The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket Analysis

Robert Lowell

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.