Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lowell’s clear intention in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is to depict the harshness and violence that he sees as conditions of all life and to provide an understanding of how religious faith can reconcile humans to the harsh conditions of life. The death of the author’s cousin is related to all violent deaths at sea, and through the allusions to Moby Dick and the biblical appearances of whales, those deaths are connected to the deaths of other creatures—destruction that is caused by humankind.

The final two sections of the poem are intended to convey the “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity. It is presented in the section entitled “Our Lady of Walsingham,” and this peace is not easy or pretty: The image of Mary has neither beauty nor expression, and the will of God, referred to in the final section, is not easy to understand. The reference includes the sobering reminder that “the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime” and that death has always been part of life. Worship of the Judeo-Christian God requires unquestioning faith.

The poem’s final meaning, however, is anything but simple, in large part because of the variations in tone of the poem’s different parts. There is a vigor and vitality implicit in the loudness and harshness of the first five sections that is muted in the final two sections. The shift to the reverence of the sixth section is almost an anticlimax,...

(The entire section is 417 words.)