For the Union Dead

by Robert Lowell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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 seek to be elsewhere than with the men he'd fought with. His father proudly proclaimed, “We would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers . . . . We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”

These elements of history appear in the poem. The speaker notes that

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead . . .

The speaker also uses Colonel Shaw's ideals to show how passionately he fought for what he believed in—and how far society still has to go. While he notes that Shaw's statue stands in a place where people have choices over life and death that didn't exist in the past,

frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

It seems that the speaker's modern world is forgetting the sacrifices of the past by men like Colonel Shaw.

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