(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“For the Union Dead” is an unusually public poem; Lowell wrote it to deliver on the Boston Common before a large audience. It is also one of his finest poems. It begins with a childhood memory of the South Boston Aquarium, where his hand had “tingled/ to burst the bubbles/ drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.” Now, however, the aquarium “stands in a Sahara of snow.” The “broken windows are boarded,” and the “airy tanks are dry.” Lowell has found perfect images of emptiness and desolation in what was once a place of life-giving joy. Next he notices “the new barbed and galvanized/ fence on the Boston Common.” Once a symbol of openness and community, the common is now enclosed.

The only thriving elements are the parking spaces that “luxuriate like civic/ sand-piles in the heart of Boston.” The construction of an “underworld garage” is shaking the famous seventeenth century Massachusetts Statehouse. The images are no longer of fish but have become “yellow dinosaur steamshovels.” A mechanical and destructive world is replacing the traditional Puritan one. The only reminders of that heritage are the ironic “Puritan-pumpkin colored girders” that brace the “tingling Statehouse.”

Lowell then shifts to imagery based on a statue and bas-relief of a Civil War hero, Colonel Shaw, a New Englander who led a regiment of free black soldiers in an attack on the fort at Charleston. The famous...

(The entire section is 597 words.)