The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Skunk Hour” is written in free verse, but with a formal pattern of eight six-line stanzas (sestets) with a loosely regular rhyme scheme. The title suggests a particular hour in the day—the hour when skunks are likely to come out—and implies that this hour occurs on a regular basis. The title hints that time will be an important element in the poem.

Set in Maine, where Robert Lowell had a summer home, the poem begins by showing a series of events that denote a decaying society: The elderly heiress has bought up the houses facing hers and let them go to ruin; the millionaire has lost his money and auctioned off his yacht; the homosexual decorator has used the tools of fishing (net, cork, and awl) to brighten his shop. These events suggest that the human order has somehow gone wrong. They are narrated as one tells a story, in the third person. Although they are recounted in the present tense, in each case the action has already occurred.

Beginning with the fifth stanza, exactly halfway through the poem, the poet enters in the first person. (Lowell’s biography almost insists that the speaker and the poet be considered identical.) He remembers (in the past tense) “one dark night” when he drove his “Tudor Ford” up the hill to watch for lovers in their cars. In the only metaphor of the poem, he describes the cars as though they were boats, lying together “hull to hull.” He concludes, “My mind’s not right.” From this point...

(The entire section is 561 words.)