The first stanza of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” introduces the readers to the “old South Boston Aquarium.” Here, everything has rotted away. The building is old, and the weathervane is rusty.
The speaker immediately launches into a memory of a past moment, when he was in the aquarium. Then he returns to present tense and thinks wistfully of the aquarium.
The speaker slips in time again, thinking of a moment parallel to his memory in the Aquarium; this time he was pressed against the “barbed and galvanized” fence, looking in on construction.
The next stanza describes the city, then seems to slide back in time again. Moments later the speaker makes it clear that he is looking at a bronze relief that faces the Statehouse. Then the speaker imagines a moment further back in time, when the philosopher William James stands at the dedication of the monument, thinking of the black soldiers of the regiment who are being honored. He describes the Colonel, and how the bronze relief “sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.”
The next two stanzas describe the Colonel, projecting a wide array of emotions onto him. He is sensitive to his circumstances, and the way that he “seems to wince at pleasure” implies that he is humble, a likable character. The second stanza about him, however, introduces a menacing edge. He has no fear of death and leads his soldier to it; when he does so, Lowell says, “he cannot bend his back.”
The speaker then spends a stanza describing New England from a bird's-eye view. To him, the white old churches still have the spirit of rebellion that they once did, but these things are fading; the flags in the graveyards from the Civil War are fraying.
The speaker returns to the Colonel, commenting on how time is wearing away at these monuments. He then brings up the Colonel's father, saying that he wanted only to know where his son died. "The ditch is nearer," the speaker says, but does not provide any other information.
The speaker returns to Boston, pointing out that there are no monuments to World War II. Images of the war are for used for commercial reasons, like an advertisement the narrator sees that shows a safe surviving the bomb at Hiroshima. The speaker then returns to the phrase "The ditch is nearer," saying, "Space is nearer." This line, however, seems to refer to the advances made in aviation technology in the 50s and 60s.
The speaker then thinks of "Negro school-children" he has seen on TV; this image calls to mind the Little Rock Nine, though he could be referring to another moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The speaker says that their faces rise like "balloons," and this imagery continues into the next stanza, where the Colonel is "riding on his bubble," and "[waiting] for the blessèd break." That bubble, and those balloons, do not break.
In the next stanza, the speaker is back in the present, on the street. He watches "giant finned cars" that "nose forward like fish." They have replaced the fish at the beginning of the poem, who seemed to serve no purpose. Like the image of Hiroshima selling a brand of safes, now everything has a purpose for the sake of capitalism; the "savage servility" seems to refer to the way capitalism has broken the world to its will. Things that are not monetarily productive, like aquariums and monuments, make way for something else.
The first stanza of this poem is in the passive voice, and its imagery is straightforward and descriptive. “[The South Boston Aquarium’s] broken windows are boarded./The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales./The airy tanks are dry,” the speaker says in a tone that borders on boring. He does not place blame for the Aquarium’s state. In this stanza, the last two lines are two complete sentences.
The next stanza breaks out of this mold of one sentence per line, stretching one sentence unequally over four lines. “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,” the speaker says, and by giving the two middle lines room to breathe and breaking the first stanza’s monotony, he is able to convey a memory of his youthful wonder.
However, when the narrator describes the fish as “cowed, compliant,” a slightly menacing note creeps in. A child might enjoy seeing obedient animals at an aquarium or zoo, but as an adult revisiting these memories, the image of wild animals obedient to and contained by humans is slightly unnerving. The word “cowed” indicates that the fish have been given something to be frightened of, and “compliant” lends a sense of defeat.
Regardless, the speaker pops back into the present tense; he has reached out his hand like he did in the memories. He calls the Aquarium a “kingdom” and gives it no more negative connotations. He then recalls a moment more recently, since the Aquarium’s closing, where he “pressed against the new barbed and galvanized/fence on the Boston Common.” The word “press” likens this moment to the one from his childhood where he pressed against the glass, but pressing one’s body against a barbed and possibly electrified fence evokes different sensations. He imagines the fence as a cage for the “yellow dinosaur steamshovels.” This memory acts as a perversion of his memories from the Aquarium. Additionally, the “underworld garage” that the shovels dig up recalls the “dark downward and vegetating kingdom” from the previous stanza, but the garage does not bring the same joy.
The next stanza begins with the speaker saying that parking spaces in Boston “luxuriate like civic sandpiles.” This seems to indicate that they are too common to be useful. The speaker looks at the Statehouse, which is “tingling” like his hand from his childhood. Instead of tingling from excitement, however, the Statehouse is being shaken by nearby excavations.
The speaker then introduces “Colonel Shaw/and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry.” By not immediately revealing that these characters are figures on a monument, the speaker briefly lets the reader imagine the regiment, alive, standing before the Statehouse. The speaker continues, saying that these characters are “on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief/propped up by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.” From these lines the readers can gather that the relief is unstable and that the nearby construction is threatening its existence; metaphorically, it seems that progress threatens to wipe out important memories of a gruesome past. The word “splint” is usually used to describe the way a broken bone is set to heal, and here it furthers the sense of instability around the relief.
The next stanza reveals the regiment’s fate, which was mostly death, and in the same sentence moves to the monument's dedication ceremony. The speaker also moves into the mind of William James, who “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” This shows that the relief’s historical significance was still palpable at the dedication.
The speaker moves back to the present, where the monument “sticks like a fishbone/in the city’s throat.” This simile indicates that the city is now uncomfortable with the monument. Lowell follows this descriptive simile with another one, saying, “Its Colonel is as lean/as a compass-needle.” This pushes him into the same shape as the fishbone, and the mention of the compass suggests that the Colonel has a strong sense of morality.
The next stanza continues with two more similes, saying that the Colonel has “an angry wrenlike vigilance,/a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” These seem to be positive attributes, but the speaker is far removed from the actual Colonel. “[H]e seems to wince at pleasure/and suffocate for privacy,” the speaker says, now projecting not just physical attributes but personality traits. By trying to breathe life into the monument, however, the speaker may be trying to emphasize the relief’s historical importance.
The next stanza begins with the line, “He is out of bounds now.” Compared to most of this poem, this moment is abstract and ambiguous. It may refer to the Colonel's death or to how he flouted social conventions by taking on the leadership of an all-black regiment. The line also might be self-referential, a way for the speaker to point out how the character, a statue, has leaped back into life for this poem.
Continuing, the speaker says of the Colonel, “He rejoices in man’s lovely,/peculiar power to choose life and die—/when he leads his black soldiers to death,/he cannot bend his back.” This is an unusual statement coming from the usually anti-war Lowell, for it glorifies the act of dying in a war for something greater than one’s self. Perhaps the positive light the speaker sheds on this is because his death equalized him to the black soldiers in his regiment, and because this fight was worth winning. The line “he cannot bend his back” recalls the straight rigidity of the fishbone and the compass-needle from earlier in the work and resolves those moments as genuine indicators of the Colonel’s bravery and righteousness.
The speaker then pans out, looking at how spirit like the Colonel’s has fizzled in New England. The “old white churches” still have some of their rebellious spirit, but it is “sparse.” The flags in the Civil War graveyards are frayed. This stanza makes clear that the memories of the fight for the Republic are fading in the landscape.
The next stanza says, “The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier/grow slimmer and younger each year…” This is not a reference to the relief of Colonel Shaw, which the speaker mentions is made of bronze, but to the general population of statues, which grows smaller and younger as the oldest are steadily destroyed. The use of the word “abstract,” however, points to how the characters in the monuments are mere abstractions of the real soldiers, rendered to look a certain way and inspire a certain feeling. The speaker does not explicitly say so, but the way he describes Colonel Shaw presents him as the very image of bravery and morality, abstracting him out of his humanity.
Lowell plays with the idea of the statues growing “slimmer and younger,” saying that the statues are becoming “wasp-waisted” and are falling asleep over their muskets.
The final line in this stanza says the thinning soldiers “muse through their sideburns.” It seems that these soldiers, too, are out of bounds, falling out of their physical outlines. The word “muse” and the ellipses that ends the stanza suggest that these statues are also decaying in spirit, becoming dreamy and incorporeal.
In the next stanza the speaker thinks of the Colonel’s father, who “wanted no monument/except the ditch,/where his son’s body was thrown/and lost with his ‘niggers.’” Though only the offensive word is in quotations, this stanza seems to indicate Shaw’s father’s attitude. He wanted no monument but the location of his son's grave. The use of the word “his” to refer to the Colonel’s soldiers comes across as derogatory and careless, reminding the reader of the attitudes of white people during this time, while also recalling the tragic reality of this battle, where many lives were lost.
The speaker then seems to follow Shaw's father's desire, saying, “The ditch is nearer.” However, he then goes on to describe how an advertisement he saw for a brand of safes used an image of Hiroshima to demonstrate the safes’ indestructibility, saying, “There are no statues for the last war here.” He does not say what the ditch is nearer to; this line is one of the most evasive and perplexing in the poem. Perhaps by saying, “The ditch is nearer,” the narrator means that, because now images of war are commercialized and not memorialized, society is less humane and more violent than it once was. However, this rings false, because Hiroshima was a massacre, not a skirmish. One could interpret “The ditch is nearer” to mean that death is easier to perpetrate on a large scale than ever before, and the Mosler advertisement shows that people are desensitized to mass destruction.
This moment is echoed in the next stanza, where the speaker says, “Space is nearer,” referring to the accelerating "Space Race" that was occuring in the 1960s. This obsession with the future might obliterate a recent and vicious past.
The two final lines of this stanza recall, more feebly this time, the speaker’s memory at the Aquarium, but now he is crouching in front of his television set, and instead of bubbles, the faces of black school-children on the news “rise like balloons.” The speaker’s “crouch” signifies a loss of power on his part. He describes the children’s faces as “drained” but makes no move to liken them to the “cowed, compliant” fish. Instead he is the one who is cowed and compliant in front of his television. Again he wishes he could break through the glass, but again he can't, and this time that may be due to his complicity as an observer of racism.
This is the first time in the poem that the speaker describes someone black, for he ignores the black soldiers on the relief. This seems like an oversight typical of a white man writing poetry in the 1960s. By describing their faces as “drained,” however, he acknowledges the length of the battle for Civil Rights, which seems on track to outlive the stone monuments.
The Colonel, too, rises on a bubble, waiting “for the blessèd break.” It seems most likely that the “break” is the end of racial inequality.
In the final stanza, the speaker returns fully to present-day Boston, where the Aquarium is gone and “giant finned cars” search for parking spots. The narrator observes “a savage servility” that joins the cars, sliding by "on grease," which possibly refers to America's insatiable thirst for oil. This moment recalls the speaker's crouch in front of the television and the advertisement depicting Hiroshima. He mourns society's desensitization to violence and protests increasing commercialization because he fears real value will be replaced by monetary value.
Lowell is less self-critical in this poem than he usually is, and this is a shame. When memorializing the soldiers on the relief, he focuses almost entirely on the one white man. This poem criticizes modern society for becoming passive to violence and racism and praises the Union soldiers who fought, but it ignores the fact that those who fought for the Union were not necessarily in favor of racial equality; there were many economic and political reasons to be anti-slavery and pro-Union. He fails to recognize this, and he fails to question his impulse to focus so heavily on the white soldier and barely mention the black soldiers depicted on the same monument.
This poem has no rhyme scheme and no set meter; this allows the poem to escape elegiac monotony. Each stanza uses four lines, but the line lengths vary. The poem looks long and thin on the page, not unlike the fishbone or the compass-needle it describes.