For the Union Dead Characters
by Robert Lowell

Start Your Free Trial

Download For the Union Dead Study Guide

Subscribe Now

For the Union Dead Characters

The Speaker

The speaker's voice is important, as he includes his own memories, his musings about the present, and some narrative about history. This poem was written in the early 1960s, and America was just on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. By using the statue of Colonel Shaw, the speaker conveys that some things haven't progressed enough since the Civil War.

He begins in the present, viewing construction in his world. He isn't satisfied with the focus of his society; collectively, it seems to value the wrong things, or flashy things. He notes that the aquarium has disappeared in the name of progress, but there is still so much work to be done in the name of equality and civil rights. He thinks of the African American children whom he sees on television, their faces "drained." They are weary of this fight, and they are young, with still much life left to use in the struggle toward progress. Regardless of their early weariness, he notes that their faces "rise like balloons." This simile conveys joy and hope to the speaker.

The speaker isn't too hopeful about the future, however, saying that our progress "slides by on grease." It is forward movement, but the means of progress is ugly and messy ("grease").

Colonel Robert Shaw

Shaw was recruited to lead one of the first all–African American troops for the Union Army. On May 28, 1863, he led a parade through Boston before taking this group of men to South Carolina to fight at James Island. Through his leadership, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry proved that they were brave and honorable, regardless of race.

Shaw was killed in this battle, and Confederate General Johnson Hagood sought to dishonor Colonel Shaw by tossing his body in a ditch with the African American soldiers he led. Shaw's father said that this was actually an honor to his son, who would not...

(The entire section is 479 words.)