Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robert Lowell’s poems demonstrate the fusion of a personal and historical past. Time blurs, yet the stasis achieved only emphasizes loss and a sense of an irretrievable past. The poems move inward, deepening their colors. Each successive layer of time adds texture and insight.

As the culminating poem of Life Studies, “Skunk Hour” ends a book that traces the deterioration of Western civilization, the demise of Lowell’s prominent American family, and the disintegration of the poet’s sense of self. Questioning his own sanity, Lowell exhibits what has come to be known as the “confessional” stance. He allows the reader to act as the priest, hearing the confession. It must be cautioned that the reader is priest, not psychiatrist. The object of confession is absolution and a state of grace. In Lowell, there is a sense of the life examined, over and over, in search of salvation. Other confessional poets, such as John Berryman and Sylvia Plath, do not necessarily reveal such a desire for redemption, but Lowell’s poems always seem to be striving for a moment of grace.

Seen in this light, the “chalk dry and spar spire” of the Trinitarian church can be seen to represent the failure of religion to offer twentieth century answers. In his essay “On ’skunk Hour,’” in The Collected Prose (1987), Lowell himself declared, “My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostic. An existentialist night.” In...

(The entire section is 503 words.)