For the Union Dead | Study Guide

Robert Lowell

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For the Union Dead | Context


The Fugitives and the Agrarians

The originators of these movements in the literary arts were among Lowell's earliest mentors and closest friends. Most influential were poets John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974) and Allen Tate (1899–1979). Their ideas and ideals, including their Southern point of view, inspired Lowell in his earliest accomplishments.

Initially, The Fugitive was a literary journal published at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1922–25. The contributors to the journal and their students criticized the effects of industrialization and supported a return to the traditional values of the agrarian South. This group of writers and critics called themselves the Fugitives. According to Allen Tate, who belonged to the group, "a Fugitive was quite simply a Poet; the Wanderer, or even the Wanderer Jew, the Outcast, the man who carries a secret wisdom around the world." Both the critics and the poets in the group pledged to uphold and practice historically established formal poetic techniques.

Some of the Fugitives went on to form another group, the Agrarians. A founding principle of the Agrarians was recognized in the relation between the words culture and agriculture. Social stability, in the view of this group, began in identity with the soil. Loyalty to values of the South produced "grace, piety, and leisure," in opposition to the speed of change that led to the ills of industrialization. A 1930 collection of essays by 12 Southern writers including Ransom and Tate, I'll Take My Stand, explored the agrarian way of life and, in some unfortunate cases, embraced the South's racist past. Still others espoused the values of a New South. All were in agreement in demanding traditional poetic form as a hedge against progress.

The work of John Crowe Ransom proved to be the greatest influence among these writers. In The New Criticism, published in 1941, Ransom set a standard for literary criticism that was practiced at least to the end of the century. Principally, his text set criteria for judging a work of literature as well as positing a design for reading. Most important, literary analysis was to be limited to the text of the work under consideration. Cultural and historical contexts were irrelevant. Equally off-limits were considerations about the lives and experiences of the authors, their personalities, psychology, and historical context. The literary work was a thing unto itself. Even to the present day, literary critics and academics have noted that although prohibitions on context do not hold, Ransom's New Criticism encouraged close readings of poets' and scholars' work.

Confessional Poetry

During Robert Lowell's psychiatric treatment in the late 1950s, he was encouraged to write about his childhood. The prose memoir, "91 Revere Street," that closes Life Studies was the result. Around the same time, Lowell had some guidance from poet William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) whose experiments with syllabic feet (counting and matching the number of syllables per line) had established a new model for American poetry. This new model was a break from the tallying of iambic meters, or stressed and unstressed syllables, that account for the meter in conventional poetry. Despite the demand for conventional formalism among his Southern friends, Lowell experimented with a conversational style and expression measured in syllables, or breath units, producing a poetry rooted in natural expression.

Two aspects of this style are unconventional. First and most radical, the speaker of the poem is in fact the poet. After years of being taught the author and narrator are not one and the same, readers encounter in the confessional poem a personal voice: the poet telling their story in their own voice. Second is the question of meter: the iamb, or metrical "foot" consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, is not entirely abandoned, since the foot is foundational to spoken English (apple, winter are two examples).

The immediate results of Lowell's new style were the sequences of "confessional," or deeply personal, subjects summoned and the deep emotions tapped in "For the Union Dead." Boston was at the time undergoing the beginnings of the civil rights protests, which focused on desegregating schools and services in the South and would overtake the country. Racial violence in the poem becomes a violence from which all people suffer, regardless of their backgrounds, as if Shaw and his regiment had died for no reason.

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

The poem's description of "Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry" references the memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837–63) and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, who fought for the Union Army in the American Civil War. The memorial, a bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) dedicated in 1897, is located on the Boston Common. Shown in relief (that is, with figures projecting from the background) are Shaw and the regiment he commanded marching off to war on Boston's Beacon Street. Shaw's sister Josephine (1843–1905) had married one of Robert Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (1835–64), giving the poet a personal connection to the monument and its subject.

The 54th Regiment was famous both for being one of the first to be made up of African American soldiers and for its conduct in the storming of Fort Wagner, a Confederate fort near Charleston, South Carolina. In 1863 the regiment made a brave assault on the heavily manned and armed fort in which nearly half its 600 soldiers, and Shaw himself, were killed. Shaw, a young white man, was buried with his fallen troops. The 1989 film Glory is based on the story of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

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