The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell

‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ was first published in Lowell’s 1946 collection Lord Weary’s Castle. Since then it has become quite popular and influential. The volume was Lowell’s second book of poetry and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1947. The fairly long and complicated poem explores themes of human existence, religion, and natural elements.

 

Summary of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket 

‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ by Robert Lowell is a very complex and allusion-heavy poem that describes the sea, divine force, and corruption. 

Throughout the seven sections of the poem, the poet depicts the power of the ocean and humanity’s inability to exert any kind of control over it. This is seen through the life and death of Ahab’s crew, the explosion at sea of a special naval vessel in the first lines, as well as the various images of the waves and wind, scattered throughout the lines. The poet also brings in images of a graveyard that acts as a memorial site for many of the men who died at sea. There are numerous allusions to God and religion throughout. These include passages from the Bible. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket 

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ by Robert Lowell is a seven-part poem that is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. The shortest is ten lines long and can be found in sections four and six. The longest are twenty-six and twenty-four lines and are found in sections one and three. The rhyme and meter in the poem is somewhat scattered. The lines vary in length and use different rhyme schemes in their sections and stanzas. For example, the first lines of the first section rhyme ABCBCA. This pattern shifts slightly in the second section but maintains a feeling of rhyme throughout. 

In regards to the meter, Lowell switches between using iambs and trochees where either the first beat of a metrical foot is stressed or unstressed. 

A reader should also take note of the epigraph and dedication that come before the first stanza of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’. The dedication reads: FOR WARREN WINSLOW, DEAD AT SEA. This refers to Warren Winslow, Lowell’s cousin who drowned at sea. He was part of a naval crew, all of whom died in an explosion. 

The epigraph, or the brief statement, quote, or reference that comes before the poem text, reads: 

Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.

This is an excerpt from the Bible, specifically Genesis 1:26. It is interesting to consider the contrast between Warren’s death at sea and this statement that human beings supposedly have control over everything. 

 

Literary Devices in The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket 

Lowell makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important. It is used throughout the poem. For example, the numerous quotations that come in full or part from the Bible. There are also references to other works of literature such as those by writers such as Henry Thoreau. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, the words “drowned” and “drag-net” in line four and “bloodless” and “botch” in line eight of the first stanza. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of part two. 

Other techniques that a careful reader can find in the poem include apostrophe and anaphora. The former is an arrangement of words addressing someone, something, or creature, that does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, the speaker is addressing the dead sailor, the poet’s cousin. 

Lowell also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. It can be seen in the fifth section where lines seven through ten start with “The”. 

 

Analysis of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket 

Part I

Lines 1-16 

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket—

The sea was still breaking violently and night

Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,

(…)

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

In the first few lines of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,’ the speaker begins by describing the setting. He is depicting the shore of an island on the east side of Nantucket. It is just off of Cape Cod. The conditions are quite dangerous at the moment that the poem begins. The water is a mix of seawater in freshwater, which is referred to as “brackish“. Its combination can create surprising turbulence at the shoreline. The next few lines inform the reader that the conditions of the sea are so poor that people have already died. 

This is very likely a reference to Warren Winslow, Lowell’s cousin who died at sea. The speaker explains how the water brought sailors of the North Atlantic fleet to their death. Lowell very cleverly structured the rhyme scheme in these lines in a fluid, alternating pattern. This was done in order to create a rhythm that specifically mimics the movement of the sea itself.

The next lines contain very poignant examples of imagery. The speaker describes the dead man’s corpse, his blood, the skin, and the “batch of reds and whites“. His eyes stared open like “deadlights“. Lowell uses a metaphor to compare the sailor’s eyes to “cabin windows on a stranded hulk”. 

Sections of this part of the poem come from Henry David Thoreau‘s Cape Cod, this is only one example of Lowell reusing words that other writers originally published. The speaker describes how the dead man was weighted so that his body might be thrown into the sea and would not float back up. He is not getting a burial that many would deem appropriate but it was necessary. There is a reference in these lines to Ahab, the main character from Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick. He too is in the void of the ocean being knocked out by fish.

 

Lines 17-26

Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea

Where dreadnaughts shall confess

Its hell-bent deity,

When you are powerless

(…)

In the next lines, the speaker uses personification to allude to the sea’s power. It is “hell-bent“. A reader should recall at this point the epigraph which suggested that human beings have control over everything on earth. This is very obviously not the case. The sea, which is referred to as a kind of deity, is then related to Poseidon. He is referred to as the “earth-shaker“ as he has the power to controls the seas and earthquakes.

There is nothing that the ship could do or could’ve done to stand up against the powers of the ocean. There is no “Orphean lute” that could bring back life. This is an allusion to the Greek myth of Orpheus who was allowed to bring his wife out of the Underworld. But, in the real world, this kind of deal is not possible. If someone enters into the afterlife, into the waves, there’s no way to bring them back.

In the final lines of the section, Lowell alludes to the fact that many sailors have died at sea. The “guns of the steel fleet“ repeatedly fire into the sky until they become “hoarse“. This is another example of personification. Lowell describes the guns as losing their voices due to overuse.

 

Part II

Lines 1-8 

Whenever winds are moving and their breath

Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,

The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death

In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear

(…)

The second section of‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ is shorter than the previous one, at only 18 lines. The speaker has taken the reader away from the ocean into a pier. The winds are moving and the waves are bashing against the “bulwarks of this pier“. The winds are described as having “breath“ another likely reference to mythological figures and their control over the elements. This is one more example of the distinct lack of control that humanity truly has over its surroundings. 

Lowell makes use of a technique known as an apostrophe in the section as he addresses the dead sailor as “you“. The sailor can obviously not understand what’s been said to him, but this is a very common technique in an elegy. The environment, including the birds, are mourning the loss of the sailor. He asked the sailor rhetorically if he can hear the sounds of the Pequod. The ship that sank in Moby Dick and caused the death of many sailors. He thinks, that the sailor who is now resting at the bottom of the sea, can here this specific ship. 

 

Lines 9-18 

As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears

The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash

The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids

For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids

Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,

(…)

Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East.

The next few lines of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’  contain several vocabulary words that are connected to the design of sailing ships. The speaker references another small coastal area of Nantucket has the sailors home and s-boats or sailboats that move through the water. He speaks about true “bellbuoy”  and it’s “spinnakers” or sails and how it has bounced around in the water becoming entangled. The bird’s wings are personified and describe the screaming out for the drowned sailor. They “beat up on the stones“ for the speaker’s cousin. The whole world is grieving.

Finally, at the end of the section, the speaker introduces the “Quaker graveyard“. The graveyard could very well be a reference to the water itself and the many dead who lie within it. This includes the sailors from Moby Dick and those on the ship referenced at the beginning of this poem.

 

Part III

Lines 1-14

All you recovered from Poseidon died

With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine

Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,

Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,

Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod

(…)

The third section is the second-longest of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ at 24 lines. The poet speaks again about the human ability to control the sea and the god Poseidon. Lowell makes a new reference to the story of Bluebeard. This is a character from French folklore who is famous for murdering his wives. All of these references create a dark and dreary image of the ocean that is hell-bent on causing the deaths of as many men as possible. The ocean is quite vast, the speaker suggests in the fourth and fifth lines of the section. It stretches all the way to Spain. There are endless possibilities and dangers waiting within it. There are several examples of alliteration in these lines with words such as “blast“ and bilge” and “backwash,” as well as “royal“ and “rock“.

Lowell continues to paint an image of the sea describing the fishing boats, the “warships“, and the deity-like power of the sea. The speaker suggests that the waves in the wind are only tools of a higher power used to beat down and control human beings. Time is personified in these lines as well.

 

Lines 15-24

Wooden and childish; only bones abide

There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed

Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news

Of IS, the whited monster.

(…)

When the Atlantic rose against us, why,

Then it had swallowed us up quick.”

Lowell’s speaker suggests that the Quaker sailors lost something, likely their lives but there is also something even deeper and more metaphorical at work. The sailors are described as “childish”. They are from a time in which things were simpler and people did not understand the full power of the natural world.

 

There is an interesting transition in the seventeenth line of the section when the speaker describes the “monster“. He refers to it as “IS“. The whale is compared in a religious metaphor to Christ. It too came from a higher power. There’s an interesting bit of dialogue at the edge of the section where the speaker relays the words of the Quakers who drowned. God, they think, is on their side because they were given time to praise him before the Atlantic rose up and took them.  There is another allusion in the section to Psalm 124 where the line “if the Lord had not been on our side“ is found.

 

Part IV

Lines 1-10

This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale

Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell

And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools

To send the Pequod packing off to hell:

(…)

Section IV of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ is twenty lines long. The graveyard is brought back into the poem again and the speaker describes how the whaling industry came to an end. He speaks on the  “whale / who spilled Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell“ is one aspect of what’s responsible.

The speaker also comes back to talking about Moby Dick. The ship is mentioned again, as is the general premise of the story, and the sailor’s desire to pursue the whale. He does not describe them as being overly intelligent and seems to believe that it was foolish of them to embark on this quest. There is a good example of enjambment between the end of the first stanza of part four and the beginning of the second stanza in part four. The speaker describes again how the seagulls are wailing and mourning this time to see rather than dead sailors. It appears vulnerable, much more so than it was previously. The tide is flowing out and getting low. The sea is decreasing, perhaps the reason for the morning.

 

Lines 11-20 

For water, for the deep where the high tide

Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.

Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,

Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,

(…)

The mast-lashed master of Leviathans

Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?

The creatures of the sea are dying, including the crabs. The poet describes a “death rattle“, the noise that a living thing makes right before it dies. The poet uses the phrase “this is the end“ for the third time in line eighty-five of this poem. This alludes to the theme of death which is run throughout the entire poem as well as the end of the whaling industry which so marked societal and cultural norms in this area of the eastern United States.

It should be considered as a symbol for a specific end, rather than a larger into the water itself. There is an interesting use of alliteration and a half room at the end of the stanza with the phrase “mast lashed master of leviathans“. The short phrase is a bit of a tongue twister and alludes to leviathans, large sea monsters from the Bible, and Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey. The latter was tied to a ship, to the mass, in order to save him from the calling sirens.

 

Part V

Lines 1-10 

When the whale’s viscera go and the roll

Of its corruption overruns this world

Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole

(…)

The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears

The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,

The fifth section of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ begins with more imagery related to a whale. This time the whale’s innards or its guts are the central image. The guts are spilling into the sea, as they did in Moby Dick. They are used as an image of darkness and dirty corruption overrunning the world. The speaker raises the question of who’s fault this is. The whale’s, the crew for killing the world, the sea, the sea deities? Lowell mentions his cousin and the drowned sailors of the past and uses another metaphor that depicts a fight against man’s lesser nature. 

The imagery and atmosphere of the poem continue to jump around from emotions that pity the whale, pity to sea, and the sailors. In the next lines and speaker references the valley of judgment, in Hebrew, the Jehoshaphat. There in the valley, men are butchering the corpse of a whale. This is something that they’re going to have to stand judgment for.

 

Lines 11-18 

And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags

And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,

Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,

(…)

The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide

Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.

The lines are fairly graphic as they describe ripping the “sperm whale’s midriff into rags“ and the blubber spilling into the wind and weather. There is a plea for forgiveness and salvation at the end of the poem that again depicts the world or something of a diety. These lines also refer to “Jonas Messias” and the story of Christ being stabbed in the side with a spear.

 

Part VI

Lines 1-10 

OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM

There once the penitents took off their shoes

And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;

(…)

The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad

And whistled Sion by that stream. But see:

The setting changes in the second to the last section of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’.  Now, the speaker is located in a shrine in Norfolk, England. They are, the speaker describes how the penitent ones came and took off their shoes begging for forgiveness. The setting is much more pleasant than the previous description of the butchered whale. It’s quiet, the violent sea that was the focus of the poem up until now has disappeared.

The same people who are coming seeking God, or compared to “cows“ through a simile. They are being led, herded as if animals to make a pilgrimage to the shrine. When they get there, they are temporarily distracted from the problems that brought them there. They are made glad by this “castle of God“. The sailor is able to find peace in this place as well. He’s whistling the tune about “Sion,” referenced in Psalms 2:6.

 

Lines 11-20 

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,

Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness

At all or charm in that expressionless

(…)

Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem

Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.

There is also a statue of a lady described in the section. She’s not especially attractive but she is as peaceful as the rest of the scene. Line one hundred and twenty-two of the poem is in Latin. It reads “Neither form nor comeliness“. This is a reference to the statue of the woman in the previous lines in her expressionless face. The woman’s face is unreadable, one cannot tell what she’s thinking. She’s found something that is not revealed to anyone else. It is something that can only be discovered in Heaven. She is privy to a secret of God– “what God knows“. Despite the fact that this secret cannot be discovered, people continue to come to the shrine seeking it out. The seeking is similar to the way that the crew of Ahab’s continues to seek out the whale.

 

Part VII

Lines 1-8

The empty winds are creaking and the oak

Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,

The boughs are trembling and a gaff

(…)

Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:

The final section of ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ begins with a description of a cenotaph or an empty tomb. This darker imagery immediately informs the reader that we are back to where things were before, in the spooky cemetery. The landscape is dark, the trees are creaking and the destroyed ship is bobbing “on the untimely stroke“ of the Atlantic. The seawater is filled with an explosion of fish and guts in addition to the dead sailors. The water also contains the monsters, as referenced previously with the word “leviathan“. The corrupted waters are one of the most prominent symbols in this poem. They are again representing the larger corruption of the world and raise the question of who caused it and who is now responsible for its rectification. 

 

Lines 9-17

Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh

Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,

(…)

And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The speaker continues to spend time describing the various elements of a landscape including the wind. He uses religious imagery to emphasize each description. He says that mankind was formed from the “Sea’s slime“. This is the first reference to the fact that the sea and mankind have a kinship that should not be denied.

The final lines allude to the great flood which was depicted in the Bible. It is God’s will who lives and dies at sea. Those who choose to battle that which they cannot triumph over or doomed to failure, an allusion to the crew of the doomed ship in Moby Dick.

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