Memoriae Positum

(Reposted from 2015.)

 He leads for aye the advance,

 Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

James Russell Lowell

Memoriae Positum, memory laid down.  The Latin phrase is a good short hand description of  what History accomplishes.  In 1864 the poet James Russell Lowell wrote a poem entitled Memoriae Positum in tribute to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died heroically at age 25  leading the unsuccessful assault of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black Union regiments, on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Wagner at Charleston, South Carolina on July 18th, 1863.  The poem predicts that Shaw’s memory will live forever and feels sorrow only for those, unlike Shaw, who are unwilling or unable to risk all for their beliefs.  It is a poem completely out of step with the predominant sentiments of our day which seem to value physical survival and enjoyment above everything else.  Here is the text of the poem:


Beneath the trees,

 My lifelong friends in this dear spot,

 Sad now for eyes that see them not,

 I hear the autumnal breeze

Wake the dry leaves to sigh for gladness gone,

Whispering vague omens of oblivion,

 Hear, restless as the seas,

Time’s grim feet rustling through the withered grace

Of many a spreading realm and strong-stemmed race,

 Even as my own through these.


 Why make we moan

 For loss that doth enrich us yet

 With upward yearning of regret?

 Bleaker than unmossed stone

Our lives were but for this immortal gain

Of unstilled longing and inspiring pain!

 As thrills of long-hushed tone

Live in the viol, so our souls grow fine

With keen vibrations from the touch divine

 Of noble natures gone.


 ‘Twere indiscreet

 To vex the shy and sacred grief

 With harsh obtrusions of relief;

 Yet, Verse, with noiseless feet,

Go whisper: ‘_This_ death hath far choicer ends

Than slowly to impearl to hearts of friends;

 These obsequies ’tis meet

Not to seclude in closets of the heart,

But, church-like, with wide doorways, to impart

 Even to the heedless street.’



 Brave, good, and true,

 I see him stand before me now.

 And read again on that young brow,

 Where every hope was new,

_How sweet were life!_ Yet, by the mouth firm-set,

And look made up for Duty’s utmost debt,

 I could divine he knew

That death within the sulphurous hostile lines,

In the mere wreck of nobly pitched designs,

 Plucks heart’s-ease, and not rue.


 Happy their end

 Who vanish down life’s evening stream

 Placid as swans that drift in dream

 Round the next river-bend!

Happy long life, with honor at the close,

Friends’ painless tears, the softened thought of foes!

 And yet, like him, to spend

All at a gush, keeping our first faith sure

From mid-life’s doubt and eld’s contentment poor,

 What more could Fortune send?

 Right in the van,

 On the red rampart’s slippery swell,

With heart that beat a charge, he fell

 Foeward, as fits a man;

But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet

Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet;

 His life her crescent’s span

Orbs full with share in their undarkening days

Who ever climbed the battailous steeps of praise

 Since valor’s praise began.



 His life’s expense

 Hath won him coeternal youth

 With the immaculate prime of Truth;

 While we, who make pretence

At living on, and wake and eat and sleep,

And life’s stale trick by repetition keep,

 Our fickle permanence

(A poor leaf-shadow on a brook, whose play

Of busy idlesse ceases with our day)

 Is the mere cheat of sense.

 We bide our chance,

 Unhappy, and make terms with Fate

 A little more to let us wait;

 He leads for aye the advance,

Hope’s forlorn-hopes that plant the desperate good

For nobler Earths and days of manlier mood;

 Our wall of circumstance

 Cleared at a bound, he flashes o’er the fight,

 A saintly shape of fame, to cheer the right

 And steel each wavering glance.

 I write of one,

 While with dim eyes I think of three;

 Who weeps not others fair and brave as he?

 Ah, when the fight is won,

Dear Land, whom triflers now make bold to scorn,

(Thee! from whose forehead Earth awaits her morn,)

 How nobler shall the sun

Flame in thy sky, how braver breathe thy air,

That thou bred’st children who for thee could dare

 And die as thine have done!

On Memorial Day in 1897 a monument to Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts was unveiled in Boston.  It was created by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  I have always regarded it as the most striking bit of Civil War statuary, Shaw and his marching men remembered forever in bronze.

Appropriately, the memorial includes this inscription from Lowell’s poem:







And so poetry and sculpture are joined in an act of Memoriae Positum to call us to remember the courage of Shaw and his men and to honor what so many of them died for on that long ago July 18th.  The movie Glory (1989), a video clip of which begins this post, performs the same function.  History serves many tasks, but recalling that which shows humanity at its best, meeting death for a cause deemed just and good is surely in that category, is not the least important and perhaps the most noble.

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