“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”

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.

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. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

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.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
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.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gently tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

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.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

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 …

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the bless’d break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Robert Lowell's poem For the Union Dead


  1. Rob says:

    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.

  2. Susan Jeswine O'Shea says:

    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.

  3. linda says:

    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.)

  4. Bobby Fong says:

    And people who dissect, deconstruct and dissect poems and talk about “clarity and form” are cadavers. It’s the vision, the evocation and the language that make this great – and other people might enjoy the clarity and form. Asses. Asses. Asses. This is art, you ass. How dare you defile it with your base pedantry. Go become a statistician; it would serve you better.

  5. Ryan says:

    This poem is hell of sweet. What a poet: he’s off the chain. Deeeyamn!

  6. Jeffrey says:

    I must say that I disagree with what Peter Alcibiades had to say about “For the Union Dead.” He is criticizing both the poem for its ambiguity and America for loving that ambiguity. Well, perhaps I am falling into the American standard, but isn’t ambiguity most of poetry? I mean interpretation should be left to the reader. The objective correlative was correctly used in this case, instilling in readers a sense of hopelessness through imagery and metaphors. As for alcoholism and madness of the time, perhaps Robert Lowell’s poetry would not be the same without his mental instability; perhaps William Faulkner, one of the most revered writers of all time, would not have written what he did write without alcohol, as he confessed that he wrote most of The Sound and the Fury (no underline, sorry) under the influence. As for “For the Union Dead,” the ambiguity used makes the poem what it is, criticized, loved, and, perhaps most importantly, famous (more famous than Peter from Belarus).

  7. Peter Alcibiades says:

    The poem compares two sets of things, the present decayed political and social environment to that of an idealised past, where the Union armies were raised and fought, and the present that the narrator sees compared to the vision he had of the same place through his eyes as a child. The verdict on the environment is clear, and occurs in the last four lines. The significance of the contrast between the present and childhood visions is not so clear – one has the sense that the author himself doesn’t really know what he is trying to say. There is a sense of regret, but of what is not clear.

    It is a widely admired poem, but is it a good one? Probably not. What is missing is clarity and form. Clarity of meaning, and the economy and intensity of expression that form gives. The problem with this sort of free verse is that there are few constraints. It is not an accident that it flourished in a country where Protestantism in its later stages substituted impulse for conscience, and a purely personal conscience for what had been a sense of objective right or wrong. This same movement of spirit allowed ‘poetry’ to be written simply by inspecting the momentary feeling of rightness or wrongness of the lines. There was no other standard.

    How unsurprising then, writing and living by arbitrariness, that the poets of this era fell prey to alcohol, drugs and madness. Some of this threat appears in the poem’s slightly brittle surface, a sense of menace and dissatisfaction that the author has found it impossible to place or account for in the ostensible subject matter.

  8. tony says:

    great poem that i feel embodies what we want

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