Please refer to the question you are answering in your answer. 1) What is the significance of the Latin epigraph? 2) What does the poet feel about the destruction of the aquarium? 3) Identify and...

Please refer to the question you are answering in your answer.

1) What is the significance of the Latin epigraph?

2) What does the poet feel about the destruction of the aquarium?

3) Identify and explore three effective examples of imagery in the poem.

4) Identify the tone of the poem.

5) what is Lowell's purpose? How does he achieve this purpose?

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead,” is a paean to the men of the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, the African American regiment led by white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who fought against racism and ultimately fought valiantly against the Confederacy, suffering enormous losses at Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina.  It is a reflection on the disappearance of the Boston of Lowell’s youth. 

The significance of the Latin phrase Lowell uses, Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam, translates as “They gave up all to serve the republic.”  Reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which the president remembered the fallen on that historic battlefield with the epitaph “they gave the last full measure of devotion,” Lowell’s use of this Latin phrase was intended to similarly honor the fallen among the 54th Massachusetts, men who died in overwhelming numbers to advance the cause – their cause – of liberty. 

With respect to the aquarium, Lowell is nostalgic for the Boston of his youth, and the aquarium where

“Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; 
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.”

Now, however, that symbol of his youth and of a Boston that no longer exists has been replaced with “progress,” specifically the construction of yet another parking garage:

“One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.”

Effective examples of imagery in “For the Union Dead” are plentiful, which, of course, is common in poetry.  The above reference to “yellow dinosaur steam shovels” is a case in point, the large, lumbering construction/demolition equipment evocative of the large lumbering creatures that once roamed the Earth.  Just as those great beasts disappeared, so has the aquarium of a lost Boston.  Another example of imagery in Lowell’s poem is his description of the monument to Colonel Shaw:

“He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness; 
he seems to wince at pleasure,”

Robert Gould Shaw was a dismayingly young senior officer thrust into a position of responsibility out of proportion to his youth and experience.  Colonel Shaw was 25 years old when he was killed in that battle at Fort Wagner.  Today, an officer in the U.S. Army is generally in his or her forties or fifties before they attain that rank.  Shaw died young and bloody, but in a good cause.  Lowell’s imagery captures what was known about the late colonel’s demeanor and appearance.

The final stanza in Lowell’s poem offers another example of imagery worth noting in the context of his themes.  Referring again to the destruction of the aquarium and disappearance of the fish that once lived there, and expressing again his sadness for the advance of civilization as represented by the ubiquity of cars and places to park cars, Lowell offers the following image:

“The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish; 
a savage servility
slides by on grease.”

Automobiles in time frame in which this poem was written, circa 1960, were enormous behemoths characterized, with fins along both sides of the rear, usually providing a housing for tail lights.  The use of the terms “fins” to describe that design feature was common.  That it provides an appropriate image in the context of the lost aquarium, torn down for construction of a garage, is a testament to Lowell’s perceptivity. 

The tone of the poem, and Lowell’s purpose in its writing, seems clear.  As discussed above, Lowell is lamenting his lost youth and the disappearance of the Boston he knew and loved.  It is safe to conclude that he achieved his objective of both lamenting those changes and honoring the fallen from the 54th Massachusetts. 

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For the Union Dead

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