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Robert Lowell > Skunk Hour

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message 1: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
(For Elizabeth Bishop)
Dedication Lowell’s poem is modeled on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo,” which Bishop had dedicated to Lowell.

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.

Thirsting for
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;
nobody’s here—

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.

Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour” from Life Studies. Copyright © 1956, 1959 by Robert Lowell, renewed © 1987 by Harriet W. Lowell, Sheridan Lowell, and Caroline Lowell. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Source: Life Studies (1987)

message 2: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Tyler (doulton) This poem is quite different from poems of earlier time periods. The speaker is miserable: "My mind's not right" and "I myself am hell".

Lowell is writing about a ritzy summer island where the wealthy live. He refers fleetingly to some local characters; The "heiress" with her "Bishop son" who is rich enough to buy up all the properties which ruin her view.

"nobody's here": is this in his mind, or in the fact that everyone is shutterd up this summer night?

The tenacity of the mother skunk is vivid. She'll swill the garbage for food for her children.

Is Lowell suggesting that the skunk is the only fully purposeful being around?

Lowell was a "confessional" poet who also could become quite lyrical. Many readers dislike the "confessional" poets for various reasons but I think that this poem makes a good point The human world is a corrupt and dismaying one but the skunk will do what she is bred to do: find food for her babies and "not scare".

message 3: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
My first reaction after having read this is: "Welcome to modern poetry." It seems that from Donne to Lowell, we have moved from an era in which poets strove to be the wittiest to an era when poets strove to be the most nebulous. I must reserve further comment until I have had a chance to read this a couple more times.

message 4: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Tyler (doulton) I see much of modern poetry as little sketches: little images in watercolor that don't compare to some of the wonderful oil paintings of the Great Masters with their light and shade.

I see "Skunk Hour" as a poem in which we are told briefly about some inhabitants of the island; in which we see the narrator being miserable, and we see the skunk being the only creature doing her duty and getting to work--scrounging up a meal for her children.

I think I accept modern poetry just as that: some images that can coalesce about a feeling. Some of the questions we might ask are: why a skunk and not another kind of animal? Why a Tudor Ford and not a Plantangenet Ford? Well, not a smart question. A look on the Internet tells me that Ford made a car called the Tudor from 1923-until at least 1963. And it appears to have been a somewhat luxurious car. Perhaps this tells us that the narrator does not need money.

Nautilus Island? Small exclusive island. Will cost almost 8 million dollars to buy a house there. It started out as a British Warship named Nautilus and the Brits had it as a command post. Revolutionary War. Lots of history there.

And I could go on asking questions. Does all the old money and images of the past (Victoria's century, the millionaire who has lost money, reflect on the speaker's misery? This is where the poem falls apart for me because I see it as a sketch of a scene but it does not go far in telling a story.

message 5: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
Natalie wrote: "Nautilus Island? Small exclusive island. Will cost almost 8 million dollars to buy a house there. It started out as a British Warship named Nautilus and the Brits had it as a command post. Revolutionary War. Lots of history there.

This is good information that you provided on not just the island, but these other allusions as well. I will reread with this knowledge before I cheat and look on Shmoop!

message 6: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
The Heiress' Loneliness

I think the theme of this poem is that loneliness is scary. The old heiress, the first person to whom the speaker introduces us, is described as a "hermit" and he says she is "thirsting for / the hierarchic privacy." The setting provides this relative solitude for the old woman. She, of course, has her sheep, her son, and her farmer there, but still wants to be left alone.

An island is usually associated with isolation, thus she lives "through winter in her Spartan cottage." Nautilus Island in Maine is a summer retreat for the rich, where they would live in cottages for the summer simply to escape the hustle and bustle of their presumably much busier home lives. Those who live there permanently are obviously much poorer. They are tied there so to speak. We can presume that the old heiress has a mansion some place where she could go and probably be surrounded by servants and such, but she chooses to live out her dotage in this relative isolation.

Perhaps her buying up of the property around her is to get rid of any unwanted company, not merely to get a better view of the sea.

message 7: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
I think the loneliness theme lends itself to every character the speaker introduces us two. He next brought up the "summer millionaire." I do not interpret this as a reference to a particular person, but as a synecdoche for a group of rich people who have their summer homes on Nautilus Island. These LL Bean millionaires, an obvious allusion to the Maine catalog, the same state where Nautilus Island is found, leave at the end of the summer. What can be said of the island at this point? It is much quieter. People are much scarcer. Again, we get the idea the speaker is dealing with loneliness. He probably feels left out.

message 8: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
Next, the speaker introduces the "fairy decorator." It seems like he is lonely too. "There is no money in his work, he’d rather marry" (23-24). He has no wife. Whether for money or love, he definitely wants a wife. I think the feeling of loneliness is the link between each stanza and each person or animal the speaker introduces us to.

message 9: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
The Speaker's Loneliness

Next, the speaker drives his Ford Tudor to the top of a hill where lovers typically go to spend time. We are given to understand that some lovers are parked there. He says, "Lights turned down, they lay together, hull to hull," (27-28). Ironically, the speaker says, "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here—" (35-36). Like these other characters, the speaker is not alone, but he is lonely.

message 10: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Moran | 95 comments Mod
The Skunks

The speaker, through stream of consciousness, goes from describing the lovers' hill to some skunks: "nobody’s here—only skunks". Again, the speaker invokes the idea of loneliness. He observes that the skunks are raiding his garbage can. He cannot scare them away. So, the only company he has is unwanted and yet, he cannot get rid of them. Perhaps this is why he is hell!

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