For the Union Dead

by Robert Lowell

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The poem opens with the speaker's childhood memories of the old South Boston Aquarium, a building that now has boarded-up and broken windows and a decrepit remnant of a fish-shaped weather vane. He reminisces about how he used to watch the fish swimming there behind their glass, things of natural beauty, but things are different now, he says:

One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

The location in which he made those good childhood memories is gone, or changed unrecognizably, and he notices now how the so-called progress being made has actually resulted in the cordoning off of an area meant for public use and enjoyment, the Boston Common. Instead of being able to watch the movements of the bubbles and fish behind glass, the speaker can only watch the loud and large construction vehicles tearing up the green space in order to build an underground parking garage. The connotation of so many words in this description is negative: grunting, mush, gouge. This is not a good thing. In fact, the past is all but forgotten in this city where

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations . . .

Instead of citizens of the city or monuments to great achievements or those who achieved them, the city is filled up with parking spaces—room is made for them. Meanwhile, the historic statehouse must be shored up as a result of the excavations being done to produce even more parking spaces. The only acknowledgment to the Puritans who started the colony, now, is the color of the supports: orange like the pumpkins the Puritans would have had. This is hardly a meaningful or significant reference to the past.

Worse yet is the memorial of Colonel Shaw and his all-black group of soldiers from the Civil War.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.

Despite their fight and the ultimate sacrifices most of these men made to end the Civil War and free their brothers and sisters from slavery, racism is still rampant in these United States. These men fought for the Union, but this country has still not achieved a unity of belief in the sanctity of all human life and the value of a black one. We may remember these soldiers' sacrifices with a monument, but do we really honor them? Lowell seems to suggest that we do not.

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