Catholic

Anneliese Harrison on Robert Lowell

Steven Gould Axelrod

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell; nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

 

 [T]he phrasal style of "Memories of West Street" . . . resolves the image of the dramatis personae, including the "I" of the poet himself, into a series of attributes, qualities, actions, and objects. The syntax of the poem is thus the perfect vehicle for the realist-confessional mode . . . . In the third stanza, for example, the "I" who is ambiguously "given a year," rapidly becomes part of his surroundings: the roof of the West Street Jail, whose size, shape, and outlook is described in the next five lines. Similarly, in the next sentence, the "I" appears "Strolling" on the roof, only to fade behind the image of his companion, Abramowitz, the "jaundice-yellow" pacifist, who is, in turn, rapidly supplanted by Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood gangsters. The seemingly gratuitous adjectival phrases characterizing these two underworld types -- "Hairy, muscular, suburban / wearing chocolate double-breasted suits" -- objectify the poet's own anxiety and neurotic fracture. Similarly, the catalogue of items in Lepke's cell: a "portable radio," a "dresser," "two toy American / flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm" metonymically stand for the debasement of the Catholic version of the American dream with its uneasy amalgam of Palm Sunday and the Fourth of July.

The syntactic structures of "Memories of West Street" thus imply that only by viewing the self in terms of its surroundings, companions, and habitual actions can the poet come to grips with the world he inhabits: the piling up of participial phrases and adjective strings guarantees the authenticity of the poet's vision. Indeed, the one passage in the poem that seems relatively flat -- the sequence in lines 14-19 with its histrionic reference to the Negro boy with "curlicues / of marijuana in his hair" -- has a looser, paratactic syntax that is closer to everyday speech than is the rest of the poem: "I was . . . and made . . . and then sat waiting . . . ," followed by four prepositional phrases. Compared to the passage immediately following ("Given a year . . ."), this account of "waiting sentence in the bull pen" seems rather diffuse.

From The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973), 108-109.

Stephen Yenser