‘Skunk Hour’ by Robert Lowell was written in 1957 and published in the volume, Life Studies, one of Lowell’s most important works. The poem is made up of eight sestets, or six line stanzas. These stanzas do not conform to a particular rhyme scheme, but there are moments of internal rhyme a reader might notice. For instance, Lowell chose to repeat the ‘-ill’ sound a number of times within the text. It appears throughout all eight stanzas, ranging from “village” to “filled.”
Before reading this piece one should take note of the dedication which appears alongside the original text, it reads:
for Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop was an American poet and short story writer born in 1911. She is the author of the ‘The Armadillo,’ a piece that inspired Lowell to write ‘Skunk Hour.’ Lowell dedicates his poem to her as a way of respecting her remarkable poetic works and her contribution to his own development as a writer. An identical inscription, this time directed toward Lowell, appears at the beginning of ‘Armadillo.’ The two maintained a close friendship throughout their lives, despite the fact they rarely saw one another. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of Skunk Hour
The poem begins with the speaker describing a number of the town’s residents. There is a “hermit heiress.” Her son is a bishop and her farmer is the first selectman of the town. The detail present at the start of the poem gives way to a more emotional and personal take on the town in the second half.
Lowell’s speaker describes how he spends his nights on the top of a hill looking for lovers in cars. He is seeking out some kind of gratification he cannot get in his normal life. These lines are dark, depressing and full of deep feelings of loneliness.
The poem concludes with the “skunk hour.” This is a time in which the skunks prowl the streets of the town seeking out something to eat. He relates his own feelings to their need to search, find, and satisfy themselves.
Analysis of Skunk Hour
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by placing the events to come within one particular setting, “Nautilus Island.” This is a real island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. It is part of the town of Brooksville. The speaker will carry the reader through a number of different descriptions of residents of this area in the poem’s eight stanzas. The first person who enters into the story is the “hermit / heiress.”
This strange combination of words is intriguing. It paints an image of a woman who was an “heiress,” or inheritor of a great deal of money, but has chosen to live as a hermit. She has set aside what luck has given her.
This character “still lives…in her Spartan cottage.” From this line one is able to determine that the woman has lived in this place for a great deal of time. One can also assume the speaker has been here before and knows the area well. He is comfortable enough with the place to state that the woman’s sheep are still grazing in the same field “above the sea.”
The son of the old “hermit heiress” is a “bishop.” He has also chosen a simple life, but one more closely connected to society. There is also a “farmer” living in the area who works on the woman’s farm. He is described as being the “first selectman” in the speaker’s village. The “Selectmen” are a governing body in many towns in New England.
In the second stanza the woman’s life is further defined. She is has a constant thirst for,
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century
The woman is old enough to remember, or at least have respect for, the Victorian era. She misses the way life was then. It was likely simpler and easier to understand. These are things which clearly suit the woman’s personality.
In the second half of this section the speaker describes how the woman has been “buy[ing] up all / the eyesores facing her shore.” With the money she inherited and never did anything with, she is buying properties across the water from her cottage. She sees them as being ugly eyesores. Through her purchase of them she is able to let them “fall” to pieces. Eventually they will be gone and she won’t have to look at them.
The speaker takes a step away from the story of the hermit to discuss the general progression of time in this area of Maine. As the season changes from summer to fall the “millionaire” is lost. This is a reference to someone who lives on the island only during the summer months, leaving when it starts to get colder. The “millionaire” is predictably dressed as if from an “L.L. Bean / catalogue.
In the following lines the speaker mentions the millionaire’s “nine-knot yawl.” A yawl is a sailing craft often used by commercial fishermen. In this case, the millionaire had a version which was “auctioned off to the lobstermen” after he left.
The changing of the seasons is also marked by the “red fox stain” over“Blue Hill.” This vague description is a complicated way to describe the reddening of the leaves in another area of the state, Blue Hill.
The fourth stanza introduces a new character into this area of Maine. He is a “decorator” who is preparing his “shop for fall.” The colors must be altered till they match the “orange” of the scenery.
Although there is no money in the work the decorator is doing, he continue. It is not this person’s goal to make a huge living. He simply wants to be “merry.” His work pleases him and he will continue to do it.
At the beginning of the second half of the poem the speaker introduces himself into the narrative. He starts using first person to refer to his own actions. The speaker is describing one night in which he was driving his “Tudor Ford” up to the top of a hill. It was his goal once arriving there to spy on those in “love-cars.” He hopes to see lovers sharing intimate moments they think are in private.
The speaker imagines he will see the “lights turned down” and people laying together, “hull to hull.” He knows this compulsion of his is inappropriate. The speaker even goes so far as to say his “mind’s not right.”
The sixth stanza goes further into what the speaker saw and heard when he was on the hill that night. There was the sound of a car radio. It was “bleat[ing]” out a love song. The emotion from this simple piece of music had a massive impact on the speaker. His “ill-spirit” was moved until he sobbed in every “blood cell.”
The last lines of this section make clear the speaker’s own loneliness. So far he has spent time making connections between residents of the town. This is likely due to his own solitude. He feels as if his hand is at the “throat” of his spirit. The life he is living, and the current activity he is engaged in, make him feel like hell. He reminds himself, and the reader, that he is completely alone. There is “nobody…here.”
Although there are no people to keep him company, there are “skunks.” These creatures are unsavoury to most, but in this moment they are related to the speaker in location and motivation. They are both moving around at night. The speaker is seeking connection and the skunks, “a bite to eat.”
He goes on to describe how the skunks move through the city at night. They pad up “Main Street” showing off their,
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
These features of the skunks are enhanced due to their location. The lights of the city, particularly those around the “Trinitarian Church.”
The speaker has returned to his home at this point and it is revealed he is not completely alone. Wherever he lives is also home to another. He breathes in the “rich air” at the same time as,
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
The mother skunk is pursing the best possible food source for his children. This is related to how the speaker is attempting to make the best of his lonely and depressed situation. The skunk will not be scared off from her attempts at eating from the garbage, it is more important to her than fear.
This hour of the night, after which the poem is named, is the most depressing, but also revelatory for the speaker. After most of the town’s residents have gone to bed, he sets out in search of something fulfilling.