Study Guide

For the Union Dead Transformation

By Robert Lowell

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The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded (1–2)

The change is pretty straightforward here: the aquarium from long ago has been shut down and boarded up. Move on; nothin' to see here.

The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry (3–4)

Again, the transformation is one of degeneration. The old place is falling apart and desolate. Maybe it would be a good spot to film a horror flick?

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled (5–6)

These lines set us up for a change that's about to come. "Once" is what tips us off so that we expect a "now" moment. Lowell's got us on the edge of our seat. Who's got the popcorn?

My hand draws back. I often sigh still (9)

Here's the "now" part. The transformation is the passage of time, or aging of the speaker. This change is pretty universal. We're all getting older by the minute.

as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage (15–16).

Here's an example of physical transformation. They're digging up the place. Nothing says change like good old fashioned destruction!

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston (17–18)

More physical change, and a seemingly negative one. Parking spaces are what are at the heart of Boston, and parking spaces don't exactly scream character. Bummer.

He is out of bounds now (37)

This is a cryptic one. But it refers, at least on some level, to Colonel Shaw's death, as well as his somewhat unpopular decision at the time to lead an all-black infantry. Colonel Shaw's decision marked a huge historical change as he broke through the boundaries of accepted attitudes toward African Americans.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year— (45–46)

The statues haven't physically undergone any change, so don't let your mind wander to Benjamin Button or anything. The transformation comes in the fact that they're being forgotten by the people of Boston today.

The ditch is nearer. (53)

We're moving toward our own downfall? Digging our own graves? This one is open to some interpretation, but it's a negative transformation, for sure. You're gonna want to steer clear of the ditch.

There are no statues for the last war here; (54)

Another negative change: our culture has transformed to one that doesn't value or honor its veterans. What absolute jerks! Lowell is painting a very nice picture of the people of Boston in the 1960s.

on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. (55–58)

Instead of using the last war (WWII) to create positive change, we only use it to feed consumerism. So, rather than commemorate our vets, or learn from our horrific mistakes, we're just using the war to make some dough. Pretty sick, actually.

Space is nearer. (58)

We've made transformations to a more technologically and scientifically-advanced world, but the only thing we're getting closer to is nothingness. Ugh, so Lowell probably wouldn't think your iPod is evidence of positive cultural change.

The Aquarium is gone. (65)

Remember all those Saturdays staring into the blue world of sharks and fish? Wasn't that fun? Well, it's gone. A reminder that our change has come at a price—we've lost a lot of good from our past.

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