Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back.
Here the speaker slips in and out of his memories. The withdrawal of his hand in the present tense indicates that he feels the same as he did years ago. These lines also introduce elements that become important in the coming stanzas. The "tingling" is echoed in the construction the narrator describes soon after, and Lowell's use of the words "cowed, compliant" to describe the fish later becomes problematic when a similar scene likens Black children in the Civil Rights Movement to those fish.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
This scene does not immediately clarify that Colonel Shaw and his soldiers are part of a monument. Once that becomes clear, the construction that shakes them seems inherently disrespectful. A plank props it up, suggesting that the monument could topple over without support. The description of the Statehouse compares it to a pumpkin and to undergarments. One would think that the Statehouse would look appropriately stately, but nothing surrounding the relief seems to share its gravity.
at the dedication, William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
This line shows how impactful the relief was at its dedication. Now, in contrast, the relief only moves to shake in the excavation.
When I crouch to my television set, the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
First, the word "crouch" indicates that the speaker is debasing himself; he criticizes the way media monetizes and misuses its content, but he too participates. Secondly, the way the children's faces "rise like balloons" recalls the bubbles from the first stanza at the Aquarium. Since he called the fish "cowed [and] compliant," this echo seems repulsive. However, perhaps Lowell linked the images to show the ways in which the children are not like those fish; if they had been compliant, they would not have shown up on the speaker's television. They look "drained" because they have been fighting.
Everywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease.
The "savage servility" appears among the cars in the street, moving easily. The speaker tells the readers that this is happening everywhere. Comparing the cars to the compliant fish from the first stanza is an apt choice; cars are the heart of American culture. They symbolize individualism and wealth; they also represent the country's greed for oil, a pursuit that has had vast repercussions globally.
For the Union Dead Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for For the Union Dead is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.