"For the Union Dead"

by Robert Lowell
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

In 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston’s most prominent families, his relatives including the well-established Winslows and the famous poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. Robert Lowell’s rigorous academic training included two years at Harvard; a transfer to Kenyon College, where he studied under poet-critic John Crowe Ransom; and postgraduate work at Louisiana State University under the tutelage of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The formalist influence of Ransom, Warren, Brooks, and their colleague Allen Tate shaped the style of Lowell’s early poetry: Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946). These volumes were widely praised by critics for the masterful use of formal meter and rhyme and for their intellectual intensity.

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Lowell’s conversion from an Episcopalian to a devout Catholic was another significant influence on his early poetry. The friendship between Warren and Lowell, their mutual appreciation for Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri, and Lowell’s admiration for Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins ultimately led to Lowell’s conversion and baptism on the campus of Louisiana State University in 1941. Lowell practiced the Catholic faith strictly: He attended Mass each morning, read only religious books, and talked endlessly about the existence of God. Despite this initial passion, Lowell left the Catholic Church in 1946, simultaneously obtaining a divorce from his first wife of eight years, writer Jean Stafford. He returned to the Episcopal Church in November, 1955, but traces of Catholicism remained in his poetry.

Lowell was a victim of manic depression (bipolar disorder) and frequently experienced breakdowns but continued to write poetry. This personal suffering, the influence of the Beat poets in the mid-1950’s, and the lingering presence of William Carlos Williams’s revolutionary Imagist techniques led to a major transformation in Lowell’s poetic style. He abandoned the strict meter and traditional form for much looser, highly personalized lyric poetry. Life Studies (1959), a collection written in this confessional style, was highly praised and said to change the face of modern poetry. His next volume, For the Union Dead (1964), maintained this style but is often condemned (with the exception of the poem “For the Union Dead”) for an effusive display of Lowell’s inner turmoil.

Lowell completed “For the Union Dead” for delivery at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960. As he read his poem, he viewed the dilapidated “old South Boston Aquarium,” a landmark of his childhood, and the construction of a large underground parking garage on the Boston Common. The speaker’s fond nostalgia for the way his “nose crawled like a snail on the glass” is replaced by a helpless, regretful observation of this transformation. The image of his pure, innocent, appreciative child-hand “tingling” with excitement transforms into the “tingling Statehouse” braced for the trauma of major excavations. Through these descriptions, Lowell expresses how the need of modern society for industrialization and parking spaces takes precedence over simple, childlike joy.

Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, to whom Lowell often refers in this poem, led the first black battalion of the Civil War into a battle at Fort Wagner that ended in a brutal defeat in 1863. The statue described in the poem, made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and dedicated in 1897, bears an inscription by Charles William Eliot (president of Harvard) that Lowell modified for the epigraph of his poem. The statue’s Latin statement is translated, “He leaves all to serve the state”; Lowell changed the wording to “They leave all to serve the state,” therefore including the soldiers with Shaw. This wordplay implicates the rest of society along with Shaw, creating a parallel between the honorable soldiers, who died selflessly for a cause, and the people of Boston, who have traded morality for commercialism and monetary greed.

Lowell’s antiwar position is evident as he describes a billboard advertisement for a Mosler safe’s ability to protect cash profits. The ad shows a photograph of an undamaged safe in the rubble of Hiroshima, Japan, after the bombing of that city at the end of World War II. Lowell purposely uses the biblical language “Rock of Ages” to describe the safe, sarcastically commenting on how American money possesses the sanctity of a religious icon. The Apocalypse seems imminent for a society that would use the deaths of eighty thousand people for the advancement of commercialism.

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