Robert Lowell

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

‘For the Union Dead’ is a title poem of a collection by Robert Lowell with the same title published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1964. He first read it in public at the Boston Arts Festival in 1960. The title of the poem refers to Allen Tate’s 1928 poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead”. It is a confessional poem, originally titled “Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th” to commemorate Robert Gould Shaw. The poem’s epigraph, the Latin inscription, “Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam,” which means “He leaves all else to serve the republic” in English, introduces the theme of noble self-sacrifice.

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell



Robert Lowell explores the past and the present society and changing idealism in ‘For the Union Dead’. His fear and suffering concerning the society he lived are paralleled by his comparison of the past with the present.

‘For the Union Dead’, narrated by a first-person speaker, starts with Lowell’s reminiscence of his childhood memory of the Boston Aquarium. It commemorates the sacrifice of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Union officer killed while leading a regiment of black troops during the Civil War. Lowell connects his childhood and a Civil War memorial to contemporary life, including progress and civil rights. He laments the erosion of heroic idealism and increasing self-interest and greed in contemporary American society, contrasting the historic past and present. He deliberates on missing idealism as being dead among the people of America of 1963 and in the modern culture in general.

You can read the full poem here.


Theme and Setting

‘For the Union Dead’ is a tribute to those who died on the Union side of the Civil War. It further explores the themes of self-sacrifice, self-interest, greed, and idealism by contrasting the past and present. It is set in Boston, near the well-known Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Lowell’s use of the two main symbolic artifacts, the aquarium, and the Shaw Memorial, depict the transition between the two periods.


Form and Structure

‘For the Union Dead’ is written in free-verse with no set rhyme scheme and meter. It consists of seventeen quatrains of varying length. The poem’s structure helps to escape elegiac monotony which is often created in the poems of reminiscence. In the poem, Lowell’s visit to the park conjures up a series of images from the past and present. Especially his memory associated with the South Boston Aquarium, and the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that he led during the Civil War.


Literary and Poetic Devices Used

Literary Devices helps to enhance a poem’s meaning, or intensify the mood or feeling of the poet and reader. In the poem ‘For the Union Dead’ Lowell uses some devices such as simile, Personification, Alliteration, Allusion, Enjambment to create his desired effect.



Similes in the poem are mostly compared to things that are simple and potent. One comparison that the poet makes is with the fishbone where he says “The monument sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat”. Here, the poet deals with the plight of the monuments/memorials of the Civil War, which is treated by the people like a fishbone that is noticed and forgotten once its presence is removed. He tries to insist through the similes, the importance of them, how one should remember it forever. Some of the similes used in the poem: “my nose crawled like a snail on the glass,” “Parking lots luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston,” “giant finned cars nose forward like fish,” and “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons,” creates a picture of the city then and now as the poet depicts it.



Imagery in the poem also stands to deal with the loss of attention on these important monuments and their importance. The image depicted in the line, “Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage” illustrates how these monuments represent hard work, freedom, and history. The images used in “the bubbles, drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish,” “He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,/ a greyhound’s gentle tautness; he seems to wince at pleasure and suffocate for privacy,” and “Colonel Shaw is riding on his bubble” depict the richness of the historical past.



Alliteration used in a poetic line emphasizes the poet’s view or theme also helps the readers to remember. The alliteration used in the phrases, “A savage servility slides by on grease,” “frayed flags” help to develop the theme. They reiterate the idea of union. As expressed, the black men, freed from slavery are willing to fight alongside the white Union soldiers.



The poem alludes to three significant incidents from the past. First, it refers to Shaw’s death followed by an anonymous burial. Second, it discusses the Boston Memorial dedicated to Shaw and others who died for the Union. Finally, it deals with violent resistance to school integration in the contemporary United States.



Symbols used in poetry convey the tone and meaning, contextually they reflect the speaker’s through the images. In ‘For the Union Dead,’ “the bubbles,” “Colonel Shaw” and the “Monuments” significantly symbolize the poet’s intention.

Bubbles are associated with the fragility and the temporary nature of their life. In the poem, it refers to impossible dreams and existence. Bubbles in stanza 2, indicate that the fish are breathing, which means they are alive. In stanza 16, Colonel Shaw riding the bubbles, attributing to its fragile nature to pop up, symbolizes that his dreams cannot be attained.

In the poem, the reference made to Colonel Shaw is also a symbol of the ideal that has been lost. He compares the life and sacrifice of the Colonel with the modern American Society where the values are no more considered as important.

The Monuments are also used to symbolize the glorious past and the people who lived there. Especially the “old white churches” mentioned in Stanza 11, evoke the image of the past when they had people from the old white families of revolutionary history. Also, the churches hold an air of “sparse, sincere rebellion” for equality.


Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

The old South Boston Aquarium stands

in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.

The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.

The airy tanks are dry.

In the first stanza, the poet introduces the “old South Boston Aquarium” which is closed with everything rotted away. The speaker immediately launches into a memory of a past, paralleling his memory in the Aquarium.   He emphasis on the loss and decrepitude through the simple words such as  “broken” and “boarded,” the weathervane’s scales are “lost,” and the fish tanks are “airy” and “dry. The poet’s choice of adjectives evokes a sense of melancholy with everything ruined and bare.


Stanzas Three and Four

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.


fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,

yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting

as they cropped up tons of mush and grass

to gouge their underworld garage.

In the second and third stanza, the speaker recollects his childhood visit to the aquarium. He speaks of his experience of peering into the tanks, his great excitement, as his hand “tingled to burst the bubbles.” These rising bubbles represent the fish as trapped and submissive, “cowed, compliant.” He further elucidates historical regression through the image of “sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile.” Indirectly, through this image, he suggests that, like the fish and reptile kingdom, the kingdom of humans is also becoming darker, and less noble.

The poet further speaks of the “new barbed and galvanized/ fence on the Boston Common,” which indicates his attitude towards contemporary life. Compared to the grandeur past, what is “new” is particularly ugly and menacing, and the “fence” seems to split the Boston Common, where people usually congregate. Now, in the same place, bulldozers, metaphorically described as “dinosaur[s]” dig up the earth, build the underground garage. For the speaker, the contemporary scene, evoke a prehistoric, animalistic world.


Stanzas Five and Six

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic

sandpiles in the heart of Boston.


and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry

on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,

propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

In these stanzas five and six, the poet speaks of the poem’s central figure: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Particularly, it speaks of a memorial to him by Augustus St. Gaudens. During the Civil War, Colonel Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an all-black squad, and got killed in that. In the following stanza, the poet elaborates the basic contrast between the idealism the soldiers displayed and contemporary society’s struggle to construct more parking spaces. In the line, where he discusses their effort to stabilize the monument with a “plank splint,” well explains their consideration for the history of the monument commemorates.


Stanzas Seven to Nine

Two months after marching through Boston,

half the regiment was dead;

at the dedication,

William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.


he seems to wince at pleasure,

and suffocate for privacy.

These stanzas again contrast Boston’s present with its past. He refers to William James’s comment at the monument “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe” which gives a sense of deep appreciation and respect for the soldiers’ heroism and sacrifice. But, generations later, it “sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat,” which gives a sense of discomfort than reverence.  Moreover, in Lowell’s depiction, Shaw seems to be at unease with the public role “he seems to wince at pleasure, / and suffocate for privacy.”


Stanzas Ten to Twelve

He is out of bounds now. 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.


The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier

grow slimmer and younger each year—

wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets

and muse through their sideburns . . .

In stanza 10, Lowell speaks of the colonel being “out of bounds now.” Literally, it could mean that he is dead and beyond the bounds of life. When looked closer, he refers to the indifference of the people in the contemporary age. In a situation “to choose life and die” Shaw acted humanely, his victory was earned at the cost of his own life. The following two stanzas give a bird’s-eye view of New England. Civil War seems to recede into the New England landscape of “small-town New England greens,” “white churches,” and the monument. Even the bronze soldiers appear to “grow slimmer and younger each year.” In these images, he speaks of the things that are fading from the flags in the graveyards to the Civil War.


Stanza Thirteen

Shaw’s father wanted no monument

except the ditch,

where his son’s body was thrown

and lost with his “niggers.”

In stanza 16, the speaker returns to the Colonel, idealizing his sacrifice and culture that commemorated his actions as noble. Also, he brings up the image of the colonel’s body thrown and lost amidst all the other “niggers” who fought beside him. One could see the tone shifts and the language becoming sparse and conversational.


Stanzas Fourteen and Fifteen

The ditch is nearer.

There are no statues for the last war here;


When I crouch to my television set,

the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

These stanzas fourteen and fifteen present a series of images of twentieth-century life. “The ditch is nearer,” refers to where Shaw and the black soldiers were hastily buried. Further, the stanza explains how technological advancements pave way for the possibility of mass killing. Further, being an objector to World War II, Lowell tells us how war has become more terrible and less worthy of commemoration. He mentions a commercial photograph that featured World War II, not a civic monument. On the other hand, he compares the image of various space explorations “Space is nearer,” with the image of the drained faces of Negro school-children”. The image recalls the difficulties civil rights activists faced and the hostility African-American schoolchildren encountered when trying to integrate schools.


Stanzas Sixteen and Seventeen

Colonel Shaw

is riding on his bubble,


a savage servility

slides by on grease.

In the concluding stanzas, the speaker is back in the present. He brings back the image of Colonel Shaw. The colonel seems to be riding his bubble. The bubbles metaphorically refer to Shaw’s dreams or Ideals that no longer have value among the present time people.  He is in a place where the aquarium was once present, but, gone now. And, all he sees are “giant finned cars” with “nose forward like fish”. These cars have replaced the fish of the Aquarium which seem to serve no purpose for the contemporary people. Unlike then, now, everything has a purpose for the sake of capitalism. The “savage servility” refers to the way capitalism made its way through the world. Like the “the cowed, compliant fish” in the second stanza, here, the people are driven by technology. Ironically, the speaker presents how mankind has become even more savage than these animals.


Historical Context

‘For the Union Dead’ written in 1964 alludes to various situations in the 1960s. He captures the sense of fear and danger, caused by the possibility of impending nuclear war and the Civil Rights Movement both were gathering force and momentum. The year after Lowell read the poem on the Boston Common, the Soviet Union and the United States came perilously close to nuclear war. Luckily, after tense negotiations, the Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba. Another major aspect referred to in the poem is “the Civil Rights Movement.” In stanza 15, the speaker declares that he is watching “the drained faces of Negro school-children.” Possibly, it could be a reference to the nine students who integrated Arkansas’ Little Rock High School in 1957. Or, the black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, who protested segregated lunch counters by staging sit-ins.


Similar Poetry

Lowell’s poems are confessional in nature. For he speaks about the world as he has seen it. Also, he has written about several historical figures and literary persona’s in his poem.  Moreover, poems like “Fall 1961” combines his personal and public concerns as he speaks of his fear of nuclear war in them. You can read some of the poems of Lowell to understand his writing better.

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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