Skunk Hour

Where do you look for inspiration when life seems bleak? In his 1959 poem "Skunk Hour," Robert Lowell (1917-1977) finds inspiration in a smelly black and white mammal. After delving into the history of several people in his hometown, the speaker in "Skunk Hour" realizes how alone he is. Racked with mental illness, the speaker watches as skunks dig through the garbage to find food and possibly meaning in life. "Skunk Hour" examines themes like loneliness, mental illness, and the desire to live intently while highlighting the nighttime activities of a not-quite-beloved nocturnal animal. 

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Contents
Table of contents

    "Skunk Hour" at a Glance

    Written By

    Robert Lowell

    Publication Date

    1959

    Form

    Free verse

    Meter

    Inconsistent

    Rhyme Scheme

    Inconsistent, but makes use of half-rhymes and slant-rhymes often

    Poetic Devices

    Imagery

    Allusion

    Symbolism

    Personification

    Frequently noted imagery

    Hermit heiress

    Falling eyesores facing her shore

    Summer millionaire from an L. L. Bean catalogue

    A red fox stain covers Blue Hill

    Fishnet’s filled with orange cork

    Tudor Ford climbing the hill’s skull

    Love-cars laying hull to hull

    Ill-spirit sobs in each blood cell

    Skunks that search in the moonlight

    White stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

    Wedge-head in a cup of sour cream

    Tone

    Gloomy, bitter, unstable

    Key themes

    Loneliness and mental illness

    Desire to live intently

    Meaning

    The speaker feels alone and isolated because of his mental illness. He is envious of skunks, who, though disgusting, live their lives purposefully and are not afraid of who they are.

    "Skunk Hour" Poem

    "Skunk Hour" was published by Lowell in his famous Life Studies (1959) poetry collection. It was the last poem in the collection, but it is now one of his most famous.

    For Elizabeth Bishop

    Nautilus Island's hermit

    heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

    her sheep still graze above the sea.

    Her son's a bishop. Her farmer

    is first selectman in our village,

    she's in her dotage.

    Thirsting for

    the hierarchic privacy

    of Queen Victoria's century,

    she buys up all

    the eyesores facing her shore,

    and lets them fall.

    The season's ill—

    we've lost our summer millionaire,

    who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

    catalogue. His nine-knot yawl

    was auctioned off to lobstermen.

    A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

    And now our fairy

    decorator brightens his shop for fall,

    his fishnet's filled with orange cork,

    orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,

    there is no money in his work,

    he'd rather marry.

    One dark night,

    my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,

    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.

    A car radio bleats,

    'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear

    my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

    as if my hand were at its throat . . . .

    I myself am hell;

    nobody's here—

    only skunks, that search

    in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

    They march on their soles up Main Street:

    white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire

    under the chalk-dry and spar spire

    of the Trinitarian Church.

    I stand on top

    of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

    a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

    She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

    of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

    and will not scare."

    "Skunk Hour" was dedicated to Lowell's friend and fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop had previously dedicated her poem "The Armadillo" to Lowell in 1957.

    "Skunk Hour" Poem Summary

    The speaker begins the poem by setting the scene: Nautilus Island, a coastal town in Maine. He describes an old heiress who uses her money to maintain tradition. She has lived in the same cottage for a long time despite her wealth, her son is a bishop, and she employs a farmer who helps run the government in the village as the "first selectman" (5). Craving privacy, the old woman buys the houses around her so she can watch them deteriorate. The season has changed to fall. The town's picture-perfect millionaire is gone, his possessions auctioned off. The town's decorator gets his shop ready for fall, but he would rather marry than work for next to nothing.

    The speaker drives his old car to the top of a hill and spies on young lovers in "love-cars" (27) during their midnight trysts. The speaker realizes there is something wrong with his mind for craving the gratification of watching others. He calls himself "hell" (35). But as he sits there, he watches skunks come marching down Main Street. They seem almost demonic as they walk purposefully, looking for food. Back at home, the speaker breathes deeply as a mother skunk digs in his garbage can while her babies cling to her. She finds a cup of sour cream to feast on and "will not scare" (48).

    "Skunk Hour" Analysis

    Somber imagery, deathly allusions, and brazen symbolism all work together to create the gloomy, bitter, unstable tone of the poem. They also present the themes of mental illness, isolation, and the desire to live intently.

    Tone and Imagery

    The tone shifts along with the imagery throughout the poem, going from gloomy to bitter to unstable.

    In the first two stanzas, the speaker uses words like "island" (1), "hermit" (1), and "privacy" (8), creating a feeling of loneliness and gloom:

    Nautilus Island’s hermit

    heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

    her sheep still graze above the sea.

    ...

    Thirsting for

    the hierarchic privacy

    of Queen Victoria’s century,

    she buys up all

    the eyesores facing her shore,

    and lets them fall." (1-12)

    The gloomy tone is set by the imagery: an ancient, solitary cottage, sheep staring at an endless sea, and "eyesores" tumbling down. The speaker feels isolated from the heiress and her family, and, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that he does not feel close to anyone in town.

    Imagery: descriptive language that appeals to one of the five senses

    Skunk Hour, White cottage and pond, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The heiress "still lives" in her old cottage.

    The imagery in the third and fourth stanzas shifts, becoming more modern and connected. The speaker introduces a millionaire who would visit in the summer and

    who seemed to leap from an L. L. Beancatalogue. His nine-knot yawlwas auctioned off to lobstermen.A red fox stain covers Blue Hill." (15-18).

    L.L. Bean is a retail company known for its outdoor wear.

    While the imagery becomes more modern, the tone becomes bitter. The speaker seems to envy other people's lives, especially their ability to form connections with one another. He jealously watches couples having sex in their cars:

    I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,they lay together, hull to hull" (27-28)

    The speaker is bitter that he can not get close enough to someone to have the same kind of relationship. His bitterness and desire to watch others in the darkness finally reveals the overarching feeling of instability that has before only been hinted at in the poem. The speaker comes right out and says, "My mind’s not right" (30) after seeing the lovers. The way he later describes the skunks as if they were demonic and otherworldly further hints at the instability of the poem.

    Allusion

    The speaker's use of allusion also depicts his precarious mental state. He says that he hears

    A car radio bleats,

    “Love, O careless Love. . . .” (31-32)

    The blues song that he is referring to was a popular song performed by Bessie Smith (1925). In this anti-love song of sorts, the narrator threatens to kill his/her lover. The lyrics vary slightly depending on the singer, but in each version the singer has been spurned by love.

    Allusion: a figure of speech in which a person, event, or thing is indirectly referenced with the assumption that the reader will be at least somewhat familiar with the topic

    The speaker also makes an allusion to John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) when he says, "I myself am hell" (35). In Milton's classic poem about the fall of mankind, Satan says, "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Book 4, line 75). The speaker is subtly comparing himself to the devil. The assertion that Hell is an inherent part of him also suggests that he sees no way to escape his personal torment.

    Symbolism

    Although the skunks only appear in the last third of the poem, they are the primary symbol in "Skunk Hour." The skunks represent a purposeful way of living and a willingness to get dirty in order to get what one wants. The speaker is at first disgusted when he sees them walking down the street:

    only skunks, that searchin the moonlight for a bite to eat.

    They march on their soles up Main Street:

    white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire" (37-40)

    They walk almost like zombies, with a singular purpose that does not waver. They exist defiantly in this human space, otherwise filled with heiresses, interior designers, cars, and lovers. When the speaker gets home and watches as the mother skunk digs through trash to feed her babies, he looks at them with newfound respect:

    a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

    She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

    of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

    and will not scare." (45-48)

    The mother's single-minded determination to feed her children is a kind of purposeful, intentional living that the speaker is unfamiliar with. As gross as they are, the skunks symbolize a drive, a purpose, and a community. Regardless of what other people (the humans) think of them, the skunks accomplish their goals and do as they please.

    Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea

    Skunk Hour, Skunk and dead leaves, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The skunks symbolize the purposeful, unabashed lifestyle that the speaker craves.

    Personification

    The speaker personifies his spirit, speaking as though it has a voice of its own and is something that he needs to be protected from:

    ... I hear

    my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

    as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." (32-34)

    He talks about his spirit as if it is unwell and hostile towards him. It invades his blood cells, taking control of his body. The personification further reinforces the mental illness that has been hinted at in the first stanzas and becomes obvious towards the end of the poem.

    Personification: attributing human qualities (characteristics, emotions, and behaviors) to nonhuman things.

    "Skunk Hour" Themes

    The main themes in the poem are loneliness, mental illness, and the desire to live intently.

    Loneliness and Mental Illness

    The speaker experiences extreme loneliness in the poem, largely due to his mental illness. He knows intimate details about everyone in town, but he is never able to get close enough to truly form a connection. He knows all about the heiress's family, the decorator's desire to get married, and the spot where teenagers go to hook up. But he is kept out of every social sphere. The speaker constantly feels isolated, and the situation is only exacerbated by his mental illness.

    He reveals that he hates himself but feels trapped, saying,

    I myself am hell;

    nobody’s here—" (35-36)

    His mental illness won't let him escape, nor will it let anyone else inside. The speaker longs for the simple, purposeful life of the skunks instead of the hell he inhabits in his own mind.

    Lowell suffered from severe bipolar disorder for most of his adult life. He was often hospitalized for several months at a time due to his mental illness. Although his mental illness was an immense burden on him and his family, Lowell used it as source material for some of his most famous poetry.

    Desire to Live Intently

    The speaker finds unconventional hope in the skunks, who walk purposefully through the streets and dig through garbage. Unlike him, they know exactly what they want in life. All the skunks search for is food, but that intentional living is something the speaker is not used to. Instead of looking for meaning in the lives of other people, the skunks define meaning for themselves.

    At the end of the poem, the speaker watches the mother skunk and states that she "will not scare" (48). No matter what obstacles she encounters, she is ready to face them all. She doesn't care if others think she's disgusting or if the weight of the community is upon her. All she cares about is satisfying her own needs and taking care of her family.

    During the time that he wrote "Skunk Hour," Lowell was suffering from the fear that his poetry couldn't keep up with the drastically changing world. Some critics have stated that Lowell found a new artistic voice for himself in the image of the skunk: an artist willing to dig through garbage to find something that might sustain him, even if it meant getting dirty.

    "Skunk Hour" Meaning

    The primary antagonist in "Skunk Hour" is the speaker's mental illness and self-hatred. Although he realizes he has a problem, the speaker has no idea how to solve it and feels trapped in his own mind. He watches the lives of people in town, but he is unable to form a connection or experience life with them. He feels as though he's a constant outsider on the outskirts of society. The speaker's life becomes so lonely and meaningless that he has to watch other people having sex, buying houses, decorating their stores, and auctioning off boats for him to find any real meaning.

    The only hope the speaker finds for an escape is in the presence of skunks. Though they are seen by society as disgusting, the skunks live their lives purposefully and are not afraid of who they are. They don't need other people's praise in order to feel a sense of self-worth or purpose. Instead, they live for themselves and take care of one another. If the skunks can live freely and purposefully, the speaker can too.

    Skunk Hour - Key takeaways

    • "Skunk Hour" was written by Robert Lowell.
    • It was published in his Life Studies collection in 1959.
    • "Skunk Hour" is about a mentally ill man who finds solace and inspiration in a family of skunks.
    • The tone changes with the imagery from gloomy to bitter to unstable.
    • The main themes are loneliness, mental illness, and the desire to live intently.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Skunk Hour

    What is the meaning of "Skunk Hour"?

    "Skunk Hour" discusses the loneliness of mental illness and the search for meaning outside of oneself. 

    What do the skunks symbolize in "Skunk Hour"?

    The skunks symbolize a new way of life full of intent and purpose that the speaker has not yet been able to achieve. 

    What kind of poem is "Skunk Hour"?

    "Skunk Hour" is a free verse poem.

    What queen is mentioned in "Skunk Hour"?

    Queen Victoria is referenced in "Skunk Hour." 

    What is the theme of "Skunk Hour" by Robert Lowell?

    The main theme is loneliness. 

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