Skunk Hour

Ci: On "Skunk Hour"

Topographically and thematically, “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead” are similar projects. Both poems deal with the New England consciousness and offer indictments of the Puritan value system. The opening sequence of “Skunk Hour,” which consists of four tonally subdued stanzas, describes the arrival of autumn in the beach town of Castine, Maine, where Lowell spent the summer of 1957 (Life and Art 124). This scene ostensibly comments on a particularly dispiriting ritual of autumnal desertion specific to East Coast beach towns. Yet Lowell ascribes great meaning to the sudden desolation enacted when the summer ends and the tourists pull up stakes and take their commerce with them. Steven Gould Axelrod voices the critical consensus on what Lowell is doing here: “[Lowell] is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure” (Life and Art 125). The figures left behind stand as conflicted or empty signifiers. “Nautilus Island’s hermit / heiress” is a post-Puritan elect who, like the elect of “For the Union Dead,” uses her wealth not as a tool of beneficence but as a weapon of desecration:

 

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
 

Elect and preterite immediately take on connotations of economic class in postwar Maine. These lines suggest “hierarchic” domination of the underclass preterite of Nautilus Island, and we can very well imagine these “eyesores” as the former homes of the working-class “lobstermen” of the next stanza. But the hermit heiress is herself on the brink of extinction. “She’s in her dotage,” and the fact that her “son’s a bishop” suggests a sterile lineage (not to mention a weird, lighthearted nod to Elizabeth Bishop). Castine’s “summer millionaire,” the capitalist successor to her aristocracy, also proves to be less than he seems. While Axelrod suggests that the millionaire has lost his money, “[he’s] past his prime — his yawl has been auctioned off ” (Life and Art 125), a better explanation may be that he is simply finished with Castine since it has been just another part of his false summer image along with his “L.L. Bean catalogue” facade. Either way, his disappearance signals another reduction of the town’s wealth. His “nine-knot yawl” is recycled by the village’s working-class lobstermen, which along with the heiress’s purchase of “eyesores,” enacts a collapsing of the elect and preterite categories in the merging of upper and lower class. The “lobstermen,” too, are a weird monstrosity that combines haut cuisine with manual labor. Linguistically, their name denies their humanity by bringing to mind a freakish amalgamation of lobster and man. The third figure of the opening sequence, Lowell’s “fairy decorator,” performs an antithetical operation that amounts to the same thing: “And now our fairy / decorator brightens his shop for fall; / his fishnet’s filled with orange cork, / orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl.” By subsuming work implements into his shop to attract tourists and their money, the decorator has imploded preterite objects into the trappings of election, but, as the speaker explains, “there is no money in his work / he’d rather marry.” The decorator’s willingness to suppress his homosexuality for the prospect of marginal pecuniary security further contributes to the opening sequence’s milieu of capitalism gone awry, a condition that even has a seemingly detrimental effect on the ecology: “The season’s ill — / . . . A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” It should be noted that throughout these four stanzas Lowell consistently uses the all-inclusive “our,” a narrative technique that evokes not community solidarity but universal despondency (LS 83).

This unhappy leveling effect is a result of the phenomenon that Charles Berryman describes as “the substitution of mere worldly success for the original Puritan ideal of salvation” (21). In this way, Lowell’s representation of Castine’s residents reimagines the process delineated more than half a century earlier by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, the American emphasis on worldly success finds its origins in Puritan piety. The “melancholy inhumanity” inherent in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the ever-present uncertainty as to whether one was among the saved, “had one result above all: a feeling of unimaginable inner loneliness of the solitary individual ” (59). As the Puritans moved away from strict Calvinist doctrine and into what Weber calls Ascetic Protestantism, they naturally had to revise and redirect this fatalist outlook in order to maintain their membership, which resulted in the “Protestant ethic.” Since God’s intentions could never be known, the only way to ameliorate soteriological anxiety was to actively search for signs of personal election and, in the process, maintain total obedience to God’s commandments and laws. Humankind’s innate turpitude obviously made utter conformity a near-impossible task. “Restless work in a vocational calling,” Weber explains, “was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banished religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved” (66; emphasis Weber’s). From this statement, it’s not difficult to see the connection that Weber draws between Puritanism and capitalism. The “methodically organized work” advocated by Puritan ideology evolved into a pursuit of material wealth: “the acquisition of wealth, when it was the fruit of work in a vocational calling, as God’s blessing” (116). The spirit of capitalism, then, rests in material wealth as tangible proof of one’s salvation: “restless, continuous, and systematic work” aimed at the accumulation of “investment capital” becomes “the highest of all ascetic means for believers to testify to their elect status” (116–17). As Pynchon’s narrator phrases it at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, investment capital became “money in the Puritan sense — an outward and visible O.K. on their intentions” (652). Capitalism transforms the conditioned impulse toward salvation into a secularized exaltation of wealth and its forms of outward cultural signification, forsaking any hope of election in the spiritual sense. Weber’s theory is a key framework for understanding Lowell’s treatment of Puritanism. The characters in this first section of “Skunk Hour” have all tried to display a “visible O.K. on their intentions,” only to end up collapsed into the very thing they are trying to avoid.

The final four stanzas, which are perhaps the most commented-on of the Lowellian corpus, propel the conflation of elect and preterite to the poem’s forefront. The “One dark night” of “Skunk Hour” (LS 84) penetrates “For the Union Dead,” its poetic double, modulating into “One morning last March” (FTUD 72). Both lines have a haunting, quotidian quality. Lowell has written at length on the subject of this “dark night”:

This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some final darkness where the one free act is suicide. (Collected Prose 226)

Far from St. John of the Cross’s dark night, which ultimately leads to a perfect union with God, this dark night features a wholly absent God. Lowell inverts the narrative of mystical election to create a Puritan wilderness in which none are saved; the union simply never happens. Of the three adjectives (“secular, puritan, and agnostical”) that Lowell uses to describe his night, “puritan” is the most troublesome. “Secular” and “agnostical” make perfect sense in light of the existential aura that Lowell acknowledges. But why include the word “puritan”? We are speaking, of course, about “puritan” with a lowercase p, which can simply denote a rejection of sinful pleasures, but the word is heavily freighted coming from Lowell. One explanation is that the secularized Puritan struggle of the first half of the poem has been internalized by the speaker in the second half of the poem. The collapsed “our” of the poem’s first half telescopes into an “I” in the second half, culminating in the Satanic utterance “I myself am hell.” Carrying out the Puritan impulse to look for signs of election in everyday life (Puritan Origins 16), albeit in a perversely displaced manner, the “I” watches “love-cars” for signs of love (presumably a tonic to the existential condition) but finds only mechanized tombs that seem to mechanically copulate: “they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town.” The speaker’s strange search is closely allied to the Puritan quest to make the invisible visible, an inclination that Pynchon calls the “Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia” (188). A psychologized iteration of Weber’s observation that relentless Puritan self-examination became displaced into the accumulation of capital, the peripatetic narrator attempts to accumulate evidence of election in the world around him in order to internalize it and find some comfort in his own election.

Lowell does offer at least a modicum of hope in the skunks “that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat,” and the skunks further explain Lowell’s use of the word “puritan.” Sandra M. Gilbert identifies them as representatives of hell, “fiery familiars who emerge from the shadows of the graveyard to march, as if punning on Milton and Dante, ‘on their soles up Main Street,’ flaunting their demonic triumph ‘under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church,’ ” but of all the animals in the veritable bestiary of Life Studies, it is difficult to see the outcast, malodorous, mustelid skunk as a demonic conqueror or “the militant brutish new order, commanding the ruins of the former civilization” as Axelrod suggests (Life and Art131). Rather, the skunks are the preterite, Lowell’s model of endurance in a secular wasteland where those saved and those left behind have become indistinguishable from one another. What we have here is not an affirmation of redemption, as one might suspect, but merely hope for survival. Outside the “Trinitarian Church,” outside the domestic sphere of “our back steps,” the mother skunk fights tooth and nail for existence, and unlike any other creature (or car) in “Skunk Hour,” she has managed to reproduce and provide for her offspring. Without hope for spiritual election, they carry on as purely willful subjects in the poem’s world of existential crisis. Accordingly, in a letter to John Berryman, Lowell called the skunks “horrible blind energy” and verified that his speaker does identify with them in a positive way, as a desirable alternative: “i.e. dropping down to a simpler form of life, and a hopeful wish for that simpler energy” (Letters 400). Their march is a march of defiance, a thumbnail sketch of how to endure modern existence. After the implosions and erasures of election, the evaporations of wealth and worldly pleasure, the preterite skunks stand at the end of the poem as a sort of displaced persons population, fierce survivors who “will not scare” in Lowell’s wrecked allegory of universal preterition (LS 84).

“I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem,” Frank O’Hara griped, “and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty.” O’Hara’s cutting analysis insightfully prods at the greater issues of “Skunk Hour” and offers some much needed relief from Lowell’s anomie:

Why are they snooping? What’s so wonderful about a Peeping Tom? And then if you liken them to skunks putting their noses into garbage pails, you’ve just done something perfectly revolting. No matter what the metrics are. And the metrics aren’t all that unusual. Every other person in any university in the United States could put that thing into metrics. (Lucie-Smith 13)

Lowell explained that the detail about watching lovers wasn’t from personal experience, “but from an anecdote about Walt Whitman in his old age” (Collected Prose 228). The hidden presence of Whitman — the “bard of democracy” — is significant, especially when taken with the simultaneous allusion to Paradise Lost. David Lehman attributes O’Hara’s distaste to “the grandiose egoism of a speaker who likens the welfare of the body politic to the state of his psyche and quotes Milton’s Satan, ‘Myself am Hell,’ without saving irony” (348). However, in light of the Calvinist drama that unfolds in the first four stanzas, there is something ironic about Lowell’s identification with Satan. Lowell transposes Milton’s great Puritan struggle between heaven and hell onto Whitman’s democratic vision: “the prostitute and the President” living in perfect accord, creating a democracy of preterition where the “hermit heiress” suffers equally alongside the “lobstermen.” Theological categories collapse, and moral balance is lost. O’Hara is right; the result is revolting. That’s the point.

Perhaps Marjorie Perloff is correct when she contends that “Skunk Hour” falters when Lowell attempts to “make his own malaise representative of the larger condition of an America in decline” (“Return” 81). But one aspect of the poem that has gone strangely unnoticed is the way in which the skunks’ march presages real preterite marches, the civil rights, women’s rights, and Vietnam War protests that would erupt only a few years later. “Skunk Hour” is most important to twenty-first century readers not necessarily as a confessional testament to “America in decline” but as a mapping of the fault line between the “tranquilized fifties” and the volatile 60s, where formalism ruptures into confessionalism and the obstinate skunks transmute into Mailer’s Armies of the Night. Lowell himself, elect by most measures, took part in several protests against the Vietnam War. Underlying his support of the anti-war movement, however, is the deeply conflicted suspicion that distinctions between right and New Left, conservative and liberal, and war apologist and anti-war protestor are insignificant in the depolarized twentieth century. While “Skunk Hour” explores America’s Puritan legacy in allegorical terms, Lowell would move towards more concrete expressions of this catastrophe in For the Union Dead.

Charles Altieri: On "Skunk Hour"

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.

James E. B. Breslin: "On "Skunk Hour"

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.

Paul Breslin: On "Skunk Hour"

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.

Steven Gould Axelrod: On "Skunk Hour"

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.

Robert Lowell: On "Skunk Hour"

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.

Anneliese Harrison on Robert Lowell

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.