For the Union Dead
by Robert Lowell
Lowell is on a roll in the beginning of the poem, describing things by pairing them with their opposites. He starts us off with this "up is down" type of description to prepare us for the jumping around he's going to do with the subject matter throughout the poem. The strange pairs also make for very interesting and engaging descriptions. Sometimes things are even clearer when they're set off by something you wouldn't normally match them with (which is why black stands out so well against white, and why caramel and salt seems really weird, but tastes insanely delicious). Let's take a look at the first stanza where he really bombards us with these unlikely pairs.
- Line 1 ("South Boston"): This one is particularly sneaky, because South Boston is a real place. But Boston is in the north, not the south. The phrase gives us a little pause because we're about to embark on a poem that's all about the war between the North and South. Lowell gets us on our toes right away.
- Line 2 ("Sahara of snow"): There is no snow in the Sahara! In fact, it's one of the hottest, driest places on the planet. The description works well, though—the heavy blanket over the abandoned aquarium makes it look particularly deserted and desolate.
- Line 3 ("The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales."): On one hand, this line makes perfect sense. The weathervane is worn because it's so old. But if you think about it, it's kind of strange to think of a fish (the cod) being up on top of a building, instead of in water. Ever heard the expression "fish out of water"? That's exactly what we're talking about.
- Line 4 ("The airy tanks are dry."): "Air" and "dry" are not the usual words to describe fish tanks—"wet" and "cool" might be a more likely description. But again, this makes perfect sense. The fish tanks are no longer what they used to be. There's no more water in them, and they have that airy, deserted feeling that we were just introduced to in line 2 ("Sahara of snow").