In Lowell’s poem, “For the Union Dead,” he sets out the distinction between the complexities of modern life and the spirits and hopes of the Union soldiers of the 54th Mass. Regiment, the first black regiment to see fighting in the Civil War. I was expecting, when I first read this, for something closer to the only knowledge I have of the regiment, from the movie “Glory.” I was just waiting for Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Cary Elwes (the famous “Westley”) to explode off the page of this poem; but, alas, this was not to be. Rather, the poem is full of the juxtapositions of time and place that fill our daily lives.
The first phrase that stood out to me was the image of “a Sahara of snow.” Both deserts and snow, for me, immediately bring to mind the idea of loneliness. The next thing that struck me was the “bronze weathervane cod.” The cod was the first symbol of Boston, being the centerpiece on the town seal, and it stood as a mark of great pride for its citizens for many years, until the cod fisheries began to die out, when it became a point of mockery. In presenting these two distinctions, Lowell has established the disjunction between time (how the feelings of Bostonians toward the symbol of the cod have changed over time) and place (the vast dry desert of the Sahara so far removed from the snow covered winter landscape of Boston). These two disjunctions then give note to the poem’s title and purpose, to show what fighting and dying for the Union gave rise to.
What I’d like to discuss here, though, is the image of a fish – a cod – throughout the poem, for that is, to me, the most interesting aspect of this poem. The modern portion of the poem centers around the destruction of the old South Boston Aquarium, and so the symbol of fish is very much an appropriate one in this poem. The only time that Lowell actually identifies the fish as a cod is when describing the weathervane atop the aquarium. In doing this, he gives the building a historic presence and majesty, not found in the people of the modern world, whom he describes throughout the rest of the poem only as fish. The pride and prestige once found in the cod is now gone, and the people are merely schools of “compliant fish,” part of a “vegetating kingdom of the fish.”
Now, it would be easy to say that Lowell, when discussing the modern Bostonians, isn’t speaking of cod, however that’s just not the case. The cod of the North Atlantic was once a prized commodity for its pure white flesh, it was often called just whitefish or even just fish. In fact, if you were to walk into a fast food chain up until the mid 1980s and ordered a fish sandwich or went to the grocery store and bought a box of fishsticks, what you were getting was cod. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, the North Atlantic cod fisheries were decimated by over-fishing and they collapsed. The reason that the fish was so easily destroyed by modern net-fishing was that cod are generally a very lazy fish and not strong swimmers. They are often most-easily caught in nets set against the currents. It was this inactivity and stillness that gives cod its white color, unlike the restless and athletic tuna, whose strength as swimmers turns their flesh pink with musculature. So, in describing Bostonians so clearly as being swept around by currents, he is clearly referring to them as cod, but without the historic prestige that once surrounded the cod.
Lowell stages this symbol of the fish against the 54th regiment, in which he doesn’t refer to fish at all. His comparison is that of a people fighting an important struggle by breaking with the common tide and standing up for something greater with the modern people who only accept the current flow of society and are unwilling to challenge it. Lowell’s ultimate outlook is bleak indeed as both the aquarium and the symbol of the cod are demolished, leaving only a school of fish following the norms of society without any thought.