Robert Lowell

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.


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Robert Lowell
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