'For the Union Dead': Robert Lowell's Canonical Poem Turns 50
When a poem becomes canonical, it's almost always a mixed blessing. No matter what kind of marvel the thing might be, once it's consecrated as a monument, you can usually count on the dryrot creeping in. Sooner or later its lines will become more half-remembered than re-read, admired at a safe distance, duly clapped into all the anthologies and all but unsalvagably encrusted with annotation. Only every once in a great while does a certifiably great poem remain essential reading from one generation to the next, continuing to cast a lasting spell and not just a long shadow.
Fifty years ago this month The Atlantic devoted a double-page spread to just such a poem. Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" is now as canonical as they come, an indisputable masterwork by an indispensable American poet. But its vast renown hardly begins to account for its staying power. Originally commissioned as the keynote to the Boston Arts Festival in June 1960, Lowell's searching meditation on his native city's freighted heritage stands as a paradigm for a poet rising to the occasion in every sense of the word. A serviceable piece of commemorative verse would have done the job, but what Lowell instead wrote on deadline seizes the day for the ages—an ode, a jeremiad, and a lamentation all in one, a poem that has lost none of its urgency and authority after all these years. As The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor Peter Davison observed in an online column in 2001: "Everything in Lowell's nature combined to compose this powerful poem, which seems to many readers the most sublime he ever wrote, the poem most completely suited to his talent, his voice, and his vision of America."
Here then to mark the anniversary is the full text of the poem as it first appeared in the Atlantic's pages. Here too is the complete Atlantic Online "Soundings" package from 2001: Peter Davison's introductory essay and reading of the poem, along with additional audio recordings by Lowell's literary executor Frank Bidart and former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.