Study Guide

"For the Union Dead"

by Robert Lowell

"For the Union Dead" Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston’s most prominent families, his relatives including the well-established Winslows and the famous poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. Robert Lowell’s rigorous academic training included two years at Harvard; a transfer to Kenyon College, where he studied under poet-critic John Crowe Ransom; and postgraduate work at Louisiana State University under the tutelage of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The formalist influence of Ransom, Warren, Brooks, and their colleague Allen Tate shaped the style of Lowell’s early poetry: Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946). These volumes were widely praised by critics for the masterful use of formal meter and rhyme and for their intellectual intensity.

Lowell’s conversion from an Episcopalian to a devout Catholic was another significant influence on his early poetry. The friendship between Warren and Lowell, their mutual appreciation for Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri, and Lowell’s admiration for Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins ultimately led to Lowell’s conversion and baptism on the campus of Louisiana State University in 1941. Lowell practiced the Catholic faith strictly: He attended Mass each morning, read only religious books, and talked endlessly about the existence of God. Despite this initial passion, Lowell left the Catholic Church in 1946, simultaneously obtaining a divorce from his first wife of eight years, writer Jean Stafford. He returned to the Episcopal Church in November, 1955, but traces of Catholicism remained in his poetry.

Lowell was a victim of manic depression (bipolar disorder) and frequently experienced breakdowns but continued to write...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

"For the Union Dead" Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Robert Lowell: Life and Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Comments on movement between past and present; explores the poems as a sequence. Offers valuable contexts for title poem.

Fein, Richard J. Robert Lowell. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Surveys poems and remarks on animal imagery. Close reading of title poem.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Addresses Lowell’s use of the prophetic and everyday voice; highlights uneasiness in Lowell’s use of religious voice.

Labrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Covers only literature that centers on Catholicism; devotes a chapter to Lowell’s dedication to Mary and the darkness present in his poetry.

London, Michael, and Robert Boyers, eds. Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time. New York: David Lewis, 1970. Contains criticism written in Lowell’s time by his contemporaries, both poets and critics, focusing specifically on religious aspects of the poetry.

Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. This in-depth biography discusses how religious conversion affected Lowell’s poetry.

Mazzaro, Jerome. The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Traces major themes of Christianity, mysticism, free will, sin, salvation, and morality through explication of the poems.

Procopiow, Norma. Robert Lowell: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1984. Chronological review of criticism on Lowell that discusses trends centering on Puritan and Catholic themes.

Rudman, Mark. Robert Lowell: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Argues that the poems “progressively” darken, that the subject of the book is “pain.”

Yenser, Stephen. Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Finds Lowell’s poems sometimes “excruciatingly introspective.” Comments on most of the poems.