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For the Union Dead

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For the Union Dead

How has the United States changed over the years? What kind of progress has American society really made since 1776? Poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) responds to these questions in his 1964 poetry collection For the Union Dead. Examining his own history as well as America's, Lowell explores themes surrounding the passage of time and change while reflecting deeply on his personal experiences.

For the Union Dead Book Summary

For the Union Dead was Robert Lowell's sixth book, published in 1964. This book was a literary success; along with the 1959 collection Life Studies, it solidified Lowell's reputation as a prominent 20th-century poet.

For the Union Dead contains 35 original poems by Lowell. In this collection, Lowell's poetry continues to follow a similar style to the one he established in Life Studies, characterized by a break from traditional meter and style and towards an informal style influenced by his own life.

Some of the most important poems in For the Union Dead include "The Old Flame," "Water," and the titular poem, which ends the collection. The poem "For the Union Dead" is one of the most anthologized American poems of the latter half of the 20th century. It reveals Lowell's opinions on the Civil Rights Movement, increased consumerism and industrialization, and the willful loss of history and tradition in America.

Lowell was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. He was so firm in his beliefs that he went to jail for evading the draft.

Because this poem is so central to the collection as a whole, a deeper analysis will be beneficial in understanding For the Union Dead.

"For the Union Dead" Poem Summary

In the titular poem, the speaker stands in Boston Common, reminiscing about the now-abandoned aquarium he once frequented as a child. The fish in the tanks once brought him joy, but now the aquarium is being demolished to put in a new parking lot.

The speaker thinks about how Boston has changed over the year. He considers the memorial statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the first all-black infantry in the Civil War. The memorial is in the heart of the city, but it is being rattled by all of the construction. To make matters worse, Shaw's legacy and the legacy of the Black soldiers are diminishing in the minds of the Bostonians as the years go on.

The speaker then considers how American commercialization profits off wars and devastation. He thinks about the Civil Rights Movement and how Black children have become "drained" (60) by centuries of oppression. Shaw still waits for the freedom he fought for to be realized, while pieces of history are demolished to make room for industry.

"For the Union Dead" Literary Devices

Lowell wrote the poem "For the Union Dead" in 1960 after being asked to do a reading for the Boston Arts Festival. Lowell grew up in Boston, as his family had for generations, and watched firsthand as the changes he discusses in the poem take place. His allusions are personal, his similes jarring, and the imagery he evokes is vivid.


The most important allusion in the poem is to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw led the first all-black infantry during the Civil War. He was shot and killed while leading his soldiers in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner (1863). His corpse was thrown in a ditch with his men, where they were all buried in a mass, unmarked grave.

This allusion is especially important to Lowell, as Shaw was a distant relative. It reveals Lowell's opinions on the Civil Rights movement and the shortcomings of the American past. Allusion at the end of the poem hints at the resistance to the integration of African Americans and white children in public schools. Again, this allusion shows all the ways in which Lowell believed American society still needs to grow, specifically by striving for equality for African Americans.

For the Union Dead, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Memorial Statue, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Memorial statue of the all-black infantry led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.


The use of simile reveals the tension between social progress and long-held prejudice and between true growth and commercial profit. One of the most striking uses of simile is in stanza eight:

Their monument sticks like a fishbone

in the city's throat.

Its Colonel is as lean

as a compass-needle." (29-32)

This simile, referring to the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, shows the city's subtle resistance to social change. The monument commemorates Shaw's contribution to the Union and equality, but it seems to be an uncomfortable reminder that the city cannot get rid of. Shaw is lean as the citizens forget about him and his legacy.

Remember, this poem was published in 1964. The Civil Rights Movement didn't end until 1968, and segregation was still an enormous social issue.

The final stanza in the poem also contains a vivid simile:


giant finned cars nose forward like fish;

a savage servility

slides by on grease." (65-68)

This simile is a haunting reminder of what Boston and the rest of the United States have lost. Society has created more subservient, industrial automobiles (and with them parking lots and garages) at the expense of places of meaning and joy. The aquarium that was so central to the speaker's youth has been replaced with cars, parking spaces, and grease.


The most important symbol in the poem is fish as a representation of resilient African American society. The speaker introduces the idea of the "cowed, compliant fish" in line 8. Like slaves, the fish are forced to submit and obey. They create bubbles, fragile symbols of joy, that are easily broken. Later in the poem, Colonel Shaw rides on these bubbles as he is exalted by his Black soldiers in his fight to end slavery. Shaw is borne up by their hopes and dreams. The "savage servility" of the fish in line 67 reminds readers that even after nearly 100 years of "progress" in American society, Black men and women are still oppressed and unequal. Not enough has changed socially to realize Shaw's hope for freedom for all.

The aquarium and the construction are also two major symbols. While the aquarium symbolizes the speaker's childhood dreams and sense of wonder, the construction symbolizes increased commercialism and a distinct loss of hope. Although so much is changing physically around Boston (and in the broader picture of the United States), the real changes that need to occur socially are largely ignored. The speaker hopes that he will see equality in the United States, but all the capitalist society is willing to offer is increased industrialization.

For the Union Dead, Family viewing fish in aquarium, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The aquarium is a symbol of the speaker's childhood dreams and sense of wonder.

For the Union Dead's Other Poems

Two other famous poems in this collection are "Water" and "The Old Flame."


In "Water," the speaker reminisces on a relationship that has long since passed. He thinks back to the time he and his lover spent in a lobster town in Maine. After the boats would go out, they would sit on a huge rock by the sea until their feet hurt from the constant waves. The speaker addresses his long-lost lover and asks her to remember their time together. They both wanted to return to the town, but "the water was too cold for us" (32), and the nostalgic tone of the poem implies that they drifted apart and separated.

"The Old Flame"

The speaker addresses his estranged wife, telling her that he drove by the house they once shared in Maine. The birds they loved are still outside, but the new residents of the house have changed almost everything else. He wishes the new owners well, even as he poignantly hints that his own marriage has long since ended. He says that everything has changed for the best. But he still looks back fondly on the days that he and his wife were snowbound together, trapped at home and watching as the snow plows cleared the roads.

For the Union Dead Analysis

Lowell's Life Studies collection was notable for revealing his struggles with mental illness and for revolutionizing confessional poetry. For the Union Dead is still very personal, but it centers around Lowell's relationship with family members, reflections on his childhood, and interpretations of world history.

The title of the collection, "For the Union Dead," was a direct response to Allen Tate's poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928). As an earlier poet, Tate was Lowell's mentor and teacher. Tate's poem praises Confederate soldiers for fighting to maintain a simpler way of life, steeped in nature and rejecting technology. Lowell's collection, in response, memorializes Union soldiers who fought for a new way of life dedicated to the abolition of slavery and the end of racial disparity. Many of the poems in the collection consider the balance between a new way of living and tradition.

For the Union Dead, American cemetery, StudySmarterFig. 3 - For the Union Dead honors the soldiers who gave their lives for the idea of a better America.

This collection is also steeped in the culture and history of the New England region, where Lowell grew up. Maine and Massachusetts particularly had an enormous impact on Lowell's identity as a poet. Lowell explores the history of New England in "Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts" and to a more modern extent in "For the Union Dead." These reflections on history reveal that American society has been evolving for centuries, but the change is often on the surface level instead of socially from within.

For the Union Dead Themes

Two of the main themes in the collection are a reflection on the personal and the passage of time.

Reflection on the Personal

Much of the content in the collection came directly from Lowell's life. From his difficult marriage to his relationship with his parents and daughter, Lowell used For the Union Dead in order to reflect on his personal experiences, issues, and epiphanies. For example, "Old Flame" was a reflection on his relationship with his ex-wife, Jean Stafford, who he divorced after eight years of marriage in 1948. The poem "Middle Age" is a response to his father's death and the anxiety Lowell felt to fill the gap he left. Although the collection is not confessional in nature, it is deeply personal and reveals much about Lowell's life.

The Passage of Time

For the Union Dead is also about the passage of time and resulting change. As apparent in "For the Union Dead," "Water," and "The Old Flame," this collection has an air of nostalgia as Lowell's speakers reflect on the past. Each of the speakers views the past positively and yearns for something that has been lost. In "For the Union Dead," the loss of the aquarium reminds the speaker that the world is changing and not necessarily for good. The speakers in "Water" and "The Old Flame" both reflect on past relationships that have since dissolved into nothing. In each case, the passage of time has brought the speakers a new insight and understanding of life. The speakers know that they cannot go back in time, but they appreciate the wisdom that they have learned with age and experience.

For the Union Dead - Key takeaways

  • For the Union Dead was written by Robert Lowell.
  • It is one of his most famous collections.
  • Three of the most prominent poems in the collection are "For the Union Dead," "Water," and "The Old Flame."
  • Lowell used his personal experiences and relationships as source material for the collection.
  • Some of the major themes include reflection on the personal and the passage of time.

Frequently Asked Questions about For the Union Dead

The main theme of For the Union Dead is the loss of past traditions and history and the emergence of superficiality.

"For the Union Dead" mourns how Americans forget  history and tradition for the sake of new, shiny things. 

"For the Union Dead" was written in 1960, and the For The Union Dead collection was published in 1964. 

The setting of the poem is Boston Commons in Boston, Massachusetts. 

For the Union Dead is a poetry collection. 

Final For the Union Dead Quiz


Who wrote For the Union Dead

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For the Union Dead was written by Robert Lowell. 

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Which famous poet is Lowell responding to in the title For the Union Dead? 

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Allen Tate and his poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

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When was For the Union Dead published? 

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It was published in 1964. 

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True or false: For the Union Dead is an example of confessional poetry 

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Where does Lowell draw inspiration for his poems in For the Union Dead

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He drew inspiration from his personal life and his relationships with his wife, parents, and children.

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True or false: Lowell was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement

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What is the most famous poem from this collection? 

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The titular poem, "For the Union Dead"

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What major allusions does the speaker make in "For the Union Dead"?

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He alludes to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who led the first all-Black infantry during the Civil War as well as the Civil Rights Movement, which was ongoing at the time of publication. 

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What culture is For the Union Dead influenced by? 

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It is largely influenced by the culture and way of life in New England.

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What are some of the main themes throughout the collection? 

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Two of the main themes in the collection are a reflection on the personal and the passage of time. 

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