one of Lowell’s Notebook sonnets, tipsily insists to child Harriet, “You are a Southern belle; do you know why / you are a Southern belle? . . . Because you mother is a Southern belle.”
I had wondered, ahead of Lowell’s visit, if the mad Lowell, “Cal” as Caligula, would show. When I shared with my roommate the author’s photograph (by Fay Godwin) on the jacket flap of History, which views, straight on but off center, the long-haired poet from waist up (sport shirt unironed), in front of a manor house, Milgate Park—head slightly bowed, making eye-contact through the top half of black frames—“A demented dwarf,” my roommate responded. At the airport I’m surprised by how tall Lowell is. “I’m only a fraction over six feet,” he murmurs. We’ve left the concourse and he’s loping, head down, toward the convenience store for gum. “You must have quit smoking,” I say. He shoots a glance my way. “How did you know?” I didn’t, of course. I might have remembered that he “chain-smoked through the night” in “Eye and Tooth,” a poem that Lowell later reads to his South Carolina audience, “learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight,” but instead I’m picturing the throwaway lighter’s inches-tall flare in that Encyclopaedia Britannica film about James Dickey, Lord, Let Me Die But Not Die Out, the segment filmed in Lowell’s New York City apartment, as Lowell lights a Salem. (The film takes as its title the conclusion of Dickey’s poem about extinction, “For the Last Wolverine,” which is also his ars poetica.)
I do know, however, that Lowell is not drinking. After he informed me in a telegram that he’d be arriving from Monteagle, which the Dickeys understood to mean Nashville, but at what time he did not say, Maxine discovered that he had decamped from Tate’s Monteagle, Tennessee, to Peter Taylor’s Charlottesville, Virginia, and there she’d phoned ostensibly to find out what was Lowell’s drink of choice but really, of course, to find out whence and when he’d be arriving. Anyway, he wasn’t drinking because of his medications. (At this time, according to Hamilton, Lowell was taking Antabuse for alcohol abuse.)
It was scary, nonetheless—Lowell’s enthusiasm for the mustard. He’s sitting across from me in a booth at a Chinese restaurant near the university—across from me and my friend and fellow student Jim Mann (more recently the poet James Mann of Tombstone Confidential)—scooping it up with fried wontons, which came with the pu-pu platter, gobs of sinus-eviscerating mustard, while Jim and I eye each other with anxious incredulity. “You can’t get mustard like this in England,” Lowell marvels.
But if Lowell’s own madness didn’t present, an avatar of madness did—and presented himself to Lowell and unnerved him. There was, following the reading, a reception at Capstone House, a high-rise women’s dorm. Lowell had already been discomfited, on the elevator up, by a stranger claiming kin, who unrolled an elaborate family tree, which he pressed a suspicious and, as the elevator stopped and the doors began to part, a begrudgingly obliging Lowell to sign. I’ve only begun to edge my way into the crowded lounge when a fellow student is tapping me on the shoulder—“Mr. Lowell wants you”—right as Lowell himself is asking through the crowd, “Where’s Mr. Havird?” Beleaguered he sounds. He’s on his feet in front of the sofa where he was sitting—wanting to leave. Only as we are exiting the dorm—as I open the glass door for us to exit the lobby—does Lowell speak. “I was sitting next to a madman,” he says, with an accent on each syllable: mad man. “Yes, I know,” I say. Jim Mann remembers this fellow well—remembers that he, like Lowell, took lithium for manic depression. Remembers his fury when Jim “criticized him for revising endlessly” a poem that Dickey praised in class “instead of writing another.” “Seriously intelligent, he recited more great poems by heart to me than anyone else I’ve ever known.” Jim describes this fellow’s recitation of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, “the approving smile on his face when he spoke the lines: ‘The case presents / No adjunct to the Muses’ diadem.’” Remembers him as the “one authentically ‘crazy poet’” he’s “truly known.” This madman—picture the actor Richard Kiel; picture him as Jaws, the nemesis of Roger Moore’s James Bond—had sidled up next to Lowell on the sofa. “He wanted to know”—and in spite of Lowell’s bewilderment persisted in wanting to know—“why I had tried to electrocute Ezra Pound,” Lowell nervously explains.
He’d faced himself “the kingdom of the mad”; now he was en route to a party at the Dickeys’. I did not know it then, of course, but in a 1967 letter to Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell had described “the optimistic James Dickey” as “one of the most desperate souls I know of,” and in 1969, after “assisting” in that Britannica film, quoted Dickey as saying, “my problems are worse than yours.” “They are,” Lowell agreed. Be that as it may, when told about Lowell’s encounter with the madman, Dickey relates an incident in class—that in response to some innocuous, factual statement like “Tennyson was a Victorian poet,” there came from the back of the room, from this Jaws, a sort of drawling rumble, “Bullshit,” of sufficient menace that Dickey, a lifelong athlete whom you could see stringing that bow of Ulysses, began to fear for his physical safety.
If Lowell’s daughter, Harriet, was a Southern belle because her mother was—Elizabeth Hardwick, who “snatched me out of chaos,” as Lowell acknowledged in his hand-printed inscription to Lizzie in Day by Day one month before he died, then by Tate’s logic so was Lowell’s mother a Southern belle—this woman by whom he was so determined not to be “mastered” that he saw his manic self, according to Jamison, as the rebel who was able to “relive his battles with his mother and win them.” Mania, Jamison reports, quoting from Lowell’s 1949 Payne Whitney Clinic medical records, “allowed him to vent his rage at being ‘fixed in society’ . . . ; it allowed him to escape the ‘dreariness of being a Lowell.’” And her mother—Charlotte Winslow Lowell’s mother—Mary Devereux Winslow (the Mary Winslow whose death is the subject of a memorably extravagant poem in Lord Weary’s Castle) hailed from Raleigh, North Carolina, where her father, John Devereux, Jr., was a planter who farmed with his father. According to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, between them they owned some 1,500 slaves. During the Civil War, Lowell’s maternal great-grandfather was the Confederate quartermaster general for North Carolina. Mariani reports that Lowell had been looking for Devereux connections in and around Raleigh immediately before his sightseeing tour of Charleston and Fort Sumter.
“I’m Southern,” Lowell asserts in a 1958 letter to Tate.
Whether Lowell’s Southern heritage was in his thoughts at Timrod’s grave I do not know. But he did not genuflect, much less “theatrically” fall to his knees. “Turn your eyes to the immoderate past,” Tate says in “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” At Timrod’s grave Lowell might as well have been at Fort Sumter, hearkening to Tate’s imperative but seeing in place of an “inscrutable infantry rising / Demons out of the earth” only “coastal desert.” He might have been prompted to kneel by an “active faith,” by “knowledge / Carried to the heart”; but perhaps, “in the fragmentary cosmos of today,” it was unavailable to Lowell as earlier even to Tate. (Here I piece together phrases from Tate’s essay, “Narcissus as Narcissus,” about his “Ode” as well as from the “Ode” itself.)
“Your Elegy is not for the Confederate dead, but for your own dead emotion,” Tate’s fellow Fugitive and Southern Agrarian Donald Davidson wrote in 1927, and Tate, without exactly disagreeing, replied, “if I have a living emotion about a dead one . . . isn’t that enough for a poem?” “Ode to the Confederate Dead” is an interior monologue in which Tate gives voice to three perspectives: there is first the presiding consciousness, an eye that takes in the scene, the rows of headstones that “yield their names to the element,” the wind; then there is you, for whom that consciousness interprets the scene (the “thousand acres where these memories grow / From the inexhaustible bodies that are not / Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row”), to whom he speaks imperatives (“Turn your eyes to the immoderate past, / Turn to the inscrutable infantry rising”), and whose intuitions he channels (“Demons out of the earth—they will not last”). It is this you who personifies that dead emotion about Southern valor to which Davidson refers.
Finally, there is we—“we who . . . bow / Our heads with a commemorial woe / In the ribboned coats of grim felicity”—a social remnant that “has knowledge carried to the heart,” a remnant, in other words, for whom the chivalric ideal abides if not quite as an active faith (because the Old South has been defeated not only by Federal troops but also by scientific naturalism), then as a twilit thing of occasional veneration—the Lost Cause, “a grave / In the house”—by an ever inward-turning cult. Call this cult the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who do have occasion to dress up in beribboned gray coats, or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, among whom count my father’s older sister, my Aunt Mabel (a willowy maiden aunt, whose image, when I first encountered Lowell’s Aunt Sarah Stark Winslow in Life Studies, “a beauty too lofty and original ever to marry,” took shape in my mind—alabaster skin, rose cheeks, red hair).
“Shiloh, Antietam, Malvern Hill, Bull Run”—as a boy whose favorite toy was his “Giant Blue and Gray Battle Set,” which consisted of blue and gray plastic soldiers and yellowish-ivory-colored plastic effigies of Lincoln and Grant, Jefferson Davis and Lee, plastic cannons that shot forth pellets by means of a metal trigger-like spring, brown plastic chevaux de frise (not that I knew then the term for those spikes), green plastic two-dimensional trees . . . I’d lose myself “in that orient of the thick-and-fast”—as though, but only as though, I had a personal stake in the outcome. After all, my great-grandfather, born in 1835, and two of his brothers lost their lives defending the Cause. (Slaveholders were they? The Havirds, my father insisted, were too poor to own slaves.) An infantryman, Wilson Havird was mortally wounded—in what battle I do not know. Discharged, this great-grandfather of mine engendered a child, my grandfather, born in 1864, a posthumous baby, who later, from 1899–1923, sired ten children, the fifth of whom, born in 1909, was my father. These children had as play-money Confederate dollar bills. Once, an uncle of mine presented me with a Confederate ten-dollar bill. Unsuccessfully I rummaged my grandmother’s house, the outbuildings too (in one of which there were wreaths from my grandfather’s funeral in 1944), for the stash.
On my mother’s side there was a whole generation’s difference—that is to say, my maternal great-grandfather was born in the very same year as that paternal great-grandfather succumbed to his wounds: 1864. His name: William Sherman Belk. As my mother told the story, General Sherman had himself come to the house—for what reason, I don’t remember knowing—discovered that there was a baby, and asked what was its name. A baby boy, he hadn’t yet been named. The General responded, “Why not name him ‘William Sherman’?”—an apparently casual suggestion, which the family inexplicably followed. Only after the boy had started school and a teacher told him what a “terrible” man Sherman had been (my mother’s word, “terrible”), only then did he begin to go by “Billy,” as he was for the rest of his life, until his obituary appeared in 1916, a notice that includes his manner of death, a violent altercation with a “negro,” whom he was supervising as the “Good Road Overseer,” and there he is William Sherman Belk.
Lately I’ve discovered that when Sherman set up camp in and around Cheraw, a town in South Carolina some 90 miles northeast of Columbia (which burned after surrendering to Sherman in February, 1865), this as-yet-unnamed infant boy, born in March, 1864, was almost one year old. A first cousin of my mother’s had understood from her mother, one of Billy’s daughters, that the family had deferred naming him so long as the father, who joined the Confederate army in 1863, was off engaging the Yankees. Had this Rebel soldier returned by early March, 1865? I had wondered if the family wasn’t Unionist or entirely outside history. (In fact, the rebel in me, the lowercase rebel, had slyly relished the thought.) Anyway, after three days Sherman resumed his march. In the meantime, did the family christen the child—this family that surely was Baptist? Where’s the family Bible!
So, there I’d be, a child on the hardwood floor of his bedroom, where the rug didn’t reach, setting up those plastic soldiers, the Blue and the Gray—amid them those green trees and gray skeletal ones and in front of either side those cannons to blast it apart. Which among those graycoats, that “infantry rising,” were the Havirds? Envision them I may have done—“Demons out of the earth.” If so, the vision did not last. Whatever knowledge I had or have accrued of my personal link to the Confederacy—I haven’t carried it to heart.
As neither had Lowell . . . because he knew that Southern chivalry was “shit”? (In Notebook, his Orestes “knew that Trojan chivalry was shit,” while anticipating the execution of Clytemnestra, his monstrous mother, a sometime stand-in for Lowell’s own.)
Until now I have myself never written in verse or prose about my Confederate heritage. The poem of mine that emerged from my engagement with Lowell, “Midnight Oil”—the earliest written of my published poems, composed within months of this pilgrimage to Timrod’s grave—paid stylistic homage to Lowell as a pastiche in particular of “Night Sweat” and the stanza in “Beyond the Alps,” the first poem in Life Studies, that Lowell restored “at the suggestion of John Berryman,” as the introductory “Note” to For the Union Dead explains. While Lowell “thought of Ovid,” I “think of Swinburne” (if only because he was an upper-class rebel against Victorian piety). For me, “learning to live in history” became “living in literary history.” Twenty years after its publication in Poetry in November, 1976, “Midnight Oil” underwent substantial revision, as did individual lines before the new version’s 2013 publication in Map Home (amid a cluster of poems in which I’m on a literary pilgrimage). Even now I find myself “knotting, undoing” that poem’s “fishnet of tarred rope,” as Lowell, in The Dolphin, describes his own obsessive revising.
Perhaps for Lowell it wasn’t Southern chivalry alone but ideology that failed to root, to grip the heart, because a “mania for phrases” had “dried” it. Or rather, on second thought, “enlarged his heart.” As with his paragon Flaubert, to whom Lowell attributes this mania, so with Lowell himself. (I quote from two versions of the same sonnet: “Les Mots” in Notebook, “First Love” in History.)
Lowell was flying out in the afternoon. With the morning to kill, Jim Mann suggested a pilgrimage to Timrod’s grave. It was near the university, in Trinity Episcopal churchyard, across the street from the Capitol. From the Sumter Street entrance, we could see, on the statehouse grounds, the equestrian statue of Wade Hampton, a Confederate general, governor, and United States senator—a champion of the “Lost Cause”—who also rests in peace in Trinity churchyard. Make the pilgrimage today, 40 years later, and you can just discern, past the Palmetto trees, magnolias, and azaleas, the African American Monument, which tells the black South Carolinian story.
With its bronze bas relief there on the statehouse grounds, a pilgrimage undertaken today to Timrod’s grave would call even more vividly to mind than in 1974 Lowell’s “Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens’ . . . Civil War relief” facing the Massachusetts statehouse. In Lowell’s poem, the bronze faces of the Negroes, who seemed to William James to breathe, anticipate, eight stanzas later, “the drained faces of Negro school-children” on television, which “rise like balloons.” Sixty years separate the dedication of the monument in 1897 from the federally enforced desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, which Lowell may have in mind. Meanwhile, almost a century after the unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner, Colonel Shaw “is riding on his bubble,” his dream of racial equality, as then he “rode” his troops. As they did then, now the children embody the dream. At the beginning of the poem there are bubbles “drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish,” which Lowell as a boy “tingled” to burst. Now, like the “drained” faces on TV, the TV-like tanks, which held those fish, are “dry.” And anyway, the bubbles only seemed to drift from their noses, as the bronze infantrymen only seemed to breathe, coming as those bubbles did from air pumps, aerating the water. Has the dream of racial equality, which the bubbles come to symbolize, been merely a dream, an illusion? It is a dream so long deferred that its avatars, the schoolchildren who have replaced the infantrymen, are exhausted, as is the colonel, who “waits / for the blessèd break.”
As Lowell may be too, however he may “lament the loss of the old Abolitionist spirit”: exhausted, or “withered.” For the Union Dead, said Lowell, who wrote it while depressed—the “whole book [is] about witheredness.” At the end of the title poem, “giant finned cars nose forward like fish.” But not like the fish that Lowell remembers from his boyhood at the beginning of the poem, “the cowed, compliant fish.” Now “a savage servility / slides by on grease.” “Savage servility”—think Caliban (another of Lowell’s “namesakes”), who smells like a fish. This epithet applies as well to drivers as to cars, those drivers lacking an animating ideal (like racial equality) for whom the Cadillac has come to symbolize the American Dream. Sigh though he may “for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom” of those fish, there he is, as he depicts himself in another poem in For the Union Dead, “Returning,” “rushed / by the green go-light of those nervous waters” of his personal odyssey—from the old South Boston Aquarium to the Cumberland River to Charleston Harbor, as well as within his psyche—as though behind the wheel of one of those finned cars, where “I found / my exhaustion, the light of the world.”
The dedication in 2001 of South Carolina’s African American Monument followed the lowering of the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol dome, where it had flown (in commemoration of the 100thanniversary of the Rebel bombardment of Fort Sumter) since April 1961. It then went up on a pole beside the Confederate Monument, a granite obelisk on top of which the abstract Confederate soldier daydreams over his musket, facing north. In 2015, after the massacre of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston by a 20-year-old white supremacist who had brandished a Rebel flag in photos, the flag came down—went into storage somewhere. In 1974, of course, the battle flag was flying atop the statehouse, below the indigo-blue state flag with its white palmetto tree and crescent moon, below the Stars and Stripes.
Timrod’s grave lies in a modest family plot enclosed by a waist-high wrought-iron fence, a stone’s throw from the street, Gervais, a noisy four-lane street, that crosses Main in front of the Capitol. Born in Charleston in 1829, Timrod died in Columbia of tuberculosis in 1867, right as the decade of Radical Reconstruction began. The poet’s “memorial boulder,” as Brown points out, dates from 1901, thanks to a campaign by a former Charleston mayor (and Timrod revivalist) whose intent was “to evoke . . . the piece of New England granite that Emerson had chosen to mark his grave in Concord.”
Outside the fence, in front of that boulder, my friend Jim Mann brought forth from his shoulder bag a copy of the 1899 memorial edition of Timrod’s Poems with its introductory memoir by Timrod’s friend and fellow poet Paul Hamilton Hayne. What Jim read was not a Parnassian poem by Timrod but an overwrought, eulogistic passage of Hayne’s:
On the 7th of October, the mortal remains of the poet, so worn and shattered, were buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, Columbia.
There, in the ruined capital of his native State, whence scholarship, culture, and social purity have been banished to give place to the orgies of semi-barbarians and the political trickery of adventurers and traitors; there, tranquil amid the vulgar turmoil of factions, reposes the dust of one of the truest and sweetest singers this country has given to the world.
That phrase—what was that phrase? Lowell is rummaging the pockets of his blue suit for a piece of paper, a scrap, which he now unfolds from his wallet. Fazed or not by the sexual racism, silver ballpoint pen in hand, “Tranquil amid the vulgar turmoil of factions,” he prints (able as he is to write in cursive two words only: “Robert” and “Lowell”). “You can use that anywhere,” he murmurs.
His accent was eerily Southern.