For the Union Dead: a Social Criticism

1540 Words Feb 6th, 2012 7 Pages
ENGL130
Professor Rhodes
25 March 2010
“For the Union Dead”: A Social Criticism “For the Union Dead” is a socially critical poem that fills the page with destructive and stark imagery throughout. Such imagery is central to the poem and is also central to interpreting the poem in the manner in which Robert Lowell intended. Lowell was an American poet who expressed his concern for the direction of American society though his poetry: “For the Union Dead” is a prime example of that concern. In “For the Union Dead”, Robert Lowell condemns American society for the direction in which it is heading, away from the “old South Boston Aquarium” (Line 2) of old and towards a society predicated on glamorizing “commercial photograph[s] / [showing]
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Lowell continues with the theme of natural imagery, paralleling the excavators and machinery with the gravity of dinosaurs, all while describing the reckless process of tearing up “mush and grass”. Lowell is trying to glean that American society is becoming violent against nature in an untamed manner, a similar vantage point of his childhood experiences at the aquarium.
The poem then shifts away from Lowell’s own experiences and more to that of a historical figure in Colonel Shaw, a figure whose history is vital to understanding his mentioning. Colonel Shaw, a white man, was the first commander to lead an all-black regiment in the North during the Civil War. Because of his success as a leader and overall moral significance in the Civil War, a monument was made in his honor and displayed in Boston. The scenery of the monument is described as

“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” (19-24).

The description of the Statehouse being properly secured with girders while all the monument gains in way of support is a “plank splint” really illuminates society’s priorities as perceived by Lowell. Another interesting description in this excerpt is the…