For the Union Dead
For the Union Dead
Robert Lowell 1960
“For the Union Dead” is one of the most celebrated and anthologized American poems written during the second half of the twentieth century. Robert Lowell wrote it for the 1960 Boston Arts Festival, starting the poem in January and not finishing it until just before the June celebration. Read to an enthusiastic crowd, the poem solidified Lowell’s reputation as one of the major American poets of his generation.
The occasion of the poem’s public debut clearly influenced its composition. The poem’s various references to Boston streets and landmarks were instantly recognizable to its audience. The poem sets much of its action close to the Festival’s location. The Boston Arts Festival took place in the Boston Public Gardens, adjacent to the Boston Common that the poem describes. Among the prominent aspects of the Boston landscape that the poem mentions are the memorial to Colonel Robert Shaw and the recently built underground parking garage on the Common. Yet the poem’s audience was hardly limited to Bostonians. Indeed, “For the Union Dead” received a great deal of national attention when Lowell chose it to be the title poem of his 1964 collection.
“For the Union Dead” contemplates the legacy of the Civil War, embodied in the memorial to Colonel Robert Shaw, a white soldier who died while commanding an all-black regiment. To many Northerners, Shaw symbolized Union idealism; one hundred years after his death, Lowell contrasts Shaw’s heroism with contemporary forms of self-interest and greed in “For the Union Dead.”
Robert Trail Spence Lowell IV was born on March 1, 1917, into two distinguished families. In addition to poets such as James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, the Lowell family boasted school-masters, presidents of colleges and universities (including Harvard), and successful businessmen. Indeed, the Lowell family earned enough cachet to inspire a famous quip, “The Lowells speak only to the Cabots and the Cabots speak only to God.” On his mother’s side, the Winslow family directly descended from ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower and who participated prominently in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Two were elected governor of Plymouth Plantation; another, whose legacy Lowell discusses in a poem, earned a less savory reputation as an “Indian Killer.” Indeed, much of Lowell’s work pays an acute attention to his various family members’ achievements and cruelties.
In Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, poet and critic Paul Mariani quotes Lowell as claiming, “I never knew I was a Lowell until I was twenty.” If this statement is true, it is due to the fact that Lowell belonged to a less affluent wing of the Lowell clan. His father was a less-than-successful navy officer and salesman. According to the poet’s recollections, his mother dominated not only himself but his father. Still, Lowell’s childhood bore certain signs of privilege. He was educated at private elementary and junior-high schools, and then at St. Mark’s, which several family members had previously attended.
In 1937, Lowell spent one year at Harvard University before transferring to Kenyon College. At Kenyon Lowell studied with Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, and he befriended two other aspiring writers whose work would soon enjoy acclaim: Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. Like Ransom, Tate was a Southerner; his most famous poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead” forms an important precursor to Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” Prompted by complex motivations, Lowell converted to Catholicism, a religion he shared with Tate, his teacher, but not his scandalized family. Also, in a characteristically grand gesture, he wrote to President Roosevelt to refuse induction into the
armed services. Because of his conscientious objector stance, Lowell spent five months in jail, a time he described in later poems such as “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”
Throughout his adult life, Lowell suffered from psychiatric illness. Diagnosed as manic depressive, he endured periodic manic episodes and sought various therapies, including electric shock therapy, hospitalization at various clinics, and, perhaps most effectively, lithium.
Lowell’s first book, Land of Unlikeness, was published in 1944; his second book, Lord Weary’s Castle won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. However, many critics cite Lowell’s fifth book, Life Studies, as his most important and influential collection. Life Studies introduces many of the stylistic and thematic elements that would characterize what many called “confessional” poetry. The poems were largely free-verse, colloquial, and autobiographical; among their subjects was the poet’s psychological turmoil.
Lowell was married three times: to Jean Stafford (from 1940-1948), Elizabeth Hardwick (1949-1972), and Caroline Blackwood (1972 until his death in 1977). He had two children: Harriet Winslow (with Hardwick) and Robert Sheridan (with Blackwood). Throughout his career, Lowell worked as an academic, teaching for the longest period at Harvard. He also received a wide variety of fellowships, including a Guggenheim. On September 12, 1977, Lowell died of a heart attack in a taxi cab in New York.
“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; 5
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom 10
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 15
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored
braces the tingling Statehouse, 20
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s
Two months after marching through Boston, 25
half the regiment was dead; at the dedication
William James could almost hear the bronze
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat. 30
Its colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure, 35
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back. 40
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the grand Army of the
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier 45
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns ...
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch, 50
where is 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 55
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 faced of Negro school-children rise like 60
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere 65
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The poem’s epigraph is the Latin inscription on the memorial to Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment that he commanded. In English, the inscription (which Lowell revised for the poem) reads, “He leaves all else to serve the republic.” By quoting this inscription, Lowell introduces the theme of noble self-sacrifice.
- An audiocassette of Robert Lowell was released in 1978 by Caedmon; in 1960 the Library of Congress also released a recording of Lowell reading his poems.
- Glory, a 1991 movie, depicts the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. It is widely available on videocassette.
The opening stanza describes the closed South Boston Aquarium. The simple sentence patterns emphasize a sense of loss and dilapidation. In particular, a list of strong adjectives evoke this melancholy mood; the windows are “broken” and “boarded,” the weathervane’s scales are “lost,” and the fish tanks are “airy” and “dry.” Everything is ruined, broken, and bare.
While the opening stanza seems to imply a nostalgia for a time before the South Boston Aquarium’s ruin, the next two stanzas suggest that the past was far from ideal. The speaker remembers a childhood visit to the aquarium. Peering into the tanks, he feels great excitement, as his hand “tingled.” However, what delights him is not the sight of the fish but an idiosyncratic desire to “burst the bubbles” coming from them. Furthermore, this image of rising bubbles—which the poem will return to—presents the fish as trapped and submissive, “cowed, compliant.” The next stanza further elucidates the speaker’s theory of historical regression. The speaker claims to “sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile.” The kingdom of fish is literally heading “dark downward” as they swim down and away from the aquarium light. More broadly, this image suggests a sense that, like the fish and reptile kingdom, the kingdom of humans is getting worse, darker, and less noble. Also, the word “kingdom” introduces the poem’s public interests; “For the Union Dead” addresses the mood of American society as it regresses from idealism to despair.
Continuing a sentence from the previous stanza, the poem describes the “new barbed and galvanized // fence on the Boston Common.” This image suggests much of the speaker’s attitude toward contemporary life. What is “new” is a particularly ugly and menacing border between people. The “fence” splits the Boston Common, a public area where people usually congregate. Instead of a crowd enjoying the scenery, however, bulldozers dig up earth in order to build a parking garage. The scene is portrayed as savage and hellish, as the bulldozers are metaphorically described as “dinosaur[s]” and the underground garage is deemed an “underworld.” Thus, modern construction tools evoke a prehistoric, animalistic world.
These stanzas describe the poem’s central figure: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw or, more precisely, a memorial to him by Augustus St. Gaudens. During the Civil War, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an all-black squad, on an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. On July 18, 1863, Colonel Shaw was killed. At the time, Shaw and his death represented to many Northerners the idealism of the Union cause. Among the poets who sought to immortalize Shaw in verse was Lowell’s ancestor, poet James Russell Lowell.
The monument to Colonel Shaw overlooks both the Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House. In these stanzas, “For the Union Dead” portrays the harshness of contemporary existence as literally shaking the monument. Like the statehouse metaphorically “shaking over the excavations” in anger, the “Civil War relief” is “shaking.” This stanza depicts a basic contrast between the idealism the soldiers displayed when dying for a just cause and contemporary society’s more amoral struggle to construct more parking spaces. Even the effort to stabilize the monument with a “plank splint” suggests a lack of care for the honorable moments in Boston’s past that the monument commemorates.
These stanzas also contrast Boston’s present with its past. William James was a philosopher, author (his most famous book is The Types of Varieties of Religious Experience), and member of the distinguished James family. (His brother Henry, the novelist and short story writer, wrote, among other works, Portrait of a Lady.) James’s comment at the monument’s 1897 dedication that he “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe” gives a sense of deep appreciation and respect for the slain men’s heroism and sacrifice. Yet, a few generations later, “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.” Instead of reverence, the city’s attitude toward the soldiers and what they represented has shifted to discomfort. Furthermore, the stern images that Lowell presents of Colonel Shaw suggest Shaw’s unease with the public role others claim for him: “he seems to wince at pleasure, / and suffocate for privacy.”
Stanza 10 analyzes the particular heroism that Shaw’s actions displayed. Unlike James, who “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe,” Shaw is flatly described as being “out of bounds now.” In a literal sense, Shaw exists “out of bounds,” because he is dead and beyond the bounds of life. In a more figurative sense, Shaw’s self-sacrifice seems incomprehensible to the contemporary age. Shaw’s triumph was “to choose life and die”; he acted humanely, but at the cost of his own life.
In the following two stanzas, the Civil War seems to recede into the New England landscape of “small town New England greens,” “white churches,” and the monument. Even the bronze soldiers appear to “grow slimmer and younger each year.” Like the flags that adorn the graves of the Union dead, the connection between New England’s present and its past seems increasingly “frayed.”
Until this point, “For the Union Dead” idealizes Shaw’s sacrifice and, to a certain extent, the age and culture that valorized Shaw’s actions as noble. In this stanza, the poem’s tone shifts; the language turns sparse and conversational.
In quick succession, these two stanzas present a series of apocalyptic images of twentieth-century life. “The ditch is nearer,” the poem flatly declares in an image that echoes that of the ditch where Shaw and the black soldiers were hastily buried. As the poem quickly makes clear, recent technological advances and cultural changes have increased the possibility for mass killing. War has become more terrible and less worthy of commemoration; Lowell, the former conscientious objector to World War II, notes, “There are no statues for the last war here.” The “last war” means only the previous, not the final, war. World War II featured the first atomic bomb, whose effects a “commercial photograph,” not a civic monument, displays. In turn, this mass slaughter of civilians becomes an advertisement for a safe, testifying to its resiliency. “Space is nearer,” the poem declares, referring most overtly to the various space explorations. However, this pared-down declaration suggests that technology has brought mankind closer to a giant void, not a new frontier of knowledge. Finally, the television set presents images of civil rights strife; “the drained faces of Negro school-children” recall the difficulties civil rights activists faced and the hostility African-American schoolchildren encountered when trying to integrate schools.
The final two stanzas of “For the Union Dead” revise images from earlier in the poem. Like the child in stanza 2, whose “hand tingled / to burst the bubbles,” Shaw “is riding on his bubble,” waiting “for the blessed break.” This apocalyptic image suggests either a further, more awful bloodshed or break toward the idealism Shaw represents. The final stanza’s tone, alternatively plaintive and angry, suggests the former possibility. “The Aquarium is gone,” the speaker states, implying that it has been replaced with something far worse. Technology and its influence are ubiquitous; instead of actual fish for children to admire, shark-like, “giant finned cars” fight each other for parking spaces. The final two lines, “a savage servility / slides by on grease,” further echo the poem’s earlier images. The technologically driven present makes people servile as “the cowed, compliant fish” of the second stanza; ironically, though, mankind has become even more savage than these animals.
Idealism and Despair
“For the Union Dead” celebrates Colonel Shaw for embracing a paradox. Shaw, the poem declares, “rejoices in man’s lovely, / peculiar power to chose life and die.” This “power” is “lovely,” meaning both beautiful and full of love, because an almost Christ-like, self-sacrificial desire motivates his death. The “power” is “peculiar,” meaning both odd and particular to humans. The oddness resides in the fact that Colonel Shaw dies for his principles;
Topics for Further Study
- What comment do you think “For the Union Dead” offers about the relations between blacks and whites in America? Do you agree?
- Write a poem based upon a recent visit to a place you loved as a child. Consider not only the changes the place has undergone but the differences between your opinion of the place then and now.
- Do you think our time has produced heroes as inspiring as Colonel Shaw? If so, who would you name as his equal? What heroic qualities does that person possess?
his strength does not protect his life. Finally, this power is peculiar to humankind as a full consciousness of the consequences makes Shaw’s actions heroic. He faced the risks consciously.
Lowell also “delights” in these actions. However, “For the Union Dead” repeatedly contrasts the idealism that motivates Shaw with contemporary forms of motivating self-interest. The most persistent contrast is between the Civil War and World War II. In his October 13, 1943, letter to President Roosevelt, Lowell stated his opposition to World War II in language evocative of “For the Union Dead.” Recalling that “members of my family had served in all our wars since the Declaration of Independence,” Lowell characterized America as “prepared to wage a war without quarter or principles.” According to “For the Union Dead,” this lack of mercy and morals characterizes modern warfare, which is waged with weapons indiscriminate and awful as the nuclear bomb. What is lacking is Shaw’s heroic, doomed idealism—his willingness to “to choose life and die.”
Devolution of Humankind
According to “For the Union Dead,” technology works to remake humans into beasts. Early in the poem, the speaker declares, “I often sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of fish and reptile.” Similarly, the poem often sighs for technology’s ability to blur the boundaries between the “downward ... kingdom / of fish and reptile” and that of humans. A fear that technology devolves humankind fills the poem. For example, the phrases “yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting” and “giant finned cars nose forward like fish” both compare inanimate technological products and, implicitly, those who use them to creatures far below humans in the classical, great chain of being: “grunting” beasts or “cowed, compliant fish.”
As humans becomes more beastly, they also increase their ability to slaughter each other. In a very subtle reference, “For the Union Dead” mentions the Civil War soldiers’ “muskets.” Instead of muskets, modern armies possess atomic bombs. “Space is nearer,” the poem declares, after describing “the blast” that leveled Hiroshima. Accompanying its devolution, humankind’s increased firepower brings it closer to the point of extinction. For Lowell, writing during the Cold War nuclear arms race, the possibility of nuclear war appeared frighteningly real; if carried out, such a war would have completed the task of turning men and women back into beasts.
Public vs. Private Life
The title of “For the Union Dead” announces that the work addresses a public subject: the Civil War’s long and tortured legacy. However, the poem begins with the private, childhood memory of the poet visiting the South Boston Aquarium. By its end, “For the Union Dead” relates this memory to much more public events and places: among them, a memorial to the Union dead, William James’s comments at its dedication, and a photograph of Hiroshima placed in a bank window. This technique of showing how the larger political realities intrude into seemingly private moments distinguishes much of Lowell’s poetry; even when it tells what seems to be a narrowly personal anecdote, his poetry often calls attention to the larger societal, cultural, and historical forces at work.
For example, the third stanza mentions, “One morning last March, / I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized // fence on the Boston Common.” The opening of this sentence is highly conversational; its tone could be employed in a chat with a friend. Yet, as the anecdote unfolds, it becomes clear that it addresses not so much the speaker’s private life, but the scarring of public space. The fence is “barbed and galvanized,” suitable for a prison. Yet this menacing fence guards the Boston Common, a place where public events take place and where people are free to gather. Thus, the image of the speaker “pressed” against the fence stands for the individual isolated from communal space. At fault is “progress,” defined as the need for more parking space.
“For the Union Dead” is written in free-verse quatrains. What this description means is that each stanza consists of four lines of different lengths and that the poem does not adhere to a metrical or rhyming pattern.
Many critics have used Lowell’s own terms to describe this poem’s style. In his 1960 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Lowell mentioned two kinds of poems—“a cooked and a raw.” The former is very learned and academic, “a poetry that can only be studied,” while the latter is deliberately scandalous and casual, “a poetry that can only be declaimed.” As Ian Hamilton points out in Robert Lowell: A Biography, “For the Union Dead” “can be both studied and declaimed.” The poem’s references to American culture, history, and art make it seem erudite. Yet, the childhood memories the poem recounts are personal and intimate.
To a certain extent, the poem’s seeming casualness disguises its intricate construction. While the poem lacks formal metrical patterns, it presents labyrinthine patterns of images. Among the images that “For the Union Dead” repeatedly employs are bubbles. This image suggests both ascension and delicacy; the bubbles rise yet quickly break apart. In lines 6 and 7, the speaker recounts that “my hand tingled / to burst the bubbles.” Line 60 echoes this image in “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons”; the following two lines, “Colonel Shaw / is riding on his bubble,” repeat the previous image even more strongly. These repetitions and revisions give the poem a strongly organized sense of obsession as the speaker broods over contemporary society’s ills.
“For the Union Dead” captures the sense of fear and danger particular to the early 1960s. “[T]he tranquilized fifties,” as another of Lowell’s poems called the previous decade, had just ended, and the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement both were gathering force and momentum. In 1956, the Soviet government sent tanks into Hungary and Poland in order to keep those countries under Soviet domination. The nuclear arms race grew more intense, as both the United States and the Soviet Union worked furiously to establish dominance. “I’m sick of nations armed to the teeth,” Lowell wrote in an 1959 letter to a friend. Lowell’s loathing of nuclear weaponry magnified his earlier stand against conventional bombs. Lowell opposed World War II at least partly because of the huge civilian casualties caused by wide scale bombing; nuclear weapons, if deployed, made even greater losses inevitable.
To a certain extent, history showed “For the Union Dead” to be prophetic, as its fears of an impending nuclear annihilation very nearly became reality. The year after Lowell read “For the Union Dead” on the Boston Common, the Soviet Union and the United States came perilously close to nuclear war when the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles off the American coast. After tense negotiations, the Soviets removed the missiles. Lowell’s poem “Fall 1961” recalls the terror of that incident.
“For the Union Dead” alludes to another major aspect of late-1950s and early-1960s American culture: the Civil Rights Movement. The poem’s most explicit reference occurs in stanza 15: “When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons,” the speaker declares. Lowell does not say exactly which “Negro school-children” he watches. They could be the nine students who integrated Arkansas’ Little Rock High School in 1957. This act of desegregation, however, was far from easy. Indeed, President Eisenhower, despite his initial reluctance, sent national troops to Little Rock in order to protect those students and keep order. The students also could be black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who protested segregated lunch counters by staging sit-ins. Regardless, as with the poem’s fears about the possibility of impending nuclear war, Lowell’s allusion to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be prescient. In particular, his reference to watching it on television captures the dynamic of future events. For example, in 1963, the year before “For the Union Dead” was first published in book form, a stunned national television audience watched police in Birmingham, Alabama, set fire hoses and police dogs upon peaceful demonstrators. Indeed, a two-pronged despondency infuses “For the Union Dead.” According to the poem, the century following Shaw’s
Compare & Contrast
- 1960: A filibuster in the U.S. Senate went around the clock from February 29 to March 5, with southern senators delaying a vote on a civil rights act that would authorize federal referees to watch polling places where blacks had been discriminated against.
1975: The President’s Commission on Civil Rights issued a report that southern schools were more integrated than northern ones.
1982: The Equal Rights Amendment, intended to make discrimination due to gender illegal, failed to gain enough votes to be ratified.
Today: Most laws that allowed racism and sexism have been rewritten, but society still struggles with how to recognize differences without showing favoritism.
- 1957: The Soviet Union first successfully tests an intercontinental missile.
1962: The Soviet Union places nuclear missiles in Cuba. After a tense sTatemate with a threat of nuclear war, the Soviets withdraw the missiles.
Today: Following the Soviet Union’s collapse into several republics, the Cold War between that nation and the United States formally ends. Given the Russian Republic’s meager economic resources and several treaties limiting nuclear tests and weapon development, a future arms race seems unlikely.
death has achieved distressingly little progress on issues of war and civil rights. At the same time, the speaker possesses no faith that progress is forth-coming.
Robert Lowell was the most celebrated poet of his generation. His second book, Lord’s Weary Castle, won the Pulitzer Prize, setting a pattern of critical celebration that would continue throughout his career. Not only did the high quality of Lowell’s work help excite this reception, but his many connections in the literary and cultural worlds worked to his benefit. For example, among Lowell’s most fervent champions was his friend Randall Jarrell, a highly influential poet-critic of the postwar years.
The publication of For the Union Dead was a major literary event. The book received enthusiastic, prominent reviews in many major periodicals, including the New York Times, Herald Tribune, and Newsweek. In general, the tone of these articles was wildly enthusiastic. The adjectives “greatest,” “most celebrated” and “major” were freely and often applied to the poet and his work. “For the Union Dead” subsequently entered many anthologies and college reading lists.
Since Lowell’s death in 1977, two major biographies have been published: Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography and Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. Hamilton calls “For the Union Dead” “overdeliberate and without the energy and rhythmic grace” of the best poems in Lowell’s previous book; to Hamilton, the poem is important mainly as a transitional work. In contrast, Mariani calls “For the Union Dead” “a powerful public utterance.”
Beyond these differences in opinion among Lowell scholars, the critical climate has changed since the time when Lowell was assumed to be the major post-World War II poet. While Lowell’s work continues to receive warm tributes from poets such as Irish laureate Seamus Heaney, critical attention to Lowell’s work has decreased sharply since the decades before his death. Books and essays about the poet continue to be written, but they do not proliferate. The vast amount of analysis already written about the poet discourages certain critics; others argues that previous generations overvalued Lowell’s work to the detriment of other poets worthy of attention.
Pamela Steed Hill
Pamela Steed Hill is the author of a collection of poetry titled In Praise of Motels and has had poems published in more than 90 journals and magazines. She is an associate editor for university communications at Ohio State University. In the following essay, Hill notes that “For the Union Dead” uses an event from the American Civil War to show that what was once considered an act of nobility and courage now constitutes behavior that is shunned, neglected, or even made commercial.
One of Robert Lowell’s most recognized free-verse poems, “For the Union Dead” proposes a notion that goes well beyond the apparent subject of its title—an elegy for northern soldiers killed during the American Civil War. In fact, Lowell takes the reader from the 1860s to the 1960s (when the poem was published), crossing not only a hundred years of actual time but also a century of changing attitudes and values. In essence, the poet uses a lesson from history to show how many contemporary Americans have lost the social and moral convictions for which their ancestors fought and died.
A native of Boston and son of a prominent family with ties to the first American settlers, Lowell uses two landmarks of the city as the setting for the poem: the old Boston Aquarium, now destroyed, and the famous downtown park called Boston Common. In the park, there are various monuments depicting colonial figures and war heroes. One such memorial is a large relief sculpture (a projection of figures from a flat background) of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863), who commanded the Fifty-fourth Regiment, the first enlisted black regiment in the Civil War. Shaw led his troops in the attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863, where he was killed, along with many of his men.
History plays an important role in “For the Union Dead,” not necessarily for an account of who did what and why, but more so to act as a background for comparison and criticism of our “modern” times. Lowell, however, does not browbeat us
What Do I Read Next?
- Robert Lowell called Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night “one of the best things ever written about me.” The book recounts the 1967 Vietnam War protest that Lowell and Mailer took part in and offers a shrewd portrait of Lowell’s personality.
- Allen Tate, Lowell’s teacher, wrote “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” In its very title, “For the Union Dead” acknowledges an ambivalent debt to Tate’s poem. The poem is included in Tate’s Collected Poems 1919-1976.
- For a selection of Lowell’s poetry, see his 1977 Selected Poems. See also his Collected Prose, especially for the two interviews in which Lowell speaks about his life and work.
- As previously mentioned, two major biographies of Lowell have been written: Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography and Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. Opinion is divided about which is better.
with this premise, but instead spends the first three stanzas of the poem nostalgically recalling the old aquarium in South Boston that he visited as a boy, marveling at the fish swimming just on the other side of the glass where his “nose crawled like a snail.” The fish imagery recurs throughout “For the Union Dead,” and we soon see the connection between the demise of the aquarium—“Its broken windows are boarded. / The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. / The airy tanks are dry.”—and the similar demise of our personal and social values—“Parking spaces luxuriate like civic / sand piles ...,” “There are no statues for the last war here ...,” and “Everywhere / giant finned cars nose forward like fish.”
Although we could follow the gist of “For the Union Dead” without understanding its historical allusions, we would not be able to appreciate fully why the monument of Shaw and his regiment now “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.” Robert
“It is this movement into a more apathetic, less morally inclined society that is attacked by the poet in ‘For the Union Dead.’”
Gould Shaw came from a family of very highly principled abolitionists who were adamant about fighting for the causes in which they believed. When Shaw’s father, also in the military, informed his son that he had been chosen as the first white officer to recruit and lead a black regiment, Robert was honored and proud to have been selected. Likewise, upon Colonel Shaw’s death at Fort Wagner, when Rebel soldiers threw his body into a common grave with his fallen black soldiers, the older Shaw was honored and proud to learn that “his son’s body was thrown / and lost with his ‘niggers.’” In the latter part of the twentieth century when Lowell was writing this poem, it was (and still is) difficult to imagine such loyalty to purpose—that a person would have such a strong set of values that he would not hesitate to risk his life, or the lives of his loved ones, for them.
Truly, we cannot assume that every soldier of the Civil War nor every American at the time was so fervent in his or her beliefs. In his The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell, Patrick Cosgrave notes that the poet was addressing “a past in which the struggle for moral order was more pronounced,” and that Lowell stresses “that earlier New England (and earlier America) had distinct moral aspirations.” Cosgrave adds, however, that, “These [aspirations] are not ... regarded uncritically and the poem is thus rescued from antiquarian sentimentality.” In other words, he doesn’t believe the poet is looking at the past blindly, as though society was all good at the time. But we are looking at a period of history before television brought war into our living rooms; before automobiles, airplanes, cell phones, faxes, and e-mail made us difficult to satisfy with anything less than comfort, ease, and speed. It is this movement into a more apathetic, less morally inclined society that is attacked by the poet in “For the Union Dead.” And it is a feeling, according to Lowell, of modern-day guilt for our lackadaisical, indifferent attitudes that makes a monument to a more “honorable” time stick in our throats like a fish bone.
Often what someone thinks of as construction actually spells destruction for someone or something else. The poet’s fond memory of pressing his nose against the glass of the old aquarium leads directly to his more recent and bitter memory of when he “pressed against the new barbed and galvanized // fence on the Boston Common.” Behind the fence was a construction site where “yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting / as they cropped up tons of mush and grass / to gouge their underworld garage.” To the citizens of a crowded city, the building of additional parking areas is often a welcomed sight; but the poem wants us to ask at what price a new garage is built. The poem wants us to consider how something as commonplace as putting up this new structure actually represents the contemporary shake-up of old traditions: “A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations,” and the monument to Shaw and his regiment is “propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.” Cosgrave tells us that “The subject of this poem is the physical dismantling of old Boston in the interests of a new and savage urban order. That is taken to represent the destruction of order in a deeper civic and moral sense.” Possibly the most revealing word in Cosgrave’s statement is “savage”: for Lowell, society has become brutal in its mission of “progress.”
By the 1960s, the kind of patriotism and devotion to duty that Colonel Shaw represented was old hat and boring, if not despised. In a new and modern world, “He is out of bounds.... He rejoices in man’s lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die....” We understand here that the colonel was happy to control his own life and, more important, his own death, whereas today we tend to live with a sense of helplessness or a “whatever happens, happens” attitude. Although the decade of the 1960s is remembered for slogans of “peace and love,” “sisterhood,” and “brotherhood” (among many others), we must question whether the brotherhood in the 1960s was on the same level as that of Colonel Shaw and his regiment in the 1860s. In The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell, Jerome Mazzaro points out parts of the speech given by philosopher William James at the unveiling of the colonel’s monument in 1897. James described the scene as Shaw’s body, “half stripped of its clothing, and the corpses of his dauntless negroes were flung into one common trench together, and the sand was shovelled [sic] over them.... In death as in life, then, the Fifty-fourth bore witness to the brotherhood of man. The lover of heroic history could wish for no more fitting sepulchre for Shaw’s magnanimous young heart.” We recall, too, that the young colonel’s father was happy to have his son buried in a common grave with the black soldiers, and so Lowell could not have chosen a more fitting historical family to represent the “magnanimous” values—courage, nobility, unselfishness—that the poet found so lacking in his own time.
In the latter stanzas of “For the Union Dead,” Lowell turns his attention to another side, or perhaps an offspring, of the changed values of twentieth-century America: the commercialization of, essentially, everything—even the horrors of death and destruction experienced in an atomic war. The poet tells us that “... on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph / shows Hiroshima boiling // over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’ / that survived the blast.” Mosler security systems and safes are well known for their seemingly indestructible durability, and the company apparently saw fit to advertise that notion by depicting one of its safes withstanding the drop of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. This is the war to which Lowell refers in the line “There are no statues for the last war here,” and the addition of the cynical lines concerning the Mosler safe seems to indicate that World War II may not have produced any heroes, but it did provide for some effective advertising. The description also seems to say that not only has society diminished into turning a profit by dishonoring the dead, but we’ve attached a sacred dimension to our commercialization as well—that indestructible safe is the “Rock of Ages,” a metaphor for God in the Bible.
While Colonel Shaw was proud to associate directly with the skillful and brave men of the Fifty-fourth Regiment and honored to die alongside members of a race that he was fighting to free, Lowell resigns himself to say, “When I crouch to my television set, / the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.” For all the marvels that technology has afforded us, it has also allowed for easy distancing from the harsh, physical realities that earlier Americans could not, or did not, try to escape. Now we may sit in the comfort of our living rooms and watch racial struggles, wars, riots, and all other forms of violence roll across the screen in an almost surreal fashion. The faces of the black children in this poem are “drained”—they are children weary of their struggle. Lowell also likens their faces to “balloons” and follows this image with one of “Colonel Shaw / ... riding on his bubble.” Go back to the beginning of the poem, and we are told that “my hand tingled / to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.” Balloons and bubbles are fragile things, always on the fringe of breaking or bursting. So, too, was the new society in which Lowell was living. And so, too, are the relatively shallow convictions and aspirations of many contemporary Americans.
Returning to the fish imagery at the end of the poem, Lowell states simply, “The Aquarium is gone.” He goes on, however, to tell us that “giant finned cars nos[ing] forward like fish” have replaced the old structure. The ending is a brief reiteration of the poem’s central theme: modern Americans are diminished by forsaking a traditional sense of honor and morality in favor of a more “plastic” world. In a way, we have become slaves to our own inventions (“a savage servility / slides by on grease”), and we are without the desires and convictions it would take to “rejoic[e] in man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die....”
Not all critics have been kind to Lowell and his poem “For the Union Dead.” Many sense a lack of real connections in the poem, even noting a tiredness in the words and images. In A Reader’s Guide to Robert Lowell, Philip Hobsbaum says that “Lowell’s technique is no longer able to bridge the gap between ‘the garage’s earthquake’ (stanza 6) and ‘Two months after marching through Boston / half the regiment was dead’ (stanza 7). It cannot cover the distance between Colonel Shaw ‘riding on his bubble’ (stanza 16) and the Negro children that appear on the speaker’s television set (stanza 15). In the end, there is insufficient energy to fuse together Lowell’s memory of the old Aquarium and his well-researched history of Colonel Shaw.” Hobsbaum later states that Lowell’s “intention is brave enough” but that “essential connections remain unmade.”
Most serious readers of Lowell cannot help but pick up on evidence of the poet’s “Puritanism” that seeps into much of his work, and many critics have used that as a bandwagon to jump on when reviewing it. Norma Procopiow, in Robert Lowell: The Poet and His Critics, tells us that “critics found in Lowell’s depiction of modern Boston the equivalents of the Puritans’ apocalyptic reading of the natural world. Urban images symbolized the Bostonians’ spiritual malaise, which delivered not so much a prophetic message as a grim reminder that faith was dead.” Procopiow also mentions the poet’s attention abroad, noting that “When we glance at Lowell’s reputation in England ... we find that, with a few exceptions, ... the critics invariably compared his experiments with England’s time-honored works.” Procopiow goes on, however, to claim that “When he wrote ‘public’ or history poems, such as ‘For the Union Dead,’ he was no match for the eighteenth-century poets.”
Whether Lowell was attempting to “match” eighteenth-century writers in “For the Union Dead” really has no bearing on the poem’s effectiveness. Nor is it very helpful to simply label the work a typical sermon on the wicked ways of the present compared to the “good ol’ days.” “For the Union Dead” supports itself and its premise with a blend of creative imagery and historical fact and doesn’t become lost in tedious moralizing. Lowell’s point may not be all that uncommon, but his use of fresh metaphors and intriguing shifts between “then and now” make an already widely accepted concession about our society something to take note of again—something, perhaps, to consider more seriously.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer considers “For the Union Dead” as “a modern take on the elegiac ode.”
Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” presents the reader with a modern take on the elegiac ode. It is a bundle of contradictions that struggles to reach a synthesis where the ode aspects of the poem confront the elegiac aspects, and where the poet is ultimately uncertain if anything worthy and memorable can be plucked from a world that is bent on its own self-destruction. Lowell’s landscape is not the fallen pastoral world but an urban wasteland where everything is reduced in both its glory and its scope to the level of Jurassic instincts—a place that does not survive death as much as it survives in death. It is a world that has been stripped of the poetic and reduced in both image and language to a cold-blooded predatory realm that exceeds even its New England Puritan vision in its understatement. As is the case in the elegiac voice, the world is a place that is haunted not only by its absences but by its past, so that the historical becomes a strange and ominous warning to the present.
Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” is, in many respects, an answer to an elegiac ode by his teacher, poet Allen Tate. A devout student of Southern history, Tate wrote “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” a lament for the fallen South in the wake of the Civil War. In that poem, Tate creates two distinct voices that circle each other like dust devils in a windy graveyard, answering and commenting on the fallen state of the South. “Ode to the Confederate Dead” is the lamentation of the exile who finds himself at a loss in his own world, and it assumes the stance not only of grief but of defeat and wistful pride. Lowell’s poem, on the other hand, does not have the elegiac privilege of the loser’s point of view. The world of “the Union Dead” is far different from that of the “Confederate Dead”—even death has winners and losers. The defeat in Lowell’s world was not inflicted from outside the cosmos of the poem, but from within. And whereas both poems struggle to come to grips with history by leaning heavily on their fallen icons (Tate cites Stonewall Jackson and Lowell makes considerable use of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts’ 54th), Lowell’s history is that of the modern world while Tate’s history is reduced to a spiritual genius (a vague presence in the place that moans and laments but never precisely identifies itself). The very actuality of Lowell’s past—its imposed presence in the present “On a thousand small town New England greens,” where small memorial flags from many ongoing conflicts “quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic”—serves as a reminder that history is a process not only of grief and retrospection, but of reduction, where “The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier / grow slimmer and younger each year.” The question is, in this world, where the principle of reductio ad absurdam (the process of constantly reducing things to their lowest common denominator) rules, what is the bottom line? How far can Man and the world go before there is nothing left? And if nothing, in the end, remains, what dignity is there to be won from the “savage servility” that seems to embrace the world Lowell lives in—in short, how low can the elegy go?
Elegies, by nature, examine loss. They take as their consideration and their prime focus the faint attempt to grasp at recompense in a world that is constantly in a state of wane. The ode, by contrast, attempts to exalt its subject. The ode elevates and raises its matter by profound consideration and by deep philosophical penetration of the issue at hand. A poem, such as “For the Union Dead,” that fuses both the elegy and the ode must confront, at least imagistically, the issue of how philosophical recompense can be gleaned from a world that is insistent on its own self-destruction.
Linguistically, “For the Union Dead” operates in a sparse, almost lightless vocabulary that is factual, frontal, and without illusion. Unlike Tate’s poem, in Lowell’s there is no poetic cadence to the lines, no lilting and haunting voice to infiltrate and inspire. The lines are deliberately mismeasured and irregular in their metrics and, where possible, Lowell gives them a falling cadence through the use of a clipped and abrupt syntax. History, as Lowell sees it, is a serious business devoid of the dressier poetic conventions—a philosophically axiomatic finality where the horror of Hiroshima is as bleak a reality as the “ditch” into which Colonel Shaw’s body was thrown. “The ditch,” whether on the Charleston battlefield or on the edge of Boston Common, is the bottom line in this elegy. It is the grave to which no paths of glory lead.
What saves the poem from complete bleakness is the fact that it struggles to be an ode. The ode, by nature, considers its subject matter and plucks both consolation and elevation from the process. When Lowell notes that “Shaw’s father wanted no monument / except the ditch / where his son’s body was thrown / and lost with his ‘niggers’,” he is, by consequence, adding to the monumentalism with which the poem seems fascinated. Lowell’s discussion of “St. Gauden’s shaking Civil War relief,” William James’s dedicatory oration for the Civil War memorial, the graveyards of New England and their tiny flags, the ubiquitous and “abstract Union Soldier” of monuments, and even the “Mosler Safe” that survived Hiroshima, takes into account the ode’s need to seek permanent reminders of the importance of things. While the elegy studies how unimportant things ultimately are, the ode asks what is important and tries to find it. This, says Lowell, is “man’s lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die,” knowing full well that, at least in terms of poetic rhetoric and metaphor, nothing is completely capable of dying. The problem in this stance is that life isn’t poetry. This is what troubles Lowell.
“For the Union Dead” presents the reader with a very serious contradiction. Both the elegy and the ode seek to redeem; yet there is little that Lowell can perceive as redemptive in the modern world. The poem opens with Lowell remembering “The old South Boston Aquarium” that stood in the corner of Boston Common near Beacon Street, the geographical heart of the New England psyche. The destruction of the aquarium and the erasing of a
“What saves [‘For the Union Dead’] from complete bleakness is the fact that it struggles to be an ode.”
place from the persona’s own past leaves the speaker with a sense of sublime loss, and he recalls how his “nose crawled like a snail on the glass; / my hand tingled / to burst the bubbles / drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.” At the conclusion of the poem, the world seems to have undergone a huge reversal—the fish are now on the outside of the glass, and the observer is the museum piece. The protective barriers have been removed so that when “The Aquarium is gone,” “giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease.” The question is “what were those barriers?” and the answer is quite simple: the barriers were our monuments, our ability to find things of lasting importance to give the world and its self-destructive nihilism some semblance of meaning. In the end, what Lowell laments is not the loss of the aquarium or the deaths of Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment, but the diminishment of meaning and the failure of the poet as philosopher to come to grips with the realities and complexities of his own age.
Lowell reminds us that “There are no statues for the last war here.” The world, he laments, has lost its ability to imaginatively conjure its own odes, and that loss of the “ode-making” facility in the modern mind is the real source of grief and elegy in the poem. Everything is enclosed in a “bubble.” “Colonel Shaw / is riding on his bubble.” “The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” from the bubble-like structure of Lowell’s television set. As Lowell sees it, when the “bubble” bursts, the matter encapsulated is set free to ennoble or devour. It is this freedom that leads to recognizable importance. The only bubble that has burst, however, is the one that contained the fish—the bubble from the second stanza that the persona’s hand “tingled / to burst.” The urge to reconcile the elegy to the ode is, after all, still there in the poetic demeanor even though it seems beyond the poet’s reach to attain.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Paul C. Doherty
In the following essay, Doherty argues that although there is a historical basis for Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” the poem and its speaker are entrenched in the present.
Robert Lowell’s poem, “For the Union Dead” follows the mind of a person as he interacts with the landscape of modern Boston. What he sees dismays him, especially insofar as he compares it with an older Boston. For it is an historical poem, one which tries to show a relation between the past and the present. It tries to show this relation in many ways, but most obviously in its superimposition of scenes from an earlier Boston upon parallel scenes from what the Chamber of Commerce has been calling “the New Boston.” Some examples. The old South Boston Aquarium, once the centerpiece of a park overlooking the harbor, has been gutted by vandals. The Boston Common, a Colonial grazing pasture, is being exhumed to provide parking places. Thomas Bulfinch’s golden-domed State House must be propped by scaffolding so that “the garage’s earthquake” will not topple it. The Memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young Boston Civil War hero, who, along with most of his Negro regiment, was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 is similarly buttressed. These violations of the past are complemented in the poem by today’s monuments—“giant-finned cars” and advertisements exploiting the bombing of Hiroshima.
“For the Union Dead” is an historical poem in another sense, also. It is an occasional poem, composed for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in June, 1960. In many ways the poem repeats an earlier ceremony, the dedication of the Shaw Memorial in 1897. On that occasion the speakers were William James, whose topic was “that lonely kind of valor (civic courage we call it in peace times),” which Shaw exemplified, and Booker T. Washington, for whom the Monument stood for “effort, not complete victory.” Lowell’s poem returns to these themes, civic courage and Negro rights. But the civic courage of Shaw, who “rejoices in man’s lovely / peculiar power to choose life and die,” but who “is out of bounds now” has been replaced in the twentieth century by “savage servility.” And although Shaw’s monument “sticks like a fishbone / in the City’s throat,” the Negro’s victory is still a promise; on television “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.”
The poem is an historical poem in still a third sense. The poet himself has suggested that he thinks of it as “a Northern Civil War poem,” and his replacing the original title “Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th” with the present one, “For the Union Dead,” suggests a comparison with Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” However, in one very important way at least, the poems are quite different. In each poem a speaker looks back to a more heroic age, but in Tate’s he is cut off from the past. In “For the Union Dead” the speaker creates the past
That statement requires explanation. It can be demonstrated, however, that despite the historical subject, occasion, and theme, the “facts” of history are of little importance in “For the Union Dead.” Indeed, nearly every historical observation in the poem is inaccurate.
First, the epigraph, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Shaw had been a member, has been rewritten to translale “They leave all behind to serve the country,” instead of the correct “He leaves all behind to serve the country.” The motto (omnia relinquit servare rem publicam) is correctly transcribed on the Shaw Memorial. The misquotation may, of course, be just a slip up by the poet, (like the misspelling of Boylston later in the poem) but this change does emphasize that the sacrifice at Fort Wagner was a common one.
Second, contrary to the implication of the poem, excavations for the Boston Common garage were not the reason for the bracing of either the Shaw Memorial or the State House, each one a quarter of a mile away from the blasting. The State House was undergoing restoration; the Memorial was being propped up until the city had managed to allocate funds for its repair. The neglect into which both had fallen speaks eloquently enough to the speaker’s point, but not so eloquently as his vision of the active destruction of the past by bulldozers does.
Third, William James’s statement that he could “almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe,” which in the poem seems to suggest the continuing urgency of the issues which Shaw’s career raises, seen in the context of his address at the dedication ceremonies, merely praises the verisimilitude of the relief. What James said was this: “Look at the monument and read the story—see the mingling of elements which the sculptor’s genius has brought so vividly before the eye. There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march.”
Fourth, though it is true that Shaw’s father wanted no cenotaph to his son’s memory, it was not he who referred to his son’s troops as “niggers.” According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw’s grave, replied, “We have buried him with his niggers.” The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But the actual reaction of Shaw’s father was quite the opposite. He wrote [in a letter to Edward Lillie Pierce], “Since learning of the place of our dear son’s burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them.— What a body guard he has.”
Fifth, the linking of the “Rock of Ages” with the Mosler advertisement is the speaker in the poem’s idea, not the adman’s. For although the Mosler Safe Company saw the preservation of one of its safes during the bombing of Hiroshima as an event to be publicized (“The Hiroshima Story Comes To Life With A Bang!”), I have been assured that this company never adopted the slogan “Rock of Ages” in its advertising.
Yet, although the scenes in the poem are historically inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker’s purposes. The contrast between old and new is for him a contrast between something intelligent, decent, and past, and something destructive, desolate, and present. The imagery is consistent with the narrator’s view of history. Most of it is related either to ascent or to descent, which, as Northrop Frye suggests [in The Anatomy of Criticism], are the spatial equivalents of the desirable and the undesirable. The desirable past is seen as an upward movement. Colonel Shaw resembles “a compass-needle”; he has “an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” He is “riding on his bubble.” Today, only the Negro school children rise. Otherwise, the tendency of the present is downward. “Dinosaur steamshovels” “gouge” for us “an underground garage.” The South Boston Aquarium, the scene at the beginning and at the end of the poem, reflects this historical movement from ascent to descent. Once the “bronze weathervane cod,” symbolic of man’s dominion over the lower orders of nature, stood atop it. Man no longer
“... [A]lthough the scenes in [‘For the Union Dead’] are historicatty inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker’s purposes.”
has this dominion; in fact he has descended to the lower order himself, as the final lines of the poem make clear.
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The landscape of the poem then is not so much the city’s as it is the poet’s. It is not photographed, but felt. It is not history, but autobiography. But the poem is not the work of a modern laudator temporis acti. Though obviously sympathetic to the past, the speaker belongs to the present. His past is an imagined past, the Union soldier is “abstract.” The present, however, is real, and the speaker, as much as anyone else, is part of it. He creates the imagined virtues of the historical past, but shares the downward tendency of the present. His nose “crawls like a snail”; he must “often sigh... / for the dark, downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile,” and must “press” and “crouch” like a beast.
In short, this poem is of a piece with that poetry in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean which has a subjective narrator. Comparison with an earlier poem suggests the distance that “For the Union Dead” stands from the poet’s former historicism. In “Where the Rainbow Ends” from Lord Weary’s Castle, the speaker states:
I saw my city in the Scales;
the pans of judgment rising and descending.
That poem had rhyme, meter, and stanza form; it rested on an equally ordered and orthodox system of belief and values. “For the Union Dead” lacks rhyme and meter, and has a stanza form which serves no prosodic or rhetorical function. As if to correlate with this loss of form, the poem’s narrator offers no solutions, no guidance, no control—only his ability to conceive of a nobler way of life may be seen as hopeful. But unlike Colonel Shaw, the speaker cannot direct his life; he has no compass-needle. More than judging the modern condition, he bears witness to it.
Source: Paul C. Doherty, “The Poet as Historian: ‘For the Union Dead’ by Robert Lowell,” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1968, pp. 37-40.
Cosgrave, Patrick, The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1970.
Hamilton, Ian, Robert Lowell: A Biography, New York: Random House, 1982.
Hobsbaum, Philip, A Reader’s Guide to Robert Lowell, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1988.
Lowell, Robert, Collected Prose, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux, New York: Farrar, Straus, Gioux, 1987.
Mariani, Paul, Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Procopiow, Norma, Robert Lowell: The Poet and His Critics, Chicago: American Library Association, 1984.
“Robert Gould Shaw biography,” http://www.civilwarhome.com/shawbio.htm.
Robert Lowell: “For the Union Dead,” http://urcl.cc.kuleuven.ac.be/~m9607356/Robert_Lowell.html