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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

Lowell begins his poem "For the Union Dead" by speaking about the South Boston Aquarium, which is an unexpected start when considering the title. He immediately places the reader in the present, which is also perhaps an unexpected setting. The aquarium seems to have been closed for a while; the windows are boarded, and its tanks are dry. Dry tanks in an aquarium are rather odd, so early on, it is established that the reader should expect the unexpected in this poem.

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Lowell then flashes back to his own personal past, when he visited this now-closed aquarium, letting his "nose [crawl] like a snail on the glass." He reflects that he still often thinks about these memories of childhood trips to the aquarium. By comparison, he reflects about a time "last March" when he watched some construction happening in Boston Common. He personifies the machines working on the construction; they "gouge their underworld garage" into existence. The parking spaces created are implied to be gaudy in contrast to the world around them; they are "Puritan-pumpkin colored girders," which is a form of women's underwear. Lowell says that things which should be discreet are instead rather obnoxious in this environment.

There is then a shift to the subject the reader anticipated upon reading the title. Colonel Shaw led an all-black infantry in the Civil War. As the construction shakes the ground around Shaw's statue like an earthquake, it seems barely separated from the disarray of machines behind it. Two months after marching through Boston, half of Shaw's men were dead. William James, who appears in the poem, actually gave a speech at the dedication, and he "could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe."

Lowell then personifies the statue:

he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now.

The statue of Shaw seems out of place in this modern context. The ideals he fought for are now being lived out all around him. He exists outside this time, yet is strangely trapped in it too, via the statue.

The speaker notes that the significance of what the soldiers accomplished seems to lessen each year. He notes that Shaw's own father didn't even want a monument to him; all he desired was for his son to be buried with his fellow soldiers.

Back in the present, the speaker notes that there are no monuments to mark the heroes of World War II, inferred from the reference to Hiroshima. Instead, a photograph of Hiroshima is used as a "commercial," in an effort to make money instead of honor heroes. On television, he notes the struggles of African American children but also notes that they "rise like balloons" in the face of adversity.

The monument to Shaw still stands watching over the progress of modern day, waiting for the "break" of true equality in the world around him.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

“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 bas-relief of Colonel Shaw and his regiment has also been assaulted by the modern instruments of destruction and needs to be “propped by a plank splint.” What the statue represents has also changed; no longer does Boston support the abolitionist cause or lead Negro infantry in a noble cause. Now, “[t]heir monument sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” Colonel Shaw still possesses some of those older virtues: “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,/ a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” Shaw’s father had thought an appropriate monument would be “the ditch,/ where his son’s body was thrown/ and lost with his ’niggers.’” Lowell then makes another contrast between the past and the present. The “ditch is nearer,” and the only monument from the recent war is an advertisement that “shows Hiroshima boiling/ over a Mosler Safe.” War is no longer noble but has become mechanized and more destructive; advertisements replace the statues of Civil War heros.

Colonel Shaw awaits the “blessed break” that will complete his cause, but instead “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” as they attempt to enter an all-white school. The image of the “bubble” encloses the fish in the aquarium, Colonel Shaw, and the black children, but there is no “blessed break.” There is only a final and devastating symbol:

Everywhere,giant finned cars nose forward like fish;a savage servilityslides by on grease.

Once more, Lowell uses a mechanical symbol and opposes it to a natural one. No longer do aristocrats serve the republic; everyone is now mired in “servility” and a corrupt selfishness.

“For the Union Dead” is one of Lowell’s finest poems; it brings together a number of image patterns and themes. The “fish” in the childhood reminiscence become “dinosaurs,” then a “fishbone” that sticks in the city’s throat, and finally “giant finned cars.” The “bubbles” from those fish enclose (or imprison) the fish, Colonel Shaw, and the “Negro school-children”; all wait for the “blessed break,” but it has receded rather than come closer in twentieth century Boston. The poem also successfully blends the public with the private interests, something that Lowell did not always achieve.

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Themes