For the Union Dead Poem by Robert Lowell Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


“For the Union Dead” is a collection of poems that were personal to Robert Lowell. The poem “For the Union Dead” was written for a Boston Art festival by Lowell. 

About the Poet 

Robert Lowell was an American Poet from Boston. His poetry was characterised by Heavy imagery, symbolism, Christian motifs and historical references. 


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.

The poet begins the poem by introducing the readers to the old South Boston Aquarium. This Aquarium, he describes, is now in shackles with broken windows that are boarded and the bronze weathervane cod that has lost half of its scales. It suggests that the cod fish is in mid-air.

The poet uses a passive voice to describe the aquarium’s state. He then adds that the tanks that used to be full of water, are now dry. This tells that the aquarium is not looked after and needs proper maintenance. 

The poet uses contrasting elements to emphasise the condition of the aquarium. He says the aquarium stands in the “Sahara of snow”. Sahara is a desert in Africa, where it never snows. This gives the readers the idea of the aquarium being a wasteland. 

Stanza Two

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.

In the next stanza, the poet shares his nostalgic experience of visiting the same aquarium. He describes how when he was young, he was fascinated by aquariums, so much so that he mushed his face on the glass to watch the fish up close. He proclaims it as crawling his nose like a snail on the glass. 

The speaker also had an urge to “burst the bubbles”, these bubbles that rise up from noses of the fish shows their “cowed” and “compliant” nature, ie. the submissive and cowardly nature of fish in an aquarium. 

Stanza Three and Four 

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.

In Stanza three and four, the speaker compares the animal world to the human world. He starts by saying how he pulls his hand back and signs still for the dark downfall of fish and reptile’s kingdom. Ie. the animal world. In the same stanza, the speaker talks about the time when he pressed against the “new” barbed and galvanised fence in March. 

He continues in the next stanza that the fence was at the Boston Common. This is where people often gather together but it is now barbed which is like being caged. In the next lines, the speaker describes “yellow dinosaur” which refers to bulldozers that are used for construction along with steam shovels. But except for construction, it’s actually used for destruction of the mush and the grass to make an underworld garage. 

These two stanzas depict the dark turn and the downfall of civilization according to the speaker, which is compared to the vegetating animal kingdom. It shows historical regression, contemporary life and its attitudes of the bestial world. 

Stanza Five and Six

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.

The next stanza describes the luxurious parking spaces in the city that are now just sandpiles during the construction. The next lines display a play of words by the poet. A girdle of orange, ie. undergarment women wear and girders, ie. supporting beams used for construction that braces the statehouse. Puritan-pumpkin refers to the Puritan population of boston.

The shaking in the next stanza refers to the construction work and the trembles it causes. The poet mentions that this shaking is in front of Colonel Shaw, ie. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who served in the Civil War as an  incharge of the 54th all-black infantry. 

The statue of Colonel Shaw that was sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is shaking. The statue is propped by a plank splint, which is careless and inconsiderate towards the prevention of this monument.  This again shows the contrast between the contemporary society’s struggle for parking spaces vs the sacrificed lives of soldiers in war and their idealism. 

Stanza Seven and eight 

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.

The seventh stanza again leaps through time and takes the readers back to the time of the war. The poet describes how two months after marching through Boston, the regiment lost half of its members in the war. 

In the next line, “at the dedication”, the poem again leaps in time to the unveiling of the monument memorial where William James, a famous philosopher in Boston, delivered a heart-felt speech which is quoted by the poet in the poem. 

The next stanza shows how the city is not grateful and as generations go by, the memorial sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat. The speaker describes the Colonel as lean as a compass-needle. It can mean the statue stands as sharp as a compass needle or as inclined as the needle on a compass. 

Stanza Nine 

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,

a greyhound's gentle tautness;

he seems to wince at pleasure,

and suffocate for privacy.

The poet describes Colonel Shaw a vigilant and angry wren with gentle tautness of a greyhound. The poet describes his personality as reserved, who winces at pleasure and suffocates for privacy. 

Stanza Ten 

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.

Stanza 10 proclaims how Colonel Shaw is out of bounds of life, meaning he is dead. He rejoices in the choice he made of life and death, fighting and dying for his country. The poet says how Shaw’s back is unable to bend when leading his black soldiers to death. 

This shows the hardships of war. It can also suggest the burden of responsibilities and possibly burden of guilt towards the death of the soldiers which leads to Colonel’s backache. It can even further be understood as the constant uprightness that the Colonel had to maintain throughout the war. 

Stanza Eleven 

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 next stanza pans out from the memorial providing a bird’s-eye-view of New England with thousands of small towns. The old White churches hold their air of sparse, sincere rebellion, frayed flags. The poet says how things are fading from the frayed flag into the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic. 

Stanza Twelve

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 . . .

The statutes of these soldiers grow slimmer and younger each year. The poet is trying to convey how these soldiers no longer exist in people’s memories and he describes it by saying the statues are getting slimmer, which is impossible. They are figuratively growing slimmer. 

Wasp-waisted meaning skinny and slender soldiers dozed over the weapons and mused through their sideburns. This is an interesting way to describe thinking. It can also mean they are mere philosophers now. 

Stanza Thirteen 

Shaw's father wanted no monument

except the ditch,

where his son's body was thrown

and lost with his "niggers."

This stanza shows how Shaw’s father was not content with Shaw serving in the war. His father wasn’t proud of Shaw’s achievements and hence, did not wish for his monument. His father did not want Shaw to get any extravagant recognition and believed his body belonged in a ditch, lost among the bodies of the black soldiers that served for him. 

Stanza Fourteen and Fifteen 

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.

In the next stanzas, the poet mentions the ditch that is closer now. This ditch can mean the downfall of humanity. 

In the next lines, the poem again leaps through time, presumably after World War II. There is no statue at this time on Boylston Street. But there is a commercial photograph that shows Hiroshima boiling. This is how we know its past WWII. 

The commercial photograph also means it’s there for monetary reasons which can be linked to the ditch that is closer. As they are trying to make money from a picture of a bombing that devastated many innocent lives. The poet also mentions there are no statues at this time. No one is honoured from this war. 

In the next stanza, the poet reveals that the commercial picture of Hiroshima being bombed is over a Mosler Safe that says “Rock of Ages”. This means they are using a tragic bombing to display their rock-strong safes that can survive a nuclear attack. 

This is followed by “Space is nearer” which can mean that these technologies are so advanced that we may soon be able to get to space. It can also mean oblivion, vast nothingness that humanity will drive itself down to.  

The poet then adds the drained faces  of African American school-children he sees on his television. This shows their distress but it is said to be rising like balloons. Despite the dred they are going through, they still rise high in the sky as balloons do. 

Stanza Sixteen 

Colonel Shaw

is riding on his bubble,

he waits

for the blessèd break.

The next stanza goes back to Colonel Shaw as he is riding on his bubble. This bubble can refer to  the bubbles the poet wanted to pop at the aquarium when he was a kid, it can also refer to the balloons that he mentioned in the previous line. But much more relativity can be seen when the bubble suggests a cloud that the colonel is riding because Shaw is dead. 

The next line suggests that Shaw is waiting for the bubble to pop, “for the blessed break”. It can also mean he wants to  transcend to Heaven through the cloud. It can also mean Shaw is waiting for the bubble to break so he can descend and congregate with the black bodies of his soldiers like his father coveted. 

Stanza Seventeen 

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,

giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease.

In the last stanza, the poet snaps back into the present day and talks about the aquarium which is no more to be seen. The poet describes everywhere he looks he finds giant finned cars with nose forward like fish. These cars have replaced the fish and the aquarium and the poet finds it less appealing. 

The last two lines of the poem can mean the sacrifices of these people are walked upon by a world driven by capitalism. They are not remembered for their honours but instead replaced for mere comfort. 

The last stanza shows the progress and advancement of technology alongside the staticity of civil rights and equality. The world develops things according to their convenience and often forgets the sacrifices that were made for certain rights. They choose to be ignorant of these rights and honours and continue living in their buble.