Robert Lowell's poem, "For the Union Dead" follows the mind of a person as he interacts with the landscape of modern Boston. What he sees dismays him, especially insofar as he compares it with an older Boston. For it is an historical poem, one which tries to show a relation between the past and the present. It tries to show this relation in many ways, but most obviously in its superimposition of scenes from an earlier Boston upon parallel scenes from what the Chamber of Commerce has been calling "the New Boston." Some examples. The old South Boston Aquarium, once the centerpiece of a park overlooking the harbor, has been gutted by vandals. The Boston Common, a Colonial grazing pasture, is being exhumed to provide parking places. Thomas Bulfinch's golden-domed State House must be propped by scaffolding so that "the garage's earthquake" will not topple it. The Memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young Boston Civil War hero, who, along with most of his Negro regiment, was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 is similarly buttressed. These violations of the past are complemented in the poem by today's monuments—"giant-finned cars" and advertisements exploiting the bombing of Hiroshima.
"For the Union Dead" is an historical poem in another sense, also. It is an occasional poem, composed for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in June, 1960. In many ways the poem repeats an earlier ceremony, the dedication of the Shaw Memorial in 1897. On that occasion the speakers were William James, whose topic was "that lonely kind of valor (civic courage we call it in peace times)," which Shaw exemplified, and Booker T. Washington, for whom the Monument stood for "effort, not complete victor." Lowell's poem returns to these themes
[. . . .]
But the civic courage of Shaw, who "rejoices in man's lovely / peculiar power to choose life and die," but who "is out of bounds now" has been replaced in the twentieth century by "savage servility."
[. . . .]
The poem is an historical poem in still a third sense. The poet himself has suggested that he thinks of it as "a Northern civil War poem," and his replacing the original title "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th" with the present one, "For the Union Dead," suggests a comparison with Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." However, in one very important way at least, the poems are quite different. In each poem a speaker looks back to a more heroic age, but in Tate's he is cut off from the past. In "For the Union Dead" the speaker creates the past.
That statement requires explanation. It can be demonstrated, however, that despite the historical subject, occasion, and theme, the "facts" of history are of little importance in "For the Union Dead." Indeed, nearly every historical observation in the poem is inaccurate.
First, the epigraph, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Shaw had been a member, has been rewritten to translate "They leave all behind to serve the country," instead of the correct "He leaves all behind to serve the country." The motto (omnia relinquit servare rem publicam) is correctly transcribed on the Shaw Memorial. The misquotation may, of course, be just a slip up by the poet, (like the misspelling of Boylston later in the poem) but this change does emphasize that the sacrifice at Fort Wagner was a common one.
Second, contrary to the implication of the poem, excavations for the Boston Common garage were not the reason for the bracing of either the Shaw Memorial or the State House, each one a quarter of a mile away from the blasting. The State House was undergoing restoration; the Memorial was being propped up until the city had managed to allocate funds for its repair. The neglect into which both had fallen speaks eloquently enough to the speaker's point, but not so eloquently as his vision of the active destruction of the past by bulldozers does.
Third, William James's statement that he could "almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," which in the poem seems to suggest the continuing urgency of the issues which Shaw's career raises, seen in the context of his address at the dedication ceremonies, merely praises the verisimilitude of the relief. What James said was this: "Look at the monument and read the story—see the mingling of elements which the sculptor's genius has brought so vividly before the eye. There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march."
Fourth, though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it was not he who referred to his son's troops as "niggers." According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw's grave, replied, "We have buried him with his niggers." The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But the actual reaction of Shaw's father was quite the opposite. He wrote, "Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them.—What a body guard he has."
Fifth, the linking of the "Rock of Ages" with the Mosler advertisement is the speaker in the poem's idea, not the adman's. For although the Mosler Safe Company saw the preservation of one of its safes during the bombing of Hiroshima as an event to be publicized ("The Hiroshima Story Comes To Life With A Bang!"), I have been assured that this company never adopted the slogan "Rock of Ages" in its advertising.
Yet, although the scenes in the poem are historically inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker's purposes. The contrast between old and new is for him a contrast between something intelligent, decent, and past, and something destructive, desolate, and present. The imagery is consistent with the narrator's view of history. Most of it is related either to ascent or to descent, which, as Northrop Frye suggests, are the spatial equivalents of the desirable and the undesirable. The desirable past is seen as an upward movement. Colonel Shaw resembles "a compass-needle"; he has "an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness." He is "riding on his bubble."
[. . . .]
[T]he tendency of the present is downward. "Dinosaur steamshovels" "gouge" for us "an underground garage." The South Boston Aquarium, the scene at the beginning and at the end of the poem, reflects this historical movement from ascent to descent. Once the "bronze weathervane cod," symbolic of man's dominion over the lower orders of nature, stood atop it. Man no longer has this dominion; in fact he has descended to the lower order himself, as the final lines of the poem make clear.
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
The landscape of the poem then is not so much the city's as it is the poet's. It is not photographed, but felt. It is not history , but autobiography. But the poem is not the work of a modern laudator temporis acti. Though obviously sympathetic to the past, the speaker belongs to the present. His past is an imagined past, the Union soldier is "abstract." The present, however, is real, and the speaker, as much as anyone else, is part of it. He creates the imagined virtues of the historical past, but shares the downward tendency of the present. His nose "crawls like a snail"; he must "often sigh . . . / for the dark, downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," and must "press" and "crouch" like a beast.
In short, this poem is of a piece with that poetry in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean which has a subjective narrator. Comparison with an earlier poem suggests the distance that "For the Union Dead" stands from the poet's former historicism. In "Where the Rainbow Ends" from Lord Weary's Castle, the speaker states:
I saw my city in the Scales; the pans
of judgment rising and descending.
That poem had rhyme, meter, and stanza form; it rested on an equally ordered and orthodox system of belief and values. "For the Union Dead" lacks rhyme and meter, and has a stanza form which serves no prosodic or rhetorical function. As if to correlate with this loss of form, the poem's narrator offers no solutions, no guidance, no control—only his ability to conceive of a nobler way of life may be seen as hopeful. But unlike Colonel Shaw, the speaker cannot direct his life; he has no compass-needle. More than judging the modern condition, he bears witness to it.
from "The Poet as Historian: 'For The Union Dead' by Robert Lowell." Concerning Poetry 1.2 (Fall 1968).