Skunk Hour

Lowell, Robert

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Jan-31-2005
  • Last revised: Nov-19-2009


Skunk Hour is the penultimate poem in Lowell’s 1959 volume of poetry, Life Studies. It is composed of 8 sestets with an internal rhyming scheme in each sestet that can only be called irregular from sestet to sestet. The poem moves slowly, beginning with a descriptive tone that is somber ("she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."), progresses to frankly pessimistic ("the season’s ill") and ultimately becomes confessional and egoistically relational ("I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, / they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . / My mind’s not right.")

The poem opens with a series of portraits of people and phenomena that comprise the poet’s current landscape: "Nautilus Island’s hermit heiress" who is "in her dotage"; the "summer millionaire" whose nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen"; the decorator who brightens his shop but appears as hopeless as the narrator, who draws yet another contrast between appearance and reality, remarking that the decorator knows "there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry."

The fifth sestet marks a turning point and, to signal it, Lowell takes as his first line the famous "Una noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross, another dour poet/mystic: "One dark night". (In a collection of essays cited on the Internet (reference 1) Lowell writes, "Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.") This line begins the first of two consecutive sestets that are concerned with corporal love, bracketing a middle line that announces, to no reader’s surprise, "My mind’s not right."

The second of these sestets moves from a maudlin song refrain to a frankly depressive, almost suicidal pose: "I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." and ends with "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here --", which, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us, is a quotation from Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost. (ref.1)

Enter the titular skunks: as a parenthetical predicate to the final line of the preceding sestet ("nobody’s here --"), the poet corrects the apparently psychological meaning of "nobody’s here --" to refer to physical presence, noting that in fact there is someone here, namely a family of skunks.

The final two sestets are among the most visually powerful images in poetry with the paradoxically high drama one would not expect from skunks. The hungry skunks "march on their soles up Main Street" in search of food with fiery red eyes as the poet, in response to their upward march, stands "on top / of our back steps" and takes a deep breath of the "rich air", watching the mother skunk jab her head into a cup of sour cream--a mother skunk who, in a fitting yet curiously ambiguous final line, "will not scare."

reference 1. accessed January 5, 2005.


This is one of my favorite poems for a number of reasons. The honesty that eventually surfaces--the poem is after all about the self-recognition of a mind that "is not right"--is stark. It confronts the reader with the admission and dares him or her to probe into the poet’s reading of the persons and events around him. The poet’s choice of skunks as an implied comparison of his affectual state, one that feels isolated, a pariah among fellow animals, is stunning. The last lines are assertive and, one hopes for the poet’s sake, encouraging, as though the narrator finds in the skunks’ indomitable nature a source of self-reliance. As opposed to the dark "red fox stain" covering Blue Hill in the third sestet, red now promises a more optimistic interpretation, describing as it does the skunks’ defiant eyes: "moonstruck eyes’ red fire".

As gloomy as the tone is, the poet cannot refrain from puns, another trace of his reluctance to give up poetic creativity in the face of depression. Lowell describes the Ford as a Tudor (two door). The love cars "lay together, hull to hull," enjoying the double entendre of "lay." As James E. B. Breslin notes (ref. 1), the skunks "march on their soles [read "souls"] up Main Street" under the Trinitarian Church.

The economy and denseness of this poem is remarkable. Within 48 lines one encounters many of the colors of the rainbow (we have white, blue, orange, red) with a clever use of red as a focal point for a possible mood shift, with the second instance subverting the meaning of the first, as mentioned above. The puns of course add semantic value. We also have references and implicit indictments of physical love and the church as organized religion (the poet’s Ford climbs "the hill’s skull," i.e., Golgotha, when he begins his voyeuristic watch for "love-cars"; the skunks’ "white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire" contrast with "the chalk-dry and spar spire of the Trinitarian Church.")

Much of the compressed effect derives from the force of the last lines--often spondaic--in the sestets, telegraphic lines that reinforce the gravity of the drear poetic commentary. The sequential staccato lines are: "she’s in her dotage"; "and lets them fall"; "A red fox stain covers Blue Hill"; "he’d rather marry"; "My mind’s not right"; "nobody’s here"; "of the Trinitarian Church"; "and will not scare." The last line, "and will not scare" is reminiscent of the ending of the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: "[To strive to seek to find] and not to yield." Strength and meaning are found within, in one’s self, not in the decadent civilization we see in the first four sestets.

This poem is dedicated to Lowell’s contemporary and friend, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), who wrote "The Armadillo" (1957), inscribed to Robert Lowell. Both are poems about animals outré even in the animal kingdom, quadriped analogies to dissident and isolated poets, and both poets depict them as defiant and insouciant rebels worthy of human attention.


The book in which this poem appeared won the National Book Award.

Primary Source

Life Studies


Random House/Vintage

Place Published

New York