For the Union Dead | Study Guide

Robert Lowell

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Course Hero. "For the Union Dead Study Guide." January 13, 2019. Accessed September 28, 2023.


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For the Union Dead | Quotes


The old South Boston Aquarium stands / in a Sahara of snow now.


That the South Boston Aquarium still "stands," even though it is wrecked, is a subtle sign of a more abstract theme about the stubbornness of old ways of standing: of prejudice. The "Sahara," is a desert, a wasteland, but this one is wet. The tanks are part of an old wasteland that is now dry.


Cowed, compliant fish.


The very oddness of the juxtaposition of cows and fish (large versus small) prepares for the car and fish analogy at the close of the poem. Furthermore, the words cowed and compliant describe the attitudes of African Americans before the Civil Rights movement.


I often sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile.


The poet longs for a primeval time, innocent and unthinking: primitive creatures that neither speak nor think. Instead the speaker finds the primitive, unthinking, and unchanging attitudes of racial prejudice.


Behind their cage, / yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting.


Here animal-like machines mirror the nature of unthinking primitive fish and reptiles and prepare the reader for the indifferent destructiveness of mindless machines that prevail in the end.


Parking spaces luxuriate like civic / sandpiles ... / A girdle of ... Puritan-pumpkin colored girders.


The speaker brings the past into the present as ancient and primitive things operate in a modern setting. "Sandpiles" are now "civic"—of the city—and "puritan" is part of a description of the color of steel girders.


William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.


William James has admired the realism of Saint-Gaudens's figures on the bas-relief memorial, perhaps at the expense of sympathy for the soldiers or for Colonel Shaw. His comments reveal appreciation for the sculptor's art more than for the historical event commemorated by the monument.


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


The congeniality of black men and a white officer is irritating—like a fishbone that gets stuck in a person's throat—to the ordinary sentiments of modern Bostonians. Despite its abolitionist history and a national, active civil rights movement, old Boston has its old prejudices.


Its Colonel is as lean / as a compass-needle.


In his choice to lead the black regiment and in his attachment to his men, Colonel Shaw is the embodiment of a true (moral) compass. He is "lean," and his commitment is simple, straightforward, even single-minded.


He has an angry wrenlike vigilance.


A small bird must be extraordinarily vigilant because, like Shaw with his men unprotected in the siege of Fort Wagner, he has little physical protection. Shaw's anger also stems from being outnumbered in his advocacy for his black soldiers.


He seems to wince at pleasure, / and suffocate for privacy.


There is no opportunity for pleasure at the time of war, no opportunity to find privacy on the battlefield. Shaw has renounced all joy for the sake of duty.


He rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die.


Colonel Shaw fully appreciates the patriot-hero's courage in his choices, which assign something more than glory to him. He finds joy in his single-minded pursuit of decency.


The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier / grow slimmer and younger each year.


As time passes, the impact of these public monuments decreases. They are barely visible to the casual passerby, who does not think about the Civil War and the boys and men devoured by the strife. People live in the present. Memory is thin, and historical memory is shallow.


Shaw's father wanted no monument / except the ditch.


Colonel Shaw's father, an abolitionist, respected his son's heroic choice, which represents the reality of his son's sacrifice. The good father refuses the symbolic honor of a Boston burial, understanding the need for his son to be buried with his regiment.


Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble.


The speaker has switched to the present tense in describing the image of Colonel Shaw. He rides the bubble, the fragile seat of his belief. Shaw's choice makes him vulnerable. The use of the present tense reminds readers that joy in the belief in equality is as fragile in the present as it was in the past.


A savage servility / slides by on grease


The poet adds another odd juxtaposition: savageness versus servility. One can be hateful and still be servile. Perhaps the juxtaposition indicates the attitudes of the enslaved Africans. Now the "giant finned cars," mindless like the primordial fish, slip past. Economic interests are blind to suffering or prejudice.

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