The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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,...

(The entire section is 568 words.)