For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Robert Lowell's poem, ''For the Union Dead'', takes the reader through his free association of thoughts that wander through past, present, and future, and the notion of 'progress'. In this lesson you will get an overview of the poem and be introduced to some of its key themes and poetic techniques.

Poetry as a Thought Process

Have you ever been alone, just letting your mind wander, and suddenly realized that your train of thought took you so far from where you began that it's hard to trace the flow of ideas that got you there? A similar process occurs in Lowell's poem. He crafts a surprising, and sometimes disturbing, train of poetic thought using juxtaposition and repetition to bring past, present, and future into collision.

Overview of 'For the Union Dead'

Like so many modern poems, For the Union Dead resists conventional summary, yet it can be helpful to clearly lay out the sequence of images and ideas within a poem before digging into an analysis. The poem's narrator begins at the ruins of the South Boston Aquarium, evoking past memories, then shifts to near-present, a day 'last March.' Attention turns to a fenced excavation for an underground parking garage within Boston Common--adding to numerous such paved parking areas in central Boston, it seems. Construction supports frame the 'tingling' Statehouse in steel girders, while tremors from the work also shakes the Shaw Memorial, reinforced only by a wooden 'plank.'

The narrator reflects on the Memorial, which commemorates Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Union's first black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th. The figures in the sculpture seem to 'breathe' life, issuing a vivid, personal, and disturbing reminder of death and sacrifice: over half the regiment was killed in the first two months of combat. The Memorial hits home in a visceral way that contrasts sharply with its counterparts in 'small-town . . . greens' throughout New England, that seem 'sparse' and sleepy by comparison. The poem reminds/informs the reader that Colonel Shaw, the white commander, was buried in a mass grave, 'a ditch,' along with his black soldiers. This was all the monument Shaw's father wanted. Nor are there more recent war memorials in Boston Common; the closest thing being a photograph celebrating an American-made safe that 'survived' Hiroshima intact.

As the poem concludes, the content opens up in ways that challenge the reader and complicate interpretation. It transitions abruptly into current events as viewed on TV, marked by 'the drained faces of Negro school children', then reconnects with Colonel Shaw through images of balloons and bubbles, anticipating an impending rupture. In the final stanza, the poem references the closed aquarium once more, implying that the fish that once fascinated the poem's narrator have been replaced by the 'giant finned cars' that appear 'everywhere', leaving the reader to consider the various implications.

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gauden, 1884~
The Shaw Memorial

Juxtaposition and Repetition

In literature and art, juxtaposition refers to the act of placing elements alongside each other for creative effect. Think of the yin-yang symbol, or the Western showdown between white-hat good guy and black-clad villain. Juxtaposition doesn't always require obvious contrasts though. Lowell applies it in surprising and startling ways throughout the poem as he abruptly pinballs through images and ideas. We begin with the aquarium (past) and return there in the final stanza. It's hard to imagine a stranger follow up to the poem's title or a more unlikely set of counterparts than the Shaw Memorial and a parking garage, the core images that follow.

The ruins of the aquarium (past merging into present) are juxtaposed to the underground parking lot, to be completed in and for the future. Yet modern mechanical dinosaurs (primordial past merging into present) dig into the ground--like paleontologists--to unearth the future. As they eat their way into the ground, the dinosaurs shake the foundations of Boston tradition, represented by the Statehouse and the Shaw Memorial.

The Mosler Safe is a product of present manufacturing technology and stands as the lone public reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and 20th century warfare despite (or perhaps because of?) being completely disassociated from the horrific realities of WWII. Lowell sets this image against the Shaw Memorial, a public tribute to the cause which the 54th both embodied and fought for. The poem implies that Boston has lost its taste for graphic or explicit reminders of war, but it is stuck with Shaw and his troops regardless. So this enduring portrait of the past haunts the present, 'sticks like a fishbone/in the city's throat'. Lowell doesn't tell his reader exactly why, but another strong clue comes later in the poem with the reference to African American children in the news. Perhaps the most stunning thing in the poem, however, is the way it takes these clashing and competing images and manages to unify them through strategic repetition.

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