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For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead

by Robert Lowell

Slavery Theme

"For the Union Dead," largely about the all-black 54th infantry of the Civil War, takes place about one hundred years after slavery. This ain't no history poem, though. The subject of slavery isn't just about the (then) recently emancipated Union soldiers Lowell dedicates this poem to, but the continued attitude of slavery from that point until the present day (1960s). The poem notes the presence of servility, as well as oppression in the air of what should be liberal Boston, Massachusetts. "What gives?" Lowell seems to be asking. How has there been so little change after such a huge sacrifice (of life and effort)? And, more importantly, why doesn't anyone notice?

Questions About Slavery

  1. In a poem that's so tied and charged with the conflict of slavery, why is it never mentioned directly? What is the effect? 
  2. What's the purpose of a having so many things (other than humans) appear to be caged or enslaved—the fish, the construction equipment, the cars? 
  3. Slavery was abolished a century before this poem takes place; what's the point of bringing it up so many years later? 
  4. In Boston during the 1960s, there are no slaves. In what way is slavery still alive then? What evidence does the poem give?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Progress report? F plus. Lowell uses the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial as an opportunity to address how little progress we've made as a country in civil rights.

Think slavery's done with? Think again, bucko. This poem points out how the effects of slavery continue to corrupt society, long after the legal practice of slavery's been struck down.

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