Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583
“Skunk Hour” is the last poem in Life Studies, and as such it was meant to sum up the themes and tone of the collection and suggest some sort of resolution. The first four stanzas portray a decayed Maine coastal town. The “hermit heiress” who should be a leader in the society isolates herself; her main activity is buying up houses near her to ensure her privacy and isolation: “[S]he buys up all/ the eyesores facing her shore,/ and lets them fall.” She contributes to the decay rather than overcoming it by her wealth and position. In the third stanza, “our summer millionaire” has departed, and “[t]he season’s ill.” The change is also suggested by an image: “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” The last stanza in this sequence portrays a “fairy decorator” whose trendy and unsuccessful shop is filled with the tools (fishnets and orange cork) that were once used by fishermen. Since “there is no money in his work,/ he’d rather marry.” Love and marriage have become commodities in a once fruitful and organic society that is now sunk in decay.
The next two stanzas shift from an analysis of the society to one person. He is the Lowell speaker, mad and in search of sexual experience. The setting is ominous: “One dark night,” which is not merely the time of day but also an allusion to Saint John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. The speaker’s car climbs “the hill’s skull” (a reference to Golgotha) to look for “love-cars.” The cars lie “hull to hull” where “the graveyard shelves on the town.” It is a wonderful image of mechanical sexuality amid the grotesque graveyard that overlooks the town. All that the speaker can do is declare, “My mind’s not right.” This section culminates with another declaration: “I myself am hell;/ nobody’s here.” The first line echoes John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, while the last line repeats the isolation and decay that began the poem.
Both society and the individual are sick and perverted; there seems to be no hope anywhere. The last two stanzas, however, turn the poem around. Suddenly a group of skunks appears marching down Main Street, strutting by the no longer life-giving “chalk-dray and spar spire/ of the Trinitarian Church.” In the last stanza, the mad speaker of the second section of the poem watches as “a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail./ She jabs her wedge-head in a cup/ of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,/ and will not scare.” The skunks are a remarkable and very appropriate modern symbol. They do not redeem the society of the speaker, but they do provide an alternative. They live off the decay that was so noteworthy in the first section of the poem. In addition, they will not “scare” or give in to an overly morbid consciousness as the speaker so obviously does. The scene also shows a mother nurturing her “kittens,” something that cannot be found in the decayed and isolated society.
“Skunk Hour” became one of Lowell’s most popular poems. It perfectly captures the troubles of society and the individual while also offering a powerful and natural symbol that opposes both. Modern poetry can no longer draw on the traditional natural symbolism of centuries before. Lowell could not instantly evoke eagles or hawks in his poetry, and he had the genius to discover a modern symbolism.
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