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Analysis and comments on For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

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Comment 9 of 35, added on December 17th, 2009 at 11:38 AM.

Lowell ties in the yet unresolved issues of the Civil War with the mindless
consumerism that grips the nation in his poem, “For the Union Dead”. One
of Lowell’s best-known works, Union Dead is a multi-layered poem set in the
heart of Boston. On the surface, it is an elegy to the heroic
Massachusetts 54. The soldiers fought with valor and moral integrity while
trying to preserve the Union and end slavery. A closer examination reveals
a country that blindly worships Capitalism. Following consumerism alone
has left the country directionless. Lowell watches the steam shovels at
work and comments that avarice is literally and figuratively shaking the
Massachusetts Statehouse, “Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in
the heart of Boston. A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse.” Lowell is nostalgic for the Boston of his
youth and for a country, real or imagined, whose moral integrity was
intact. Lowell is raising an objection to a country that commodifies the
nuclear age, he objects to the new realism; he objects to the triumph of
commercialism over morality, he objects to a country that has forsaken
spirituality for physicality: “On Boylston Street a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling over a Mosler safe, the “Rock of Ages” that
survived the blast. Space is nearer.” The space that Lowell speaks of is
just that- Nothingness. Extinction of the human race will be the cost if
we cannot move to higher moral ground.

Rob from United States
Comment 8 of 35, added on January 13th, 2009 at 12:31 AM.

Lowell wasn't trying to write a sentimental glorification of war, but to
comment on how a consumerist America thought parking lots more important.
What's "mediocre" isn't the poem, it's the people who in savage servility
slide by on grease.

Edward G. Nilges from United States
Comment 7 of 35, added on August 17th, 2008 at 6:55 PM.

Peter's comments helped me see what I was struggling with as I studied this
poem. I particularly thrilled to his insight into the function of form:
"What is missing is clarity and form; clarity of meaning, and the economy
and intensity of expression that form gives. " --- Linda's comments are
just beautifully written, with a charming liveliness and presence, that
adorn her fine (expansion of Peter's?) essay. I was pleased, too, with her
firm distinction between the events addressed by the poem and the poem
itself. --- I do agree with both writers and was disappointed by the poem
itself; it strikes me as quite sophomoric, actually. --- Thank you all very
much for entering my life thus and, thus, enhancing it.

Susan Jeswine O'Shea from United States
Comment 6 of 35, added on March 29th, 2008 at 11:35 AM.

Funny how many of these comments were written in spring. In the harshness
of a New England spring, the place where I sit writing this, the weather is
both glorious and raw. It is much like Lowell's poem, the movie "Glory" and
the romance attached to the Mass 54.
The romance is earned but then, I am a romantic. Dr. King once wrote that
he would be just as dead at 80 as 30 so whynot die for something you
believe in. He, too, a romantic.
And a pragmatist of the highest order.
As it happens, I am married to a Shaw descendent, named after the good
colonel, actually. And I worked beside a descendant of the Mass. 54th
flag-bearer. William Carney. No one mentions him here or in the poem
although Carney was the first African American to win a Congressional Medal
of Honor for his bravery at Wagner.
But you can google Carney on your own.
About Lowell's poem, well, I agree with Belarus. It is mediocre. But the
subject is glorious. I will not get the two confused. The poem rambles.
Yes, ambiguity is a poet's lance, however, the ambiguous is made clear in
a good poem: an idea, a feeling is caught and held together.
Lowell is miserable and bitter. At least, that's the poet's voice in a poem
that links urban life in the 1960s to a historic event far greater than
bull-dozers digging up Boston Common.
What is Lowell saying? That he finds complaint in everything. What does he
seem to say about the 54th? That the only name worth mentioning is Shaw's
(Frederick Douglass had 2 sons in this company). That his father preferred
the ditch. So did his mother. They both felt the son would have chosen that
"honor" of being buried with his men in that fashion at that time.
History is buried there: the cultural slights of a time of racism and
gentlemanly behavior meeting on a battleground. A different history is in
that grave than just who won and lost.
Lowell's poem is a good idea but it is not a good poem.
(Note: MLK's speech before the march on Selma, may have the referenced ages
wrong but the point is the same.)

linda from United States

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Information about For the Union Dead

Poet: Robert Lowell
Poem: For the Union Dead
Volume: Life Studies and For the Union Dead
Year: 1964
Added: Oct 29 2004
Viewed: 3780 times

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