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On "Skunk Hour"


Robert Lowell

The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town. I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect. The composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay. Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.

From "On Skunk Hour," in Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Thomas Parkinson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968),131-132.


John R. Reed

"Skunk Hour" is important not only because it is a good poem but also because it is a firm acceptance of the things of this world in all their ambiguous excellence. The figures of the past who open the poem are doomed and disappearing; the "fairy decorator" is caught in a meretricious existence between a fruitless profession and a presumably fruitless prospect of marriage. As Lowell succinctly states, "The season’s ill." The speaker in "After the Surprising Conversions" described the man whose "thirst for loving shook him like a snake," though "he durst / Not entertain much hope of his estate / In heaven." The speaker in "Skunk Hour" shares that thirst for love and, hence, his quest on the Golgotha of this earth for "Love, O careless Love." He provides an answer to the question: Why is this earth a place of pain? The speaker sees, "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here—." No deity need have withdrawn; man’s suffering is man-made, man-conceived, and what is most important, man-alterable. The skunk’s "moonstruck eyes’ red fire" makes the "chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church" seem hollow and irrelevant. Nobody’s here. The mother skunk and her family are neither intimidated nor frightened by the vacuity of this world; they have occupation enough in searching "for a bite to eat" in "the garbage pail." The mother skink feasts freely "and will not scare." If man could find his sustenance as freely in a corrupt world, he, too, would not scare. The skunks, in an obscure way, have become hopeful models, and the speaker of the poem can stand on the "back steps and breathe the rich air." The commitment to and acceptance of the meanest level of existence is in itself a liberation from an ill season and a moral world that seems unoccupied.

from "Going Back: The Ironic Progress of Lowell's Poetry." Modern Poetry Studies 1.4


Steven Gould Axelrod

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell;
nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.


Paul Breslin

In "Skunk Hour," the confessional mirroring of public and private is expressed formally in the poem's symmetrical division into four stanzas about the social environment and four about the poet's "dark night" of voyeurism and incipient madness. Lowell, in an essay on the composition of the poem, revealed that he had written the stanzas about himself first, later adding the other four . . . . By putting the stanzas about his surroundings first, Lowell reinterprets the private suffering as only one more symptom of a pervasive cultural breakdown. His account of the composition of this poem, however, points to its central problem. As evidence that "the season's ill," that the surrounding world is falling apart, the first four stanzas simply aren't convincing. . . .

What, after all, are the social analogues of the personal crisis in "Skunk Hour"? There is a slightly dotty "hermit heiress" who "buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall." Her son, moreover, is a bishop. If he is her only son, and if he is a Catholic rather than Episcopal bishop, the family line will presumably end there; otherwise, this detail has no discoverable significance. What else is wrong? The "summer millionaire" has died, and his "nine-yacht yawl has been "auctioned off to lobstermen." Not only that, the "fairy / decorator" has painted the once-functional "cobbler's bench and awl" a garish orange for his shop display, and despite his homosexuality, he is willing to marry for money. One would be grateful if these were the worst problems in one's own neighborhood. The sinister language of illness ("the season's ill") and contamination ("A red fox stain covers Blue Hill") does not rest on a convincing portrayal of anything sinister in the environment; it is only intelligible as the projection of the poet's internal sense of foreboding.

. . . .

The line "I myself am hell" would seem, in isolation at least, to tell us that hell is within rather than without. And if "nobody's here," the hermit heiress and the fairy decorator have in effect disappeared. Our attention is shifted from them to the self that saw in them, as in everything else, only its own misery. If so, then the poet has proposed the external analogues of the first four stanzas only to turn on himself and reject them as rationalizations. The plot of "Skunk Hour," so interpreted, is one of self-recognition.

Much as one might wish to construe the poem thus, it will not quite support such an interpretation. There is a curious, and as it turns out, crucial slippage of tense in stanza five. The "dark night" is recounted for five lines, in the past tense. Then comes an ellipsis and the declaration, in present tense, that "my mind's not right." The poem continues in present tense, although the events are recollected, all the way to the end, implying that the encounter with the skunks occurred when the speaker returned from his voyeuristic prowl among the "love-cars." It makes a great deal of difference whether the recognitions expressed in "my mind's not right" and "I myself am hell" occur in the narrative past, as realizations already made during the dark night and now recollected, or whether they now strike the poet unexpectedly for the first time in the moment of recollection. For if the speaker of the first four stanzas has already had these insights, one cannot suppose that he catches himself in a self-deception as a new interpretation of the recollected experience suddenly dawns on him. The blurred boundary between recollected experience and the process of recollection makes it impossible to decide whether the analogues in the first four stanzas should be taken as reliable or not.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry Since the Fifties (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987), 68-70.


James E. B. Breslin

The poem begins with an eccentric heiress who prefers "Queen Victoria's century" to the present but who is powerless to halt temporal and social disintegration. Her "son's a bishop," her "farmer / is first selectman in our village." She is a figure of rank or station, but she is "in her dotage." A "hermit / heiress," she yearns for "hierarchic privacy," a safely controlled existence; she tries to resist time by buying "all / the eyesores facing her shore," but then "lets them fall." She at least is "Spartan" and old-fashioned, but the town has lost even its modern, showy millionaire. The heiress has a certain integrity and character, but he "seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean / catalogue" -- an anonymous figure created by remote control. "The season's ill," Lowell coolly pronounces; "a red fox stain covers Blue Hill." The final phase of the town's decay is evoked by a decorator who converts real, functional objects of the town's past (a cobbler's bench and awl) into art objects (aimed at the tourist trade) by painting them orange -- a way of preserving the past that empties it of its reality.

But the next two stanzas turn on and subvert the first four, as "Skunk Hour" abruptly shifts from ironic account of disintegrating town to the "dark night" of a personal ordeal. The disintegration, it now appears, is Lowell's own, the changing of self into landscape. Instead of observing that "the season's ill," Lowell now speaks of "my ill-spirit" and admits that "my mind's not right." In fact, by presenting himself watching lovers in parked cars, Lowell uncovers his core self -- "unseen and all-seeing" -- and desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world -- a way of preserving self and other that empties both of their reality. The two stanzas thus culminate with a moving and crucial act of self-recognition: "I myself am hell; / nobody's here" -- the quotation from Milton's Satan defining the projecting as demonic self. All the sequence's images of sealed enclosures are really representations of the poet's own encapsulated consciousness; Lowell now confronts his own "air / of lost connections," his radical isolation.

"Skunk Hour" does not, however, end with a despairing perception of inevitable subjectivity; the poem moves from easy projection, through inward ordeal, toward authentic connection with otherness; "nobody's here -- // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat." The skunks seem to wander into the poem, seen out of the corner of the poet's eye and qualifying his sense of isolation, and they are viewed with a literal realism that reveals an opening of the locked self. . . . The pun on "soles" (for "souls") emphasizes that these are literal, physical animals. Juxtaposing them against the dry, dead aspirations of the Trinitarian Church, Lowell places the skunks in a flat, mythless, modern ("Main Street") world where things lack the vertical extensions of meaning they possess within a Christian mythology. . . . The skunks, swilling sour cream from a garbage pail, manifest the persistence of a fiery life in a corrupt, disintegrating, ordinary world. The poet includes, but does not tame, them.

From From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945-1965 (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983), 137-139.


Charles Altieri

The possible redeeming qualities of domestic life enable the starker context of "Skunk Hour" to provide a somewhat satisfactory conclusion to the volume's spiritual journey. In the context of the entire Volume, "Skunk Hour" articulates a ground of values that make it possible to endure, if not to overcome, the anxieties of contemporary life and the loss of traditional grounds for value. The poem first of all embodies the ultimate lucidity, the denial of all imaginative evasions, which Lowell has been seeking. This then brings him to a dark night of the soul, a traditional religious image he takes now as "secular, puritan and agnostical." There he encounters the ultimate nothingness or absence of meaning, which is perhaps the result of all pursuits of sheer lucidity (I am thinking of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly of Flaubert). For Lowell the absence is dual - an emptiness he witnesses in the scene of perverted love among the love cars, mirrored by a horrifying sense of his own inner emptiness, "I myself am hell; / nobody's here." Hell here is the ultimate prose - a profound sense of the absence of all sources of meaning and value in the public world represented by the landscape and in the private realm where one defines his personal identity. Yet Lowell has not lost his imaginative sense of redemptive archetypes; having fallen to the depths of despair where the ascent beckons, Lowell turns to the skunk - the figure of whatever possibilities Lowell can find for a secular redemption from his despairs. . . .

Thematically the skunk resolves several problems in the volume. By returning to the prereflective natural order symbolized by the many animal images, Lowell makes the skunk embody the determination and self-concern of all living beings and beyond that, as mother, a willingness to face danger in order to accept the responsibility of her role. (Family existence once again has value independent of all fictive or interpretative frames.) Now one sees both a parody of the Eucharist and, on another level, a genuine moment of communion, for, as the skunk swills from the garbage pail, Lowell finds precisely the image of endurance and survival he had sought in vain in the rest of the volume. In fact, Lowell's evening service to some extent reverses one of the final images of his father's impotence. For Commander Lowell's lettering his garbage cans was a pathetic alternative to Sunday church service he saw as beneath the dignity of a naval man. Here the very order his father so stupidly rejected is recovered precisely through those images of modern emptiness.

As the skunk makes her way beneath the "chalk-dry church spire" reminding the reader of the dead vertical world, she embodies whatever possibilities Lowell can find for restoring a context of value within secular and biological necessity. These possibilities are not very encouraging; man may learn to endure, but it must be with a dogged single-minded concentration that omits much of the old humanist possibilities for human development and enjoyment of the world. And the poetic process itself calls one's attention to these reduced possibilities. The skunk here plays the resolving role performed by Christ in much of Lord Weary's Castle. Christ as a resolving figure functions "metaphorically"; he pulls into himself all the disparate strands and adds an element that completes them and develops their meaning. Thus Christ's suffering both gives Lowell a personal- meaning and adds to it a value not evident within secular experience. Lowell imaginatively participates in the same metaphorical project as poet by having the details he uses in describing Christ, particularly the name kingfisher and the redeeming fire, both define and give value to Lowell's pulsing blood and his resistance to the mud. (Only because Christ evokes an entire mythic structur, a structure of metaphors, can such specific details do so much work.) The skunk, on the other hand, functions metonymically. The analogy between man and skunk now creates only a partial continuous resolution, so that the summary remains incomplete and ambiguous in relation to the conditions being explained. The presence of the skunk, in other words, forces on the reader a solution to the poem's despair, but it is a solution that does not incorporate the human and religious terms in which the despair had been framed. The analogical link, then, between Lowell and the skunk's not-quite-human resolve to endure can only be known sympathetically. The relation is too complex and diffuse for analysis, and the identification of man and skunk too foreign to one's sensibilities for there to be a completely affirmative resolutions Finally, Lowell's identification with the skunk provides an emblem for the confessional style in the volume. Lowell learned in "Words for Hart Crane" that self-analysis and debasement were the preconditions for salvation in the American Wasteland. Now the skunk summarizes what it means to search for value and self-definition when all the sustaining fictions have failed. One is left only with the garbage of one's own past, which he must have the determination to explore and the courage to endure.

From Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s. Copyright © 1979 by Associated University Presses, Inc.


Charles Altieri

The ultimate confidence that secular redemption is really possible, however, comes only with what Lowell called the "affirmation" in "Skunk Hour" (O, 107). This affirmation is realized in two ways. First, the poem most directly faces the, horror of the void created by the absence of values ("nobody’s here"). Only in a dark night of the soul (a dark night Lowell calls "secular, puritan, and agnostical," O, 107 ) can true redemption be discovered. This is the importance of the Satan allusion: hell must be seen before one can mount the secular winding backstairs on top of which Lowell stands at the poem's conclusion. Second, Lowell tells us, "Skunk Hour is not entirely independent, but the anchor poem in its sequence" (O, 108). As such, it returns to and transforms almost all of the motifs which throughout the volume had suggested the horrors of the prose world. "Beyond the Alps" began Life Studies with a journey in spring, a kind of "Wasteland" spring with its stress on the difficulties involved in being reborn. "Skunk Hour" offers another journey, this time in the fall—the time for harvesting what was planted in the spring. At the same time, the fall setting allows the poem to begin with a restatement of the emptiness and desolation which have permeated the volume. And, as Hugh Staples points out, the first four stanzas present complementing images of a failing New England tradition.

The desolation of the opening scenes leads to the poem's dramatic core where the essential struggle is to find some substance, some vital principle Lowell can reach out for to affirm his existence. John Berryman has shown how even the careful details of the initial stanzas are a defense against being swept away into the void of an attack of madness and this sense of emptiness is intensified by the parody of love Lowell gazes on. Surrounded by almost medieval reminders of human inadequacy (the cemetery and reference to the hill's "skull"), the lovers have no real human existence. As he also does in the brilliant opening lines of "Concord," Lowell suggests that the people are completely lost in their objects: "love-cars . . . lay together, hull to hull" and play songs whose words are banal and yet are ironically juxtaposed to the scene. The combination of emptiness and attempts at love throws Lowell back into his own loneliness, his own fear that he lacks any sense of inner principle (I myself am hell;/nobody's here—"). Now, however, the animal images, which had served to reinforce the degradation felt when one is left with only a prose world, return to relieve the despair. For Lowell finds something in the skunk—a determination and a vitality that affirm at least life, and perhaps even a sense of responsibility, as values. Lowell in fact uses the word "soles" to suggest that through the bestial more than the bestial is found. The skunk accepts its responsibilities for its family and takes an active role in meeting dangers that threaten the fulfillment of these responsibilities. The rediscovery of the human through the bestial is also evoked by the skunk's final swilling from the garbage pail. Berryman suggests that this last action is a parody of the Eucharist and concludes a series of Christian overtones in the poem. The full significance of these overtones, of course, is that they redeem the empty rituals, especially eating and communion rituals, which have run through the volume, and suggest some success in Lowell's quest to replace religious with secular values. They also provide a parodic coup de grace to the garbage cans that Commander Lowell lettered, thinking Church beneath the dignity of a naval man.

The end of the poem provides a perfect emblem of secular communion. Through the skunk as it makes its way under the "chalk-dry church spire" which provides an ironic reminder of the dead vertical world Lowell realizes values which enable him to conquer his despair. In fact, the context of the volume allows the skunk to playa redeeming role analagous to the one played by Christ in Lord Weary's Castle. And this communion has metapoetic implications. Not only does the suggestion in "Words For Hart Crane" that art can become a mode of sympathizing with others reach a kind of fulfillment in the poem, but the emblem of the skunk suggests a new secular mode for art. As it swills the garbage in its desperate quest to live and provide for its family, it is doing exactly what Lowell does with his past in Life Studies. And, the volume successfully completed, Lowell too "will not scare." At the end of his essay on "Skunk Hour," Lowell returns to one of the basic motifs in the volume to summarize the importance of this last poem, "With Berryman, too, I go on a strange journey! Thank God, we both come out clinging to spars, enough floating matter to save us, though faithless" (O ,110).

from "Poetry in a Prose World: Robert Lowell's 'Life Studies.'" Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 1


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