Analysis of Poem "Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell and Skunk Hour
Skunk Hour is a confessional poem written in 1957. It was the last poem in an important volume of poetry titled Life Studies, one of Lowell's most influential creations.
The poem focuses initially on several prominent inhabitants of Nautilus Island, Maine; from the hermit heiress to the gay decorator. Brief descriptions set the scene until the main protagonist, the sad, lonely speaker, begins his rather pathetic confession.
This is a dark and thought provoking poem, with religious anxieties surfacing, and raises issues that are universal and relevant for today. For example, the speaker admits to secretly watching lovers in their cars at night and this makes him feel bad, like hell. He's a type of voyeur - a victim of a modern, uncaring, materialistic community or a loner who will resort to crazy things for a buzz?
The alternative interpretation of Skunk Hour, according to one school of thought, is that each individual mentioned in the first part of the poem - the heiress, the millionaire and the decorator - represents a Lowell family member.
Robert Lowell was a controversial figure in his lifetime. Imprisoned for being a conscientious objector in the second world war, he had a torrid personal life, got through three marriages and was treated for various episodes of manic depression.
Skunk Hour was inspired by fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop's poem Armadillo. The two were great friends.
Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
hull to hull - the speaker sees the cars as boats, next to one another as if on a river. The Styx from Greek mythology, associated with the final crossing of the soul?
hill's skull - a suggestion of Golgotha, the hill Christ was crucified on?
spar spire - mastlike spire
Tudor Ford - Ford luxury car
Skunk Hour is a free verse poem of eight sestets (six line stanzas), that's forty eight lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme but there are interesting end rhymes and some internal rhymes that help solidify the whole, adding a seam of sense/sound.
For example, note the recurrence of ill and all, ell and ail and ull throughout the poem, in these words:
These sounds, a variation on a theme of ill, are half-rhymes and produce an echo that keeps the reader in touch with the voice of the speaker, alive in a season that is itself ill.
The overall tone of Skunk Hour is pessimistic, even depressing - only the skunks seem to live brightly in the here and now of Nautilus Island. It's not a fun place to exist in according to the speaker; there is a sickness pervading and he seems to be a victim of it, admitting that he is not right in the mind.
So there is an atmosphere of doubt, failure and poverty of spirit, relieved temporarily by the actions of the courageous if slightly disgusting skunks.
The scene is set by first introducing the old and frail heiress of the island who is a stickler for tradition, a conservative, fading aristocrat landowner with a bishop for a son and ruins for the future. Basically she's living in the past.
The poet's diction - language - reflects this refusal to move on by using the word still twice to emphasise the longevity of her reign. She clings on through the winter, the sheep go on grazing. Even her farmer is a traditional administrator (selectman) in the speaker's own village of all places.
The tone is one of mild desperation at this stage in the poem, the heiress thirsting for a return to the glorious days of old Victoria, when the great and good ruled supreme and everyone knew their place.
Note the way the poet uses end half-rhyme (slant or near or imperfect rhyme) in cottage/village/dotage which suggests that things are not making full sense, there is little harmony.
The poet uses full end rhyme - for/shore - all/fall - to continue this theme of ongoing tradition but note the contrasting complicated and simple shortened lines of iambic and especially dactylic rhythms which fall off :
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
the voice pitched higher on the stress, then lower on the unstressed. Carefully placed punctuation helps moderate pace. These combine to endorse the idea that on this island things are falling into a state of disrepair, which doesn't bode well for the future.
Skunk Hour - More Analysis
The narrative, a personal take on the island's more controversial citizens, gains more momentum and darkness. The speaker invites all shades of reaction by declaring the season ill, and illustrating this fact with the demise of a millionaire - presumably and despite being well dressed (like a model in an L.L.Bean catalogue) he unfortunately succumbed on Blue Hill? The fox stain is ambiguous. It could be blood, it could be the sheen grass takes on at a certain time of year, which is known as fox stain.
Using words like lost, leap, and auctioned off all point to a person permanently not returning, his boat now belonging to locals who will put it to better use.
Again, rhyme cannot be ignored but is used unusually by the poet. Note the first and last lines rhyme fully - ill/hill - and seem to top and tail the stanza in a rather neat but distant fashion. In between is a half-rhyme.
As the poem progresses the reader is fed mostly factual information but the undercurrent of personal pessimism is just strong enough to elicit the thought - something strange is going on here.
The plot thickens as a third character is presented, this time a poor, homosexual decorator (fairy is a derogatory term for a gay person) who uses orange to liven up his shop and who would prefer being married to working for little money.
The full end rhyme fall/awl and half-rhymes cork/work and fairy/marry help tie up this stanza, a near comic portrayal of a guy making the best out of a sorry situation. Wedlock would seem to be a way out of a life destined for a peculiar kind of sad, island loneliness, although at the time of writing, 1957, marriage for gay couples would have been out the question.
More Analysis of Skunk Hour
One dark night is taken from one of the poems of St John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish saint,mystic and poet who wrote his Stanzas of the Soul whilst in prison.
The speaker is revealed, at last, having 'hidden' behind the first four stanzas, but note the wording of the second line:
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull;
Somehow the car is driving itself up that hill, with the speaker absent, as if there's no personal responsibility for the action. It's this element of distance that helps create the poem's somewhat shadowy atmosphere.
Then the dark revelation - this guy goes up the hill to peek on couples having sex in their cars. How low can you get? But again note the specific details:
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
There is no reference to people, only the bodies of the cars, hull to hull, as if it's the vehicles that are mating. The speaker only infers, he doesn't explicitly state.
And that line about the graveyard is a powerful hint - the island's dead are looking in on this love-making too, just like the speaker. The four dots at the end of this line are poignant and pregnant with possibility. The speaker is self-reflecting. He's falling apart, just like the island.
Read through this stanza several times and the full end rhymes help it to become memorable, perhaps the poet's intention.
The speaker is so close to the cars on the hill he can hear music from one of the radios. A love song, Careless Love, from the 1950s, is playing, with the lyrics "Now you see what careless love will do.../ Make you kill yourself and your sweetheart too."
Things fall further apart as the speaker is filled with a kind of self-loathing and wants to strangle himself, do himself in.
- I myself am hell is inspired by a line from Milton's Paradise Lost 4.75 where Satan says" Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell."
At this point the speaker feels completely alone, even though he's close to the love-cars? Or is he lonely only in his mind, despite others being near.
Seventh Stanza and Eighth Stanza
The rhyme scheme changes as the speaker becomes aware that he is not alone - skunks are out in the moonlight. They might be smelly, distasteful creatures but at least they're confident; they march right up Main Street on their soles (soles- souls), brazen, searching for one thing, food.
Note the full end-rhymes of the middle four lines, becoming tight couplets: the skunks are together.
So Nature comes to the rescue in the form of the instinctive skunk, a mother no less with her young in tow out looking for food. The speaker seems almost relieved as he watches this family go about their business of surviving in an urban environment, an unnatural one for these animals.
The last two stanzas bring some redemption for the sad, mad speaker, whose meaningless existence in a Maine backwater is put on hold temporarily by the simple act of scavenging by a lowly skunk.
Has the speaker learnt his lesson? Has he done anything wrong? He may be tainted inside, despairing, but at least he can remain humble and seek some solace from the natural world, despite the imposition of modern life around him - money and societal pressures and family traditions all take their toll.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Andrew Spacey