‘The Skunk‘ by Seamus Heaney is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but that does not mean that the lines lack rhythm or rhyme. Throughout the text, a close reader can find instances of full, or perfect, and half, or slant rhyme. Heaney chose to make use of these scattered instances of rhyme in order to provide the text with some rhythmic unity, but not get bogged down by a particular structure.
In regards to full rhyme, a great example is the end sound of line one of the second stanza and lines one and two of the fourth stanza, using the words “silence,” “useless” and “absence”. Another full rhyme exists between the words “tree” in the second stanza and “me” in the fifth.
Half rhymes occur when the poet repeats assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, the words “wife” and “wine,” in stanzas three and four. The long “i” sounds, as well as the “w” sounds are identical in both words.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how there is a skunk near his house, and he is always on the lookout for it. It is a proud creature and it has become very important for him to try to see it in his yard. He spends a lot of time looking outside, past his verandah, waiting for the animal to appear. So much so that he feels like a voyeur.
The second half of the poem makes clear that the speaker sees his wife as the skunk. She is just as mysterious and elusive, yet at the same time ordinary and demystified. By the end of the poem, it appears that the speaker and his wife are starting to come back together again, or at least in his mind. He can recall what it is like to hear and see her near him, as she moves around the room.
You can read more Seamus Heaney poems here.
Analysis of The Skunk
Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble(…)I expected her like a visitor.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by describing a skunk’s tail. It is “up” and “black.” It is also “striped” and like “the chasuble.” This is a word that refers to an outer layer worn by Catholic priests during Mass. Specifically, the skunk appears to be part of a “funeral mass”. He goes on, adding that the skunk’s tail is impressive and proud, that it seems to be leading the skunk. It is parading the animal around, as a priest would lead a funeral procession.
There is something solemn about the skunk’s presence, but all the same, the speaker would like her to be there. He hopes, and expects, that she’s going to turn up every night. It is not until later in ‘The Skunk’ that it becomes clear that Heaney is using the animal to speak about his wife.
The refrigerator whinnied into silence.(…)I began to be tense as a voyeur.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes the silence of his home. There is no sound, aside from the whine of the refrigerator. This is a normal, banal statement and would therefore be relatable to any number of readers. It also gives the reader a very clear image of the setting the speaker has found himself in. It is very easy to picture.
He sets the scene further by saying that the only light in the room is that which comes from his desk. It only stretches out to the verandah, and then begins to soften. All the same, he can see beyond it, into the yard. There, he can observe the looming orange tree. It only has “Small oranges” but they have quite a presence in his mind. The speaker is clearly waiting for something, specifically the skunk, to go by his house.
The speaker is tense, hoping that the skunk is going to show up. He states that his position, staring out into the yard, made him fell like a “voyeur,” or someone who enjoys watching others. This is a word usually associated with someone who watches another without their knowledge, for sexual pleasure.
After eleven years i was composing(…)Had mutated into the night earth and air
The poem moves away from the image of the skunk in the next couple of stanzas as the speaker makes it clear that it is his wife he is really interested in, not the skunk. The speaker describes how he’s sitting and writing love letters to his wife. It appears to be the first time he has done so in “eleven years.”
His choice to write to his wife again is an important one. It is not something he simply decided to do on a whim. The speaker approached the task with caution, as if he was about to open a “stored cask,” or barrel. He isn’t sure what’s going to be inside.
The word “wife” is given a greater importance in the next lines as he speaks specifically on its “slender vowel”. The word “slender” is an unusual one, at least when describing words. It relates back to the wife herself and his interest in her physically.
The speaker isn’t sure if everything is the same as it was before though. He thinks over how their relationship might have “mutated into the night earth and air…” The line breaks here, providing the reader with a great example of enjambment. It picks back up at the beginning of the fourth stanza.
Of California. The beautiful, useless(…)Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.
The type of air the speaker is interested in is that of “California”. Everything the speaker is experiencing makes him think of his wife. The “Tang of eucalyptus” makes him recall her “absence” from him. When the speaker tastes the “aftermath of a mouthful of wine” it compares to “inhaling” the smell of his wife “off a cold pillow.” These beautiful images are all related to absence and loss. The wife is in one place, and the speaker is in another.
From context clues, a reader can assume that for a period of time they have been estranged, but now, the speaker is seeking to put their relationship back together. He is “broaching” the term wife again for the first time in eleven years.
And there she was, the intent and glamorous,(…)Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.
All of a sudden, the skunk appears. As stated above, “she” is a representation of the wife who is finally coming to “Snuff the boards five feet” beyond the speaker. The skunk is not described as some readers might assume. “She” is “glamorous” but at the same time, “Ordinary” and “mysterious”. These are words that describe how the speaker sees his own wife, and through zoomorphism, is able to relate her to the skunk.
Just as the skunk is at once mysterious and ordinary, it is also “Mythologized, demythologized”. It is there in front of him, as a simple skunk, but is in his mind as a higher being, a creature to be studied and appreciated.
It all came back to me last night, stirred(…)For the black plunge-line nightdress.
The sixth stanza merges the image of the skunk and the wife together into one. It is no longer clear which the speaker is referring to. He describes how “last night” everything came back to him about her. It was as if their lives were starting to join together once more and the speaker recalled what it is to hear “the sootfall of [her] things at bedtime”.
The last two lines bring the reader back to the skunk/wife’s actions as she moves, “tail-up” and “head-down” seeking out the “black plunge-line nightdress” in their room. This simple action speaks to cohabitation, intimacy, and peace within the household.