For the Union Dead | Study Guide

Robert Lowell

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For the Union Dead | Themes


Progress versus Change

The poem is organized around the theme of progress versus change. In this work, progress is the negative pole, whereas change is the positive. Progress is economic and invasive, but change is elusive, although the need for it is clear. Time causes change and brings it into focus. The poet's nostalgia for childhood pleasure, like visits to the South Boston Aquarium or visits to Boston Common, is balanced by what has been forgotten, principally the heroism of the African American soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

Progress is marked by economic interests. These are oddly presented in the poem by orange "girdles" of girders (the sound of gird linking the two elements, one abstract, one physically real) that resonate with a mild sort of linguistic sexuality. Like undergarments, the girdles "brace the tingling Statehouse." Even the "Parking spaces luxuriate ... in the heart" of the city. Also, not much color appears in the poem except for the "orange ... pumpkin-colored girders," which are signs of industry and progress.

Prospects for change are a matter of black, white, and shades of gray: the churches, the soldiers, the photograph of the safe, the snow, and the stone statues. Addressing the issues raised by these images ensures consideration of an elusive past and a painful present. In the shades of gray are the atomic cloud, the cloud of forgetfulness that diminishes the stone effigies of past wars, and the images of children's faces, drained of color on the TV screen. Change is Colonel Shaw's wish as "he waits / for the blessèd break." It is also the poet's wish, made poignant in the repugnant alternative of a nasty past repeated in a nasty present, so easy it "slides by on grease." But the prospects for positive change are not easy.

The Poet and History

According to his memoir "91 Revere Street," Lowell recognized the pressures of history derived from his family's prominent position as American patricians. In the memoir, the poet invents, at least according to Hamilton, a Jewish ancestor as a means of resistance to the Lowells' elitist Protestantism. Whether real or invented, the existence of such an ancestor provides resistance to the family's lineage, the insistence among New England's "first families" to keep within the boundaries of their social group. The poem similarly resists notions of white purity: a "Sahara of snow" covers a ruin, and snow itself, in all its whiteness, is temporary.

Along with his resistance to the sense of eliteness that seemed to dominate family life for the Winslow-Lowells, the poet also had an ingrained sense of patriotism, a loyalty to American ideals to which his ancestors' roles as American patriarchs adhered. This doubled sense of identity, based in resistance to family history and the family's inescapable prominence in American history, emerges full blown in the "bell-cheeked" soldiers depicted in the bronze relief on Boston Common. Immortalized in bronze and resurrected in the poem, they are the bells of liberty, ringing out for equality of all. Lowell's incarceration during World War II and his public resistance to the war in Vietnam are further evidence of his willingness to lend his name, as a poet and an American patrician, to the cause.

Intractable Racism in America

As the poem plays with past and present, the theme of intractable, or uncontrollable, racism emerges. Everything graced by childhood nostalgia—the Aquarium and the Common—and everything graced by American history—the churches and statues of brave young men—are diminished by the failure of historical memory. The failure to remember can lead inexorably to the failure of racial equality. The poet's role is to serve as a voice of conscience and his poem as a catalyst to a moral conscience for all.

By rephrasing the poem's epigraph, Lowell proposes a change in focus from a narrative of a heroic leader to the story of the sacrifices of his soldiers. However, the poet does not reach an optimistic conclusion. Instead, in the poem's most lyrical moment and, certainly, one of Lowell's most memorable lines, a sort of mindless equanimity emerges as a replacement for historical memory and ethical consciousness. The mindless equanimity is compared to a countrywide traffic jam. "Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease."

The beauty of the line is fused to the ugly prospects of the conclusion: economic security and blind competition edge out ethical concerns with terrible ease. The image returns the reader to the dry fish tanks and the primitive urge to puncture the remembered bubbles of the fish that once lived and breathed. Primitive, mindless violence is recalled in the image of grunting "dinosaur steamshovels." And it is thematically returned in the bubble on which Colonel Shaw rides and the TV screen showing "drained faces of Negro school-children" that "rise like balloons." The concluding situational irony then is that industrial progress, represented by "giant finned cars," is as dangerous in its potential for unmindful menace as the processes of a primitive natural world.

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