This poem mentions the Civil War and World War II. It seems that the Civil War, in particular, is on the speaker's mind due to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement that he observes on the television. The speaker is not a participant but an observer; his distance is doubled because he observes one war through a monument, another through an advertisement. However, the poem, which ends with the speaker ominously describing an ordinary American street, seems to indicate that, though the speaker is not personally involved in these wars, by being an American he lives in their wake, and that this is something Americans may be trying to forget. "Their monument sticks like a fishbone/in the city's throat," he says. The monument and what it represents will not disappear, but the statues seem to be getting thinner, wasting away.
The speaker understands that racial prejudice still exists. This poem is a tribute to those who died on the Union side of the Civil War. The poem offers no resolution; Shaw continues to ride his bubble, waiting for it to break. The question remains if the speaker has dealt with his own underlying prejudices, if he has put in effort to identify the ways racism has influenced his way of thinking. In this poem he refers to black people only in groups, never as individuals. White characters like William James and Colonel Shaw's father, on the other hand, get to pop up for a line or a stanza, then vanish again.
However, he does make a few small steps. For instance, by referring to the black children specifically as "school-children," he may be nodding to the Little Rock Nine, the nine black students who challenged the segregation of schools starting in 1957. He recognizes how tired their struggle has left them. All the same, this poem seems to represent an evolved form of the same racism it criticizes. The black soldiers on the relief look so real that they seem to be breathing, but they are not real enough to have individual identities.
The speaker decries capitalism for using atrocities to make money, and for failing to support institutions like the Aquarium. At the same time, the speaker is undeniably part of this capitalist society; he watches TV and is familiar enough with advertisements to find them upsetting. The "savage servility" that "slides by on grease" seems to reference how capitalism has made people obedient, and dumbed them down; the "grease," which could be a reference to increasing popularity of fast food in the 1960s, or the ubiquity of automobiles in midcentury America, also links present problems to capitalism. Either way, this "grease" smooths things out and quiets people down, rendering the "savage servility" silent.
The servility is already on the street with the speaker; it needs no help infiltrating America. The speaker has no set course of action to reverse this capitalist passivity, but he feels that forgetting past heroes and atrocities will risk immobilizing society and making violence the norm.
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.