For the Union Dead

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The ironies of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” begin with its title. “Union” and “dead” are each adjective and noun. The obvious reference is to the dead of the Union forces in the American Civil War; in a sense, however, the very concept of union is dead in the poem, which depicts a society fragmented by the results of its devotion to the machine and divided by persisting racism.

“For the Union Dead” begins as a very local and topical poem in its evocation of a series of scenes in Boston about the year 1960, with a focus on the construction of a huge garage beneath the Boston Common. The poem alludes briefly to a televised news story about African American schoolchildren in the South who were then undergoing the rigors of forced desegregation, and it alludes at greater length to a Civil War monument imperiled by the excavation beneath. The significance of the poem, however, is much broader than the temporary dislocations it describes.

In the first of its sixty-eight lines, the poem takes a nostalgic look at an aquarium, now abandoned, that the speaker visited as a youth. (There is no reason for supposing that this speaker is anyone but Lowell himself.) He is reminded of a much more recent sight: steamshovels carving out a parking garage beneath Boston’s ancient central meeting place. Among the things braced against the shocks of this project is the statehouse across the street; another is one of sculptor Augustus...

(The entire section is 501 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem of seventeen irregular four-line stanzas is pervaded by images of reptiles and fish. Lowell remembers the South Boston Aquarium, his own nose pressed snail-like to the glass as he contemplated the “downward” creatures there on display. Now he watches mechanical creatures at work, “dinosaur steamshovels” digging an “underworld garage.”

The Shaw monument is like a fishbone stuck in Boston’s throat. In keeping with the “downward” tendency of fish and reptiles, he thinks of the ditch into which Shaw and his men were thrown and then of the physical and moral contemporary ditch. In place of the aquarium, automobiles of the time with their exaggerated tail fins loom like weird, mechanical versions of fish. Lowell generalizes this imagery as the “savage servility” of a society devoted to the proliferation and storage of motor vehicles.

Bubbles, evanescent things associated in this poem with fragile and easily neglected values, also recur. There are the bubbles that drift from the noses of the fish in the aquarium, the faces of African American schoolchildren that rise like balloons on the television newscast, and the “bubble” on which Shaw rides in Saint-Gaudens’s monument. In contrast, the solid artifacts of the poem—the steamshovels, the girders that brace the statehouse, the Mosler safe (which, unlike thousands of people in Hiroshima, “survived” the atomic blast that leveled the city), the garage, the...

(The entire section is 494 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Robert Lowell: Life and Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Comments on movement between past and present; explores the poems as a sequence. Offers valuable contexts for title poem.

Fein, Richard J. Robert Lowell. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Surveys poems and remarks on animal imagery. Close reading of title poem.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. Addresses Lowell’s use of the prophetic and everyday voice; highlights uneasiness in Lowell’s use of religious voice.

Labrie, Ross. The Catholic Imagination in American Literature. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Covers only literature that centers on Catholicism; devotes a chapter to Lowell’s dedication to Mary and the darkness present in his poetry.

London, Michael, and Robert Boyers, eds. Robert Lowell: A Portrait of the Artist in His Time. New York: David Lewis, 1970. Contains criticism written in Lowell’s time by his contemporaries, both poets and critics, focusing specifically on religious aspects of the poetry.

Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. This in-depth biography discusses how religious conversion affected Lowell’s poetry.

Mazzaro, Jerome. The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Traces major themes of Christianity, mysticism, free will, sin, salvation, and morality through explication of the poems.

Procopiow, Norma. Robert Lowell: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1984. Chronological review of criticism on Lowell that discusses trends centering on Puritan and Catholic themes.

Rudman, Mark. Robert Lowell: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Argues that the poems “progressively” darken, that the subject of the book is “pain.”

Yenser, Stephen. Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Finds Lowell’s poems sometimes “excruciatingly introspective.” Comments on most of the poems.