For the Union Dead
The poem opens with the poet observing the deserted South Boston Aquarium, which he had visited as a child. The ruined building is symbolic both of his lost childhoood and of the decay of Boston, undergoing massive urban renewal, which disturbs such landmarks as the Statehouse and the statue of Colonel Shaw.
The statue causes the poet to think of Shaw, an abolitionist’s son and leader of the first black regiment in the Civil War. Shaw died in the war, and his statue is a monument to the heroic ideals of New England life, which are jeopardized in the present just as the statue itself is shaken by urban renewal.
Images of black children entering segregated schools reveal how the ideals for which Shaw and his men died were neglected after the Civil War. The poem’s final stanzas return to the aquarium. The poet pictures Shaw riding on a fish’s air bubble, breaking free to the surface, but in fact, the aquarium is abandoned and the only fish are fin-tailed cars.
This poem is a brilliant example of Lowell’s ability to link private turmoil to public disturbances. The loss of childhood in the early section of the poem expands to the loss of America’s early ideals, and both are brought together in the last lines to give the poem a public and private intensity.
The poem is organized into unrhymed quatrains of uneven length, allowing a measure of flexibility within a formal structure. This style reflects the poem’s...
(The entire section is 406 words.)