The life of this poem started out with a big ol' public bang. In 1960, Robert Lowell was asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival and delivered this poem. Lowell himself was a long-time resident of Boston, and his family had ties to the city going generations back. He's even distantly related to Colonel Shaw, who is kind of a big deal in this poem (and a big deal historically). Colonel Shaw was a white Massachusetts Union soldier who led the first all-black infantry (the Massachusetts 54th infantry). So, as you might imagine, "For the Union Dead" was a pretty important poem for Lowell. In fact, he titled a collection of poems after this particular poem.
Evidence of Lowell's personal history is all wrapped up in the goings on of this poem. Because of his lineage he likely felt personally tied to Colonel Shaw and the 54th infantry, as well as to the deep and racially conflicted history of Boston. Though the poem shouldn't be mistaken as autobiographical, through the speaker Lowell does a good job of balancing the personal and the historical. He paints a picture of a long-time Boston resident reflecting on the memorial of Colonel Shaw and the 54th infantry, as well as musing on the development and unfavorable current state of South Boston.
This poem was written at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and Lowell seems to be making a connection with the Civil War's role as the first spark for African American civil rights (remember that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Lincoln, freeing all slaves). At the time Lowell wrote this poem, he was extremely concerned with the Civil Rights Movement and was critical of anyone, or anyplace, that didn't respond positively to it. Though this particular poem doesn't scream civil rights, you'd better believe it's in there—swimming in and out of the poem, like a fish ghost of some long-defunct aquarium.
Does your school have racially segregated bathrooms? How about separate water fountains? Of course not. Can you travel from Connecticut to South Carolina without having to bust out your passport at the Mason-Dixon line? Of course you can. You might think of those things as historically horrific and remote; a time when those issues were viable seems about as far away and unlikely as commuting to school via horse and buggy.
What may seem like total givens now are only that way because of centuries-long struggles that began around the time of the Civil War and culminated most dramatically during the sixties with the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Lowell thinks it's important to remember that struggle—and we do try to—with plaques, holidays, and memorials that pay tribute to major historical events. But to truly commemorate those efforts by keeping them at the forefront of our minds and taking them to heart is difficult to keep up, and sometimes so is progress in general.
If you've ever felt like we've struggled for all this progress only to slide backwards down the hill, or if you're the kind of person looking for the spark to affect some positive change, this one's for you. As one wise fish from the old Boston Aquarium once said, "Just keep swimming." (Or was that Nemo?)