The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

by Robert Lowell

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

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, and when the poem moves from the shrine at Walsingham back to the ocean in the final section, there is a sense of fatigue almost amounting to depression. This is to some extent dissipated by the surging grandeur of the final nine lines, but the sense of exhaustion is very strong in the closing section.

The result of this is that the poem’s intention to show religious faith reconciling humans to their harsh fate is subverted to some extent by the poet’s fascination with what he can express in language. Lowell seems to have been in love with words and with the sounds of words, especially in his younger years, and this shows more clearly in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” than in any other poem. More vitality is instilled into the depiction of the terrors of this world than into portraying the consolations of religion, so that the fascination of the struggles of life and death outweighs any attempt to reconcile humans to their fate.

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