Born to a prominent New England family noted for its contributions to American literature, Robert Lowell blends personal and cultural histories in his work. By the time the thirty-five poems of For the Union Dead appeared, Lowell was at the height of his powers, having won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Lord Weary’s Castle in 1947 and the National Book Award for Life Studies in 1959. Most readers consider Life Studies, which includes a lengthy prose memoir of his dysfunctional family, to be his best book.
In 1949, Lowell was institutionalized for a nervous breakdown, and he suffered attacks of manic-depressive disorder for the rest of his life. In 1948, he divorced his first wife, novelist Jean Stafford, and the next year he married Elizabeth Hardwick, from whom he was divorced in 1972. “Old Flame,” the second poem in the collection, concerns his first wife; the first poem, “Water,” is a reminiscence of his relationship with the poet Elizabeth Bishop, whom he met in 1946 and who was to remain a lifelong friend.
Lowell is widely recognized as the “father” of the confessional movement in post-World War II American poetry, having taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton while at Boston University in the late 1950’s. In general, the confessional poets, many of whom went through psychoanalysis, place themselves, and often their parents, at the center of their work, as Lowell does in “Middle Age,” the third poem in this book, where, at forty-five, he claims to have met his father (who died in 1950) on the “chewed-up streets” of New York and asked him to “forgive me/ my injuries,/ as I forgive/ those I/ have injured!” The religious echo is common in Lowell’s poems.
Typically, confessional poets work through pain and anger, even outrage, sometimes appearing self-analytical and harsh in their judgments on themselves, sometimes self-pitying and morbid. The self or ego is so prevalent in Lowell’s poems that when the third person appears, as in “The Mouth of the Hudson,” the reader may accept the third person as an alter-ego or another side of Lowell. In that poem, the man is isolated in an industrial wasteland, and he has “trouble with his balance” (both mental and physical). The poem ends with an image referring to “the sulphur-yellow sun/ of the unforgivable landscape.” It is a curiosity, if not a symptom, of confessional poetry that the confessions rarely lead to a sense of healing forgiveness.
The title of the opening poem is “Water,” and water is a conventional symbol of life or purification, but the lovers discover at the end that “the water was too cold for us.” In “Eye and Tooth,” which echoes the biblical “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” the myopic poet (Lowell’s vision had been bad since boyhood) sees the cycle of life during a “summer rain” as “a simmer of rot and renewal.” (The sound play between “summer” and “simmer” and the alliterative “r” sounds typify Lowell’s acute ear.) At the end of that poem he declares, “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.”
One way of looking at For the Union Dead is that the poems show Lowell struggling against the limitations of his own subjectivity, not by rejecting the potential of the inner self, but by forcing the self out of its shell and into contact with the outer world of time and history. In “Fall 1961,” for example, he confronts time, which he portrays as “the orange, bland, ambassadorial/ face of the moon/ on the grandfather clock.” The talk of nuclear war during that time of the Cuban Missile Crisis created an apocalyptic anxiety, in which the speaker feels like a fish in an aquarium: “I swim like a minnow/ behind my studio window.” Similarly, the state seems helpless, like “a diver under a glass bell.” As “Our end drifts nearer,/ the moon lifts,/ radiant with terror,” so that the symbol of romance is transformed into one of fear. Note Lowell’s rhyming of “drifts” and “lifts” and his slant rhyming of “nearer” with “terror.”
The father who appears in “Fall 1961” is not his own “dinosaur” father of “Middle Age,” but himself: “A father’s no shield/ to his child.” Lowell’s daughter was then four years old. In a simile that may reach back to a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the eighteenth century Calvinist minister Jonathan Edwards (himself the subject of a poem later in the book), Lowell writes: “We are like a lot of wild/ spiders crying together,/ but without tears.” At the conclusion of the poem, as the clock ticks tediously, the speaker retreats to his...