The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 568

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is one of the noisiest poems in the English language. Robert Lowell employs a multitude of harsh sounds, broken rhythms, and recurring patterns of alliteration to reflect the poem’s preoccupation with the violence and turbulence of the world it depicts.

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The poem is divided into seven parts, differing in length and tone. It begins with an evocation of the violent death of Warren Winslow, one of Lowell’s cousins, who was lost at sea when his ship sank during World War II; the poem is dedicated to Winslow’s memory. Borrowing heavily from a description of drowning victims in Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1864), Lowell presents a grim image of the drowned man and describes a burial at sea. He also mentions Ahab, the mad whaling-ship captain in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), who took his ship and crew with him to a watery grave in his pursuit of the white whale.

The second section depicts the bleak site of the Quaker graveyard on the island of Nantucket, where markers record the deaths of many of the island’s men who were lost at sea on nineteenth century whaling expeditions. The nearby ocean is violent, noisy, and menacing, and the gulls’ cries seem to echo the cries of drowning sailors. Humans, however, are the purveyors of violence, as well as its victims, as evidenced by the “hurt beast” (the harpooned whale slaughtered by Ahab’s crew).

The third, fourth, and fifth sections of the poem continue to depict the wild and violent world of the ocean in which the Nantucket sailors, including Ahab’s men as well as the real Nantucketers, wreak their violence on the creatures of the sea and are violently killed themselves. Lowell introduces a religious theme, first in an ironic passage in which the drowning Quaker sailors say, “‘If God himself had not been on our side,/ When the Atlantic rose against us, why,/ Then it had swallowed us up quick.’” Clearly, they are about to be swallowed. The theme of religion is developed through references to the crucifixion of Christ, which the poem relates to the biblical Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a whale. Jesus, Jonah, and the whale are all depicted as crucified and speared by the harpoons of the whalers.

The violence of the poem is put aside in the sixth section, entitled “Our Lady of Walsingham.” At the time he wrote “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Lowell was a recent convert to the Roman Catholic faith, and this section of the poem borrows from a book describing an old English Catholic shrine in order to evoke a mysterious peace that is in sharp contrast to the violence of the rest of the poem. The sailors of the earlier segments are replaced by pilgrims who walk humbly to the shrine of Mary. The medieval image of Our Lady is neither beautiful nor expressive, but it presents an image of submission to a God whose purposes encompassed both the innocence of the crib at Bethlehem and the violent death of Christ at Calvary.

The final section is the most dirgelike. The winds are “empty,” and the ocean is “fouled with the blue sailors.” Humans kill and die, but the violence is ancient and somehow part of God’s purpose. The last line asserts: “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

The violence that the poem depicts is reflected in many of the devices Lowell uses. The rhythm, for example, combines a basic iambic measure with many variations, producing a kind of ground swell that is interrupted violently on many occasions, as if suggesting a stormy sea. The lines are of varying lengths, and although all the lines of the poem contain end rhymes, there is no regular rhyme pattern.

The most noticeable aspect of the poem is the use of a variety of sound devices, ranging from alliteration to assonance and including echoes of various sounds as well as end rhyme. Most of these sounds are harsh, with hard vowels and plosive or stop consonants, but such sounds may be preceded by softer sounds. This can produce sudden sharp changes, as in the lines “ask for no Orphean lute/ To pluck life back.”

The noisy quality of the poem resounds throughout, as in the hard vowel sounds and the k consonant sounds in lines such as “As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears/ The blocks: off Madaket.” Piled-up alliteration and echoing sounds show in the following: “This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,/ Snatching at straws to sail/ Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,/ Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,/ Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals.”

The poem contains a wealth of other devices, including allusions, primarily to Moby Dick and to Christian symbols, but also to classical mythology. There is personification of the sea; “the high tide/ Mutters to its hurt self.” Lowell makes considerable use of metaphor—for example, in an image of the beach “Sucking the ocean’s side”—and simile: “We are poured out like water.” Such devices, however, are less important than the sounds that create the tone of the poem and provide its unique characteristics.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Williamson, Alan. Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

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Themes