For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does the Boston Aquarium relate to the monument that the speaker describes?

    The Aquarium appears first as a reference to the speaker's childhood. The description of the fish as "cowed, compliant" endows them with a sinister energy. The final lines of the poem return to the present, when the Aquarium is gone, but the hint of the servility that the speaker saw in the school of fish he now sees in his surroundings.

    The closing of the Aquarium and the explosion of "giant" cars could both be associated with capitalism, which makes sustaining an Aquarium difficult and creates a culture of consumerism that mass-produces disposable items. Lowell's descriptions of the Civil War monument are written reverentially, and in this way it parallels the Aquarium; the parallel continues because they are both now desiccated due to cultural shifts.

  2. 2

    What is the speaker's attitude toward the continuing struggle for racial equality in America?

    The speaker gravely observes the Civil Rights movement, but though his tone implies sympathy for the black children he sees on TV, he does not actively participate. When he says, "Colonel Shaw/is riding on his bubble,/he waits/for the blessèd break," he seems to say that the cause Colonel Shaw died for has still not been won; the protests he watches, and the children's drained faces, reflect this.

    Though the speaker is right to point out the continuation of racial inequality, his view may be skewed; this poem suggests that he feels like the movement for equality has stagnated since the monument was created, thanks to a cultural shift that trivializes tragedy. But despite the magnificence of the monument, and the effort that went to it—apparently the artists spent about 14 years on it—can such a work represent the pinnacle of the movement for racial equality? The relief has a white man and his horse as its focus, and besides, it seems unlikely that one piece of art can represent the attitudes of an entire period. Also, the Civil War was not fought primarily for the wellbeing of black Americans, so it seems misguided to imply that the views of that time period were superior to modern ones. However, this poem still stands as a critique, though limited, of how the shape of war has changed and how people, in particular U.S. citizens who often benefit from violent conflict but never see it in their own country, have been desensitized.

  3. 3

    What is this poem's attitude toward technological advancement and the rise of commercialism?

    The speaker here seems to distrust the technological advancements made in the century leading up to this poem's creation. Part of this distrust is manifested in his attitude toward the construction of the garage in the Boston Commons; his tone suggests that he finds its construction disrespectful to the Civil War monument whose stillness it disturbs. The speaker also observes the care with which the relief was made, describing the attitude the artist gave the central figure, Colonel Shaw, with a reverent tone. The bronze characters, which are aging, the narrator aligns with "the old white churches" that "hold their air/of sparse, sincere rebellion." Society threatens to forget these things with the passing of time. In alluding to the protests for the rights of African-Americans, the narrator suggests that the continued need for these struggles is partially due to the short and fickle memory of American society, which has greatly expanded American markets but has led to heartless commercialism, such as the advertisement for safes that shows one surviving the bomb in Hiroshima.

  4. 4

    The speaker of this poem is always distanced from his subjects; he has only seen the Union Soldiers in statues and reliefs, he observes fish through the glass in the Aquarium, and he watches coverage of the Civil Rights Movement on television. Does he do enough to acknowledge this distance?

    This speaker does not hide his distance from his subjects. He feels connected to his memories of the Aquarium, but his only direct experiences in this poem are when he observes the construction in the Boston Commons, and his observations of the cars in the final stanza. Yet this poem feels extremely personal, with the speaker immersing himself in the relief. His empathy and passion for the Civil Rights movement sound sincere, but he does not experience what the black school-children on television do. Perhaps they would understand the relief differently.

  5. 5

    Analyze the line, "The ditch is nearer." Is this a hopeful moment, or a warning?

    The speaker does not clarify what "the ditch" represents beyond the death of the Colonel and his men. The line feels ominous, signifying something looming more closely than it did in the 1800s. By following this moment with the echo "space is nearer" and mentions of atomic bombs, the speaker hints at a fear that technological advances have outpaced social advances, and that persistent oppressive structures and intolerant attitudes—which have led to mass death in the past—may lead to tragedy again in the future.