Paul Kavanagh's recent article on Robert Lowell's ‘For the Union Dead’ clearly shows the relevance of Colonel Shaw's sacrifice to the poem and usefully emphasizes its Civil War associations. What is perhaps less clear in his investigation is Lowell's debt to the present, and the extent to which that debt ultimately defines the direction of the poem. Early in his study, for example, Kavanagh remarks ‘Two major symbols stand together over the abyss of the underground garage, the Statehouse and a bas-relief of Colonel Shaw’: it may be added that the two structures are physically present on Beacon Hill above Boston Common where the garage was built, and, although contrary to the implication in the poem they were not propped up because of the excavation, they do face each other across Beacon Street in dramatic – or ironic – contrast. Yet there are many such contrasts in the poem, expressed or implied. From the ‘Sahara of snow’ and the boarded windows of the second line, to the ‘savage servility’ of the next to last, the whole city seems locked in an aura of unresolved opposites and stifling contradictions. Chief among these is the opposition between Colonel Shaw and the narrator, neither of whom emerges as either heroic or objectively ‘right’.