For the Union Dead


« For the Union Dead ‘’written by Robert Lowell begins with three distinct features, the Boston landscape, Boston Aqaurium and a monument commending Colonel Shaw and his “negro regiment” whom faught in the civil war. Together these three features converge into one meaning that can better be described as being symbolistic to American History.


The Boston Landscape, known to be bustling and chaoitic at times, serves to symbolize the present day. Although Lowell refreanes form ocking the present day, he makes it clear that in no way have Americans cherished their history. This is seen through the representation of Colonel Shaw’s monument, which symbolizes the isolation of the past. Working together, the Boston Aquarium as well as the forgotten monument have isolated both nature and history, both great aspects that are needed for a nation to prosper. The aquarium no longer holds water, “the tanks run airy dry,” showing a haunting picture of total disregard for nature. Lowell refers to bot the monument and aquarium as “monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat."


Both aquarium and monument awaken a consciousness of the past in the speaker's mind, or more precisely, two aspects of the past. However, there we find suggestions in the poem that the aquarium and the monument, nature and history, will get their own back some day.


The aquarium gains increasing symbolic density through accretions of meaning that are built up as the poem develops. The prime association of the aquarium and fish
is affirmed in the first stanza by the reference to the bronze weathervane cod and is
expanded in the third by reference to "the dark downward and vegetating kingdom /
of the fish and reptile", thus extending the vista so as to comprehend cold-blooded
animal life on land and in the sea.


Besides their temporal dimension, the aquarium and the monument have a spatial
aspect. When visualized, the aquarium appears as a frame or boxlike structure with
evident similarities with other objects described in the poem., the "cage" enclosing
Boston's parkland, the Molser safe that is able to survive nuclear explosions and the
television set in front of which the speaker obsequiously "crouches". The "drained
faces of the Negro school-children" shown on the television screen (another box)
appear to "rise like balloons" (15), reminding the reader of the bubbles in the
aquarium which the speaker when a child tried to burst. The TV pictures may also
prompt one to reflect how far the post-Bellum process of emancipation has borne out
the hopes of the Abolitionists of the 1860s.The reference to Hiroshima
gives the reader occasion to reflect on the immense rift between modern warfare
along with its means of mass anonymous destruction and the Civil War with the
scope it gave to individual Heroic action.


Modern society is shown in the poem not only to face physical destruction in a
nuclear conflict but death in the more insidious form of mental atrophy and the
deadening of emotion. Death in this form seems to be intimated by the commercial
photograph making the detonation of the A-bomb at Hiroshima the proof of an
advertised product's robust construction. The words "Rock of Ages" derived from a
famous hymn underline how far modern society has become removed from its
moral and religious premises.