"Skunk Hour"

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade April 2001

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The poem "Skunk Hour" written by Robert Lowell for Elizabeth Bishop is a poem about the illness of society. The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village. The amiability of his tone is a deception. 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, " The seasons ill . . . A red fox stain covers blue hill". 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 a fairy interior decorator eager to attract wealthy tourists, but he would rather go against his sexual tendencies and marry.

The next two stanzas turn on and threaten the first four, the poem abruptly shifts from an ironic account of a disintegrating town to the "dark night" of something personal. The crumbling of a New England town now seems figurative as well as literal with these next stanzas. They depict Lowell's own feelings and it is the changing of self into landscape. Instead of observing the "the season's ill," Lowell now speaks of "my ill-spirit" and he admits that his "mind's not right." " He sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of loveless ness into a scene in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating the hit song "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. After he presents himself watching the lovers in parked cars and claims that his spirit is ill he states, "I myself am hell/ nobody's here--" From this line, one can interpret the intention of the poem to be about self-recognition.

Immediately after the line "nobody's here""" come the skunks. "Only skunks, that search/ in the moonlight" These skunks are the only creatures that are unaffected by the crumbling of the town and they are viewed with a literal realism that reveals an opening of the locked self. "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." The pun on "soles" (for "souls") emphasizes that these are literal, physical animals. They are standing underneath the church with a "chalk dry and spar spire" as if it too like society is becoming degraded to a lower than before stature and making it seem to be s church with dead aspirations. The skunks keep living their life, raising young and searching for food while the speaker stands on his steps and admires them.

Lowell uncovers his core self and is desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world. He writes this poem for Elizabeth Bishop as if to say it's a tough world out there to find yourself in.