James E. B. Breslin: On "Skunk Hour"

The poem begins with an eccentric heiress who prefers "Queen Victoria's century" to the present but who is powerless to halt temporal and social disintegration. Her "son's a bishop," her "farmer / is first selectman in our village." She is a figure of rank or station, but she is "in her dotage." A "hermit / heiress," she yearns for "hierarchic privacy," a safely controlled existence; she tries to resist time by buying "all / the eyesores facing her shore," but then "lets them fall." She at least is "Spartan" and old-fashioned, but the town has lost even its modern, showy millionaire. The heiress has a certain integrity and character, but he "seemed to leap from an L.L. Bean / catalogue" -- an anonymous figure created by remote control. "The season's ill," Lowell coolly pronounces; "a red fox stain covers Blue Hill." The final phase of the town's decay is evoked by a decorator who converts real, functional objects of the town's past (a cobbler's bench and awl) into art objects (aimed at the tourist trade) by painting them orange -- a way of preserving the past that empties it of its reality.

But the next two stanzas turn on and subvert the first four, as "Skunk Hour" abruptly shifts from ironic account of disintegrating town to the "dark night" of a personal ordeal. The disintegration, it now appears, is Lowell's own, the changing of self into landscape. Instead of observing that "the season's ill," Lowell now speaks of "my ill-spirit" and admits that "my mind's not right." In fact, by presenting himself watching lovers in parked cars, Lowell uncovers his core self -- "unseen and all-seeing" -- and desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world -- a way of preserving self and other that empties both of their reality. The two stanzas thus culminate with a moving and crucial act of self-recognition: "I myself am hell; / nobody's here" -- the quotation from Milton's Satan defining the projecting as demonic self. All the sequence's images of sealed enclosures are really representations of the poet's own encapsulated consciousness; Lowell now confronts his own "air / of lost connections," his radical isolation.

"Skunk Hour" does not, however, end with a despairing perception of inevitable subjectivity; the poem moves from easy projection, through inward ordeal, toward authentic connection with otherness; "nobody's here -- // only skunks, that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat." The skunks seem to wander into the poem, seen out of the corner of the poet's eye and qualifying his sense of isolation, and they are viewed with a literal realism that reveals an opening of the locked self. . . . The pun on "soles" (for "souls") emphasizes that these are literal, physical animals. Juxtaposing them against the dry, dead aspirations of the Trinitarian Church, Lowell places the skunks in a flat, mythless, modern ("Main Street") world where things lack the vertical extensions of meaning they possess within a Christian mythology. . . . The skunks, swilling sour cream from a garbage pail, manifest the persistence of a fiery life in a corrupt, disintegrating, ordinary world. The poet includes, but does not tame, them.

From From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945-1965 (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983), 137-139.

Steven Gould Axelrod on "Skunk Hour"

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.