"For the Union Dead" Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

While the heavy Catholic ideology, symbolism, and devout worship present in Lowell’s earlier work are much subtler in his later poetry, Christian themes are far from absent. Lowell once shared with Frederick Seidel that his supposed nonreligious poems of the 1950’s and 1960’s actually seemed religious to him. In the same way that Catholicism gave Lowell a temporary outlet to hold together his emotions, desires, and uneven behavior, poetic form gave structure to his expression. In “For the Union Dead,” he returns to a more structured poetic form of quatrains, combining long and short lines within each stanza. Since free verse is more conducive to the confessional lyric poetry that dominates For the Union Dead, quatrains are only sparingly used within this volume. This form is suitable for this public poem, which addresses a serious apocalyptic vision for the world.

In “For the Union Dead,” there is a sense that the modern human being is the predetermined man of Calvinist beliefs: helpless and damned. Lowell purposely chose the decaying South Boston Aquarium for this poem in order to invoke the Christian symbol of the fish as Christ, which has been used since the first century c.e. The “bronze weathervane cod” that “has lost half its scales” is therefore symbolic of Boston’s fading faith. Also, the metaphor of the demonic “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” that are “goug[ing] their underworld...

(The entire section is 557 words.)