I've discovered an interesting divergence between two works of art: Augustus St. Gaudens' Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, located on the border of the Boston Common directly across Beacon Street from the Massashusetts State House, and Robert Lowell's poem inspired by the sculpture, "For the Union Dead."
On a recent visit to Boston, I heard a U.S. Park Ranger give a lecture about St. Gaudens' sculpture, which honors Shaw and his black 54th Massaschusetts Regiment. Shaw and many of the black soliders were killed in an attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. The park ranger cited the motto on the top right corner of the monument as saying, if I heard him correctly, "they give up everything to serve the republic." I've recently learned through a commentary on Lowell's poem in the Norton Anthology of Poetry that the motto on the sculpture is actually "He gives up everything to serve the republic," (Omnia relinquit servare rem publicam, the Latin motto of the Society of Cincinnati). Shaw's father chose the motto for the piece, dedicated in 1897.
But Lowell makes a significant change in the motto, using it as the epigraph for his poem. Matching what the Park Ranger said, Lowell renders the motto as "Relinquunt omnia servare rem publicam," or "they give up everything to serve the republic," according to the anthology's editors. So, while the original motto limits the honorific to Shaw, Lowell extends it to all of the members of the regiment. Lowell's change to make the motto apply to all of the soldiers has apparently been adapted by the Park Service.
I don't know enough about Latin to explain the change in the syntax of the sentence. Perhaps it's necessary to give it the new meaning. It's also interesting that the pronoun change is apparently accomplished by changing the verb tense. Also significant is that in both cases, the verb is in the present tense, not gave, but he gives and they give. The message is that the sacrifice is eternal, and perpetually challenges the living toto try to follow the heroic example of Shaw and the 54th.
Following the great man school of history, the sculpture centrally honors Shaw's heroism, although the black soldiers are depicted on the statue. It's called the "Robert Gould Shaw Memorial," and he alone is shown mounted on a horse, dynamically at the center of the bronze relief, with his soldiers on either side, marching under his leadership. In what the park ranger interpreted as a sign of high honor for the soldiers, they are depicted realistically, with distinctive Negro features, not abstractly stylized or stereotyped. Still, in what might be considered an example of 19th century paternalism, Shaw dominates and is essentially the one person honored.
In his poem contrasting Boston's historic era of heroism with the modern era of cars and parking garages, Lowell wonderfully describes the sculpture. "Two months after marching through Boston,/half the regiment was dead;/at the dedication,/William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe."
Lowell also contrasts the age of personal military valor with the modern fear of nuclear annhiliation, the total warfare that would make such heroism as Shaw's impossble, except of course for the type of suicidal plane ride depicted in "Dr. Strangelove." Since all would be destroyed, no one would be there to dedicate memorials, or remember.
In the poem, Lowell cites the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and states "There are no statues for the last war here." Broadening the range of the motto also allows Lowell to celebrate the young heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement, which he says as a last vestige of the old heroism.
St. Gaudens's statue and Lowell's poem, a wonderful example of ekphrasis (poetry inspired by works of art), memorialize their historic eras, and transcend the past, allowing us to reflect upon our own time. The park service is to be commended by echoing Lowell and honoring the entire regiment, although the bronze memorial will always remain "He gives up everything to serve the republic."