The American Civil War is a topic which many poets have addressed in verse. What separates Lowell’s ‘For The Union Dead’ from the scores of other Civil War poems is not only the complex interweaving of period and contemporary events in order to make a social commentary on change, which give the poem a strong modern-day resonance, but also the precise and polysemic lexis Lowell employs in order to link different timeframes.
In 1964, four years after he first read ‘For The Union Dead’ in public, Lowell stated in a letter: “In my poem For The Union Dead, I lament the loss of the old Abolitionist spirit; the terrible injustice, in the past and present, of the American treatment of the Negro is the greatest urgency to me as a man and a writer.”. By describing the “loss” of such a spirit, Lowell also reveals what has replaced it in modern Boston; a vulgar fixation with consumerism. His juxtaposition of the unselfish and heroic sacrifice of Colonel Shaw and his all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry against the moral decline of modern Boston, of a rose-tinted past against a dystopian present, is a continual theme in the poem. He describes the bronze monument celebrating their valour as “(sticking) like a fishbone in the city’s throat”, going on to state that the Colonel “is out of bounds now”; in both instances, Lowell alludes to the fact that the laudable values which the Colonel and his men stood for are ignored by modern society, that human nature has degenerated into crude materialism.
This degeneration is shown further by Lowell’s disdainful description of the building of a garage beneath the Boston Common, which is owned by the people of Boston rather than the city itself. The construction of the garage in the 60s was subject to vehement and ultimately unsuccessful protest, as it was seen as an infringement of the people’s rights. The theme of immoral consumerism recurs in this disdainful description: “Parking spaces luxuriate like civic sandpiles in the heart of Boston.” Lowell sees his city reduced to a plaything for childlike developers who have no thought for culture or heritage. Yet another example of this brazen consumerism is the reference to the Mosler Safe, which is advertised and glorified as a result of WWII. This is juxtaposed against the memorial, carelessly “propped by a plank splint”. This theme is not only applicable to Boston, but universally applicable; indeed, with the ever increasing emphasis on material wealth in modern life, the poem may have even greater relevance today. Through the universal applicability of its themes, then, Lowell’s poem demonstrates the “qualities of durability” which allows literary works to be widely deemed as “valuable”.
In addition to this large-scale historical juxtaposition, there is a personal juxtaposition between the child Lowell and the adult Lowell, adding another layer of complexity to the poem as the factual and emotional interact with each other. The Aquarium is vital here, not only exhibiting the impermanence of the world we live in as modernisation propels human ‘advancement’, but showing how even within Lowell’s lifetime, the world has changed beyond recognition; the fish of his childhood are gone, and all that is left is the “bronze weathervane cod” which has “lost half its scales”; they have been replaced by “yellow dinosaur steamshovels… grunting… behind their cage” and “giant finned cars”. The replacement of the sentient fish from the Aquarium with these mechanical beasts of the modern era runs parallel to the aforementioned degeneration of human nature, and together they chart the disappearance of the world of Lowell’s childhood, as well as and Colonel Shaw’s lifetime. On a personal level as well, then, Lowell portrays the change which has come about in his lifetime with great pessimism. At this personal level, though, there are also elements of continuity within the different timeframes which Lowell describes melancholically. As a child he watches the fish behind the glass, as an adult he sees the “drained faces of school-children rise like balloons” through a television screen; in both situations he is frustrated by his own helplessness.
Lowell also presents continuity regarding the fact that despite the American Civil War was won by the Abolitionists, segregation was still existent at the time of writing; he conveys disgust at the fact that while America’s fragile sense of heritage and culture is bulldozed in the name of technological ‘advancement’ (the steamshovels and cars), racism remains. The fact that the Boston Common garage is geographically close to the bronze memorial for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers Infantry means that the link between the two is justified and founded in reality, the link being that although the garage would suggests advancement, it actually represents a backward step for Boston, and the memorial’s place in an America which still instigates segregation shows that America is still stuck in its prejudiced past. Lowell’s layering of images, juxtapositions and parallels across various timeframes, and the split between historical and personal, allows the poem to be a complex collection of ideas contributing to the same central twin destinations concerning inequality and transience. A “complex interweaving… of ideas” which denotes value, then, can be clearly identified in Lowell’s poem.
Another feature of ‘valued’ literature, alongside complex ideas, is complexity in language and word choice. There can be little doubt that Lowell has chosen to place certain words in certain places in the poem, that he is a “craftsperson… in command of (his) writing”. Even the opening line, the epigraph “Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam” is an edited version of the epigraph on the actual memorial “Reinquit Omnia Servare Rem Publicam”. Lowell’s amendment turns “He gave up all to serve the Republic”, referring to Colonel Shaw into “They gave up all to serve the Republic”, referring to the entire 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Even in this minor adjustment, then, the central themes of racial equality is addressed, as well as the bravery of the soldiers which is so often acknowledged in Civil War poems. Evidence of Lowell’s conscious decision to select exact words can also be seen by the repetition of words within the poem, to either reinforce or contradict a point previously made. When describing his experience of the fish at the Aquarium, Lowell writes that his hand “tingled”, and when describing the Statehouse when the construction works for the garage are occurring, Lowell also says it is “tingling”. The former use of the word suggests vitality and excitement, whereas the latter use suggests both the literal and symbolic undermining of democratic values, of equality.
The first line and the second to last line also utilise this repetition, this time “Servare” and “servility”. Here, Shaw’s civic courage, his noble defence of his beliefs and his country, is contrasted against the “savage servility” of the cars. “Savage servility” is a paradoxical description which highlights both the bleak, unfeeling, asocial nature of modern life and the undercurrent of menace which Lowell feels accompanies this modernisation. The placement of these juxtaposing words at the beginning and end of the poem serve to illustrate the change which Lowell works so hard to show the reader throughout the poem. A final and less obvious instance of such repetition comes, rather than at the beginning and end of the poem, in a single sentence: “on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph/Shows Hiroshima boiling/over a Mosler Safe”. “Boylston” and “boiling” is not repetition in a strict sense; it is an example of assonance. Boylston Street is a major commercial centre in Boston, and so the avarice portrayed by the Mosler “Hiroshima boiling” advertisement is clearly mirrored by this hub of capitalism. It is evident, then, that Lowell has formed the poem with a meticulousness of the highest order, giving the poem a great deal of ‘value’.
There is, however, a problem with the poem in terms of value. Lowell’s poem includes intimate details about Boston and the Civil War at the risk of alienating readers who are not familiar with either, for instance an English reader with no knowledge of the Civil War or Boston. The English reader would then have to research into the Civil War and Boston in order to understand the poem even at its most basic level. This could mean that the perceived value of the poem is diminished for this reader. Michael Foucault certainly holds this view, positing that all literary texts display “enunciative poverty”, in that they inevitably cannot convey full meaning or representation, and that “it is critics themselves… who repeat over and over the message which the text itself failed to tell”, that these critics make up for a poet’s lack of precision in craft.
However, the ignorance of the reader cannot diminish the value of a poem; it is the reader’s responsibility to fill in gaps in their knowledge and thereby fully comprehend the value and complexity of the poem. Foucault also doubts that the writer is in complete control of the writing, arguing instead that certain “literary traditions… economic and literary pressures” influence the text. Again, if Foucault’s position is to be believed, this would show that Lowell is not a “craftsman… in command of (his) writing”, and therefore that his poetry is not ‘valuable’. However, while these pressures undoubtedly shape certain decisions concerning issues like structure and subject matter (for instance, the construction of the underground garage in the vicinity of the memorial and the on-going civil rights movement led Lowell to consider Colonel Shaw and his Infantry’s bravery and the futility of their sacrifice), the artistry and poetic technique exhibited by the poet requires a great deal of control. These pressures, if anything, form a vague outline of a work which must be defined and filled by the poet’s imagination; Lowell does this magnificently, using the intricate entwining of themes and ideas and precise word choice to create a work of true value.