For the Union Dead | Study Guide

Robert Lowell

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For the Union Dead | Symbols


Like many 20th-century poems, "For the Union Dead" displays the flexible nature of words. Since the relation between a word, a series of sounds, and the thing it represents is arbitrary, the poem operates to expand, extend, or clarify the meaning or impression of the individual word. For example, the arbitrary relation may be defined by the notion that nothing in the word milk suggests a source of protein from a dairy product. Thus, the poem does not operate so much out of symbols as it does out of associative sequences in which the meaning of individual words expands or clarifies through repetition.


Bubbles in the text seem to represent matters of fragility, of life and death, and of destructive realities and impossible dreams. In Stanza 2, bubbles indicate that the fish are breathing, that they are alive. The child-poet's fingers tingle to break the bubbles. Destructive impulses in early childhood are common signs of childhood vulnerability and anger. In Stanza 14 Hiroshima boils. There are no bubbles in the stanza, but the atomic mushroom cloud signals ultimate destructive violence. If the cloud boils, the mind's eye can imagine bubbles. In Stanza 15, there are "drained faces" ... like balloons," a sort of manufactured bubble, and in Stanza 16, Colonel Shaw rides a bubble, a fragile sphere filled with air, like a soap bubble, just about to pop from the weight of his unfulfilled dreams.

The first bubbles are perhaps the most interesting. One might wonder why the child would long to burst the bubbles that fish breathe. Perhaps the impulses of childhood, mindless as they are, are also destructive. From the very first and throughout the poem, bubbles expand to depict a sort of mindless violence, on the one hand, and an ultimate vulnerability, on the other—opposites brought together in a word. The impulse to pop a bubble seems almost universal, perhaps representing a universal tendency toward destructive behavior.


In Stanza 4, the "underworld garage" is the result of an elaborate excavation, like a ditch but bigger and underground. The notion of instability and imminent destruction begins with the excavation and proceeds in Stanza 6 with the mention of the "garage's earthquake." A ditch is also the crude burial place for the African American soldiers and the place in which the equality of the soldiers and their leader becomes public. This ditch is the abyss of prejudice from which the poem acquires its sad power. The poem itself is an excavation of the "underworld," a past and continuing history of bigotry.

Old White Churches

The "old white churches" of Stanza 11 have a double meaning. They evoke the physical reality of old churches, painted white and standing on the greens of many New England towns. These churches are also "white" because they are attended by the old white families of revolutionary history.

The churches hold an air of "sparse, sincere rebellion." "Rebellion" in this double context is "sparse" and "sincere" in that it speaks to a revolutionary desire for equality that was limited to a group of white citizens. Even as time passes—marked in this stanza by the Civil War graves where only white soldiers were buried—the rebellion is limited to one group of individuals. Lowell points to the hypocrisy of generations of churchgoers: they might be good, neighborly folks among their own, but they are bigots at the core.

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