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"FOR THE UNION DEAD" ROBERT LOWELL (1959) "For the Union Dead," the title poem of Robert LOWELL's fifth full-length collection of poetry, represents a growing apprehension surrounding the many cultural and social changes in the America of the 1950s. The poem laments the loss of the morally upright and civically conscientious tradition of 19th-century Bostonian (and, by extension, American) culture, while it looks with foreboding at the present age of deteriorating social ethics, impending space travel, and threatening nuclear war. Real fish in the old city aquarium (torn down to create a parking lot) become, by the poem's end, "giant finned cars nosing forward like fish." Colonel Robert Shaw (1837-63), commander of the first African-American Civil War regiment in a free state, however, plays the prominent role, symbolizing traditional values—morality, self-sacrifice, duty, and honor—of the bygone age with which Lowell aligned himself. Shaw was killed in the assault of Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Lowell's respect for Shaw is in opposition to his loathing for the advancing culture of forgetfulness and historical indifference, a sentiment epitomized by a "commercial photograph" on Boylston Street depicting "Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe." This poignant image of the capitalist exploitation of war atrocities also serves as a demented, contemporary version of a war memorial.
Lowell was commissioned by the city of Boston to write the poem for the annual Boston Festival; the poem was to be recited in the Boston Common, where Augustus St. Gaudens's statue of Shaw stands. Meanwhile Lowell's wife at the time, Elizabeth Hardwick, was at work on an edition of the letters of William James (1842-1910), who had delivered the speech at the original unveiling of the statue. Finally, Shaw himself was linked, by marriage, to ancestors of Lowell and had been celebrated previously in a poem by James Russell Lowell (1819-91), also related to the poet (Hamilton 278). This poem, therefore, brought together many of Lowell's ambitions and obsessions, giving him the opportunity to write his own memorial to a past he saw as glorious.
The poem is among the strongest examples of Lowell's transitional period, when he wavered between the highly gothic and formally wrought elegiacs found in Lord Weary's Castle (1946) and the explicit candor and raw autobiography of the later and formally looser Notebook (1970). Echoes of Ezra POUND become progressively muted by his ever deepening relationship with free-verse champion William Carlos Williams, as well as by his rivalry with fellow poets Theodore roethke and John berryman. Ultimately it is Lowells own mental instability, marked by annual, manic emotional swings, that most pervasively informs his best poems, poems capable of entertaining at once gothic highs and confessional lows. The free verse quatrains of "For the Union Dead"—haunted by both his early formal training and his turbulent relationship with Bostonian culture—remain the form most associated with Lowell and helped mark him as the preeminent American poet of his time.
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