For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead Literary Elements

Speaker or Narrator, and Point of View

Speaker/Lowell: a middle-aged man in Boston in the 1960s

Form and Meter

Free verse

Metaphors and Similes


"The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now."
This metaphor comes off a little oddly; there is no reason for the narrator to specifically name the desert he is comparing the snow to. This choice seems to be based on sound. By pushing two polar opposites together in a metaphor, however, Lowell readies the reader for the other sharp contrasts in this poem.


"Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;"
This simile is appropriate given the context of the aquarium, and it breaks the reader out of the rather joyless pattern of the first stanza.

"Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat."
This simile is significant because it indicates how, in the present day, the monument is a piece of history that cannot easily be digested, but that the city and its people might rather forget. The fishbone also recalls the Aquarium.

Alliteration and Assonance


"sparse, sincere rebellion"
double /s/ sound

"Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break."
repetition of the /b/ sound

"savage servility"
double /s/ sound

"wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . ."
double of /w/ sound, double /m/ sound


"The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier"
repetition of the long /a/ sound, once in "statues" and twice in "abstract"

"Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle."
repetition of the long /e/ sound







Nostalgic and wary of the future

Protagonist and Antagonist

Colonel Shaw and the speaker are this poem's protagonists. Their antagonist is passivity as a response to atrocities.

Major Conflict

The conflict in this poem is between the new and the old. The speaker fears what will happen once people forget the bloodiness of the civil war. He sees that Hiroshima has quickly been incorporated into pop culture. The speaker wishes to resist the swell of capitalism and commercialization, because, with them, anything becomes fair game for monetization, even atrocities and violence. However, he does not indicate that he has found any tangible or effective ways of protesting capitalism in real life. He watches TV in a crouch; he observes construction sites in Boston.


This poem comes to a head in the fourteenth and fifteenth stanzas, where the speaker describes the Mosler advertisement. Directly after this description, the speaker says, "Space is nearer." By saying so, he suggests that the rewards of technological advancement are still feeble and intangible, while the cost—the lives lost to the atom bombs—is unfathomably large. The advertisement echoes earlier monuments to war but perverts them, and its existence acts as proof of the "savage servility" that the speaker sees in his society.


"The ditch is nearer."
Though Shaw's father wants the ditch memorialized, this line reads menacingly; the ditch feels like an enemy drawing closer. This may be foreshadowing the "savage servility" that Americans have become accustomed to.



"When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."
This may be a reference to the Little Rock Nine.

Metonymy and Synecdoche


"Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston."

Here Lowell uses the word "luxuriate" to indicate that these new parking spaces are not a necessity.