Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

These paradoxes point to several interrelated themes in “For the Union Dead.” One is the decline in urban civility. The disruption on the Boston Common was only temporary, but scenes similar to it are a constant feature of American city life in the second half of the twentieth century. Art, landscape, and people themselves must all yield to the demands of the automobile. Good buildings are demolished to provide parking lots; neighborhoods are sliced by expressways; pedestrian access to places of leisure is rendered bewilderingly difficult. The new city offers a new savagery in the name of technological progress.

Officialdom does not formally repudiate the civilities created by past generations, but the continued existence of officialdom depends on its accommodating itself to the changing scene. The Shaw Monument is an embarrassment; it “sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” People can still walk on portions of the Boston Common but must expect to be jolted by an “earthquake” every so often. The aquarium, boarded up and decaying, has become part of a “Sahara.”

The most important artifact in Lowell’s poem, the bronze relief of the Caucasian colonel and his brave African American regiment, stands for a fact of American life that a terrible war and the passage of a century have not succeeded in correcting: racial division, strife, and inequality. Lowell’s reference to Hiroshima reminds one of the ease with which...

(The entire section is 480 words.)