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lovers in parked cars, Lowell uncovers his core self -- "unseen and all-seeing" -- and desperately in want, but while a withdrawn and helpless spectator, he projects himself onto the outside world -- a way of preserving self and other that empties both of their reality.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.

Robert Faggen: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking," one of Frost's greatest lyrics, blends the myth of the Fall with consequences of modern science. The "two-pointed ladder" figures as both the instrument and the technology of tropism toward "heaven" that ultimately leads to the oneiric hell of uncertainty and of waste and struggle. Order, progress, and the harvest of knowledge are as much a part of the inextricable order of the garden as the great tree upon which we sway precariously:

[lines 1-6]

In such a casual phrase as "there may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick upon some bough" we feel the speaker's indifference toward perfection. The rest of the poem moves away from heaven, which has been the theological place of perfection, to meditation on exhaustion from contemplation of the world's immense ungraspability, its superfecundity and waste.

The image of the ladder will evoke that of Jacob's dream as well as Emerson's more metaphysical use of that ladder in "Experience." We also see the ladder failing as a human construct by which to transcend nature. The opening line of Frost's poem enforces a sense of physicality—"two-pointed" and "sticking through a tree." The latter phrase sounds sexually suggestive, as does the "long scythe" in "Mowing." Unlike Jacob's, this ladder is a human construct that rests and depends on the tree and is left to nature as an artifact of human effort. And the speaker's oncoming dream is not of angels but, rather, of the details of apples and of labor. If anything is retained in the allusion to Jacob, it is the sense of an impending struggle.

In Lyric Time Sharon Cameron has pointed out that the speaker's dreaming, begun before the event of the poem, appears to begin again during the poem and announces its recommencement sometime after the poem. I will add to this observation that Frost is repeating the strange mixture of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge found in "Mowing"—"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows"—reminding us of the inescapable limits of consciousness. In "The Koine of Myth," Northrop Frye describes the way human types persist, and he specifically addresses the figure of the ladder. The ladder, he observes, began to break down as a metaphor after the eighteenth century as a construct that symbolized the path from God to earth, the scala (Latin for ladder), or chain of being. In moving between dream and objectivity, the ladder and the human laborer sway precariously on the verge of disintegration. As Frye observed: "Within the limitations of human life, the most highly developed types are those whose lives have become, as we say, a legend, that is, lives no longer contemplating a vision of objective revelation or imprisoned within a subjective dream." In Frost, to use Frye's terms, action and awareness continually clash with each other in a way that ultimately prohibits the establishing of a lasting mythos. "Essence" is inextricably tied to matter and to sleep, "the scent of apples" and " drowsing off." The sensuous pull of the earth overcomes the speaker:

[lines 8-17]

Though claiming some mystery in "the strangeness" he "got from looking through a pane of glass," the speaker reminds us that this looking glass is but a temporary instrument and inextricable part of the fluidity from which it came: a drinking trough used for bodily rather than spiritual sustenance. It both enables and distorts sight. If the faces God as Job did in the theophany or as Jacob did after wrestling at Peniel, it is an overwhelming and immediate physical manifestation of the facts of growth, "stem end and blossom end," as well as the "flecks of russet" and not the Pauline promise of seeing God spiritually face to face in the future. His dreams are not of angels or of heaven but of the troubling abundance and waste of apples that are beyond his "picking," expressing the physical "ache" of his foot, his sensuous desire to touch. Moreover, the preponderance of first-person pronouns expresses an ego inspired and burdened by its own desire:

[lines 18-29]

The obsession with the physical and sensuous approaches a literalism by which the speaker seems to transfer his anxieties of exhaustion to the apples, so many thousands of which are beyond the control of his selection. "Magnified apples" merges both the oneiric world of human desire and the scientific world of instrumental examination. Close examination of nature in its great plurality and in its waste ultimately diminishes the significance of the observer. At once he sees ,the massive abundance and waste of nature, which overwhelm his own desire:

[lines 30-36]

The largeness implied by "ten thousand thousand" and "earth" along with the diminished sense of human control parallels the grandeur Darwin attributes to natural selection in contrast to man's selection. . . .

If man is a laborer, Darwin tells us, then nature is a far greater one. Our "view" is "imperfect." The laborer of "After Apple-Picking" works in a state that is a continual confusion of dream and knowledge, between the human idea of nature and its elusive reality always on the verge of transformation. A consciousness of a limited view and of a larger process of selection to which we are subjected is the darker fruit of our own knowledge. And what are wasted apples for humans who select for beauty and perfection become food for a hibernating woodchuck or further the spread of apple seeds.

The apple tree evokes the loss and displacement of the Fall—the Tree of Knowledge. But it also becomes the dominant metaphor of life and death in the new scripture of Darwin. Darwin's Tree of Life represents both nature's diversity as well as the common descent and destiny of all living creatures including man. In his emphasis on survival no creature or branch is given certain privilege in the hierarchy; no future is certain. It is therefore not surprising that, after considering , the apples ''as of no worth," the apple picker wonders about the relation of his own "sleep," a metaphor for loss of control and death in our self-consciousness, to that of another creature, "the woodchuck," for whom sleep hibernation is at least protection against the environment:

[lines 37-42]

The apple picker, however, turns to another creature at the end of his labor only in hope of finding a way out of his troubling isolation and fears—and there may be no way out of what he can "describe." He persists on the ladder, somehow failing to accept the biology of sleep (and the purpose of dreaming to keep us asleep), while other creatures have gone. The gerund in the tide expresses the perpetual refusal to submit, as does the gerund in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just in the final line expresses a diminished sense of "human sleep," a diminished sense of the labor, knowledge, and aspiration by which our species once thought itself elect.


From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan