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Robert Lowell - The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

 (For Warren Winslow, Dead At Sea)
       Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and
         the fowls of the air and the beasts and the whole earth,
           and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.
           
          I
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket--
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.  Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand.  We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks it nose
On Ahab's void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea
Where dreadnaughts shall confess
Its heel-bent deity,
When you are powerless
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute
To pluck life back.  The guns of the steeled fleet
Recoil and then repeat
The hoarse salute.
   
          II

Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
In these home waters.  Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod's sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall
Off 'Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue-fish?  Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward.  The winds' wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea's throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab's whaleboats in the East. 
      
          III

All you recovered from Poseidon died
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,
Nantucket's westward haven.  To Cape Cod
Guns, cradled on the tide,
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand
Lashing earth's scaffold, rock
Our warships in the hand
Of the great God, where time's contrition blues
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost
In the mad scramble of their lives.  They died
When time was open-eyed,
Wooden and childish; only bones abide
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news
Of IS, the whited monster.  What it cost
Them is their secret.  In the sperm-whale's slick
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
"If God himself had not been on our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick." 

          IV

This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,
Snatching at straws to sail
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals:
Clamavimus, O depths.  Let the sea-gulls wail

For water, for the deep where the high tide
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,
The beach increasing, its enormous snout
Sucking the ocean's side.
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water.  Who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
             
          V

When the whale's viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Wood's Hole
And Martha's Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
And rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers
Where the morning stars sing out together
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers
The red flag hammered in the mast-head.  Hide,
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side. 
      
          VI
      
      OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM

There once the penitents took off their shoes
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file
Slowly along the munching English lane,
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose
Track of your dragging pain.
The stream flows down under the druid tree,
Shiloah's whirlpools gurgle and make glad
The castle of God.  Sailor, you were glad
And whistled Sion by that stream.  But see:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar.  There's no comeliness
at all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids.  As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion.  She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary's Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham. 

          VII

The empty winds are creaking and the oak
splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,
The boughs are trembling and a gaff
Bobs on the untimely stroke
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell
In the old mouth of the Atlantic.  It's well;
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing'd clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

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Added: Oct 29 2004 | Viewed: 11168 times | Comments and analysis of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell Comments (2)

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket - Comments and Information

Poet: Robert Lowell
Poem: The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket
Volume: Selected Poems
Year: Published/Written in 1976
Poem of the Day: Nov 26 2008

Comment 2 of 2, added on February 9th, 2007 at 7:26 AM.

S boats were not subs. The Germans had a PT boat called an S (Schnell boat) but this reference is about a class of american racing yachet at the turn of the century

mark from United States
Comment 1 of 2, added on March 27th, 2006 at 6:15 PM.

I.
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket—
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks it nose
On Ahab's void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea
Where dreadnaughts shall confess
Its heel-bent deity,
When you are powerless
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet
Recoil and then repeat
The hoarse salute.

• The body that washes up in the net is emblematic of the body of his cousin, who inspired this poem
• Contrast between life and death in “hurdling muscles” and the bloodless corpse. There is also a contrast between the light that gleams off of the sailors wet hair at night, light usually being associated with vibrancy and darkness with death.
• The eyes of the corpse are open, but are empty and devoid of any life. There is a comparison to “lusterless dead-lights” in a cabin, which presents a sense of vacancy in the poem
• First reference to Moby Dick: Captain Ahab was the man who wanted revenge upon Moby Dick for taking his leg. He is killed by the beast while in pursuit of justice. Lowell is painting a picture of a lifeless man being hit by fish, which contradicts the opening statement of the poem which gives man dominion over fish, but here is a man defeated by one and is no loner seen as a superior.
• “and the name is blocked in yellow chalk”  the sand is the chalk, which covers the grave of many sailors who ventured out to sea and met a similar fate, without any markings on the ocean floor of what their names are
• “Sailors, who pitch this portent….dreadnaughts shall confess...”  even the most daring men who rise above fear in precarious situations have respect and fear for the ocean and its might, and speak of it as if it is divine.
• “Powerless to sand-bag” is referring to the disposition of the sailors. Sandbagging is defined as “treating one unjustly” or “to coerce by cruel means.” The sailors have to respect the power of the ocean, which has taken countless lives through the centuries. Sand bags are also used during floods as a barricade against further damage. Lowell implies that efforts to resist the ocean and its power are in lost in vain.
• Allusion to Orpheus  Orpheus lost his wife to Hades the God of the Underworld, and in pursuit of her traveled down to Hell and charmed Hades with his lute. He was given his wife back on the condition that he would not look back. Lowell writes that there is no such bargain to be made with the Ocean: once someone is submerged he is gone forever. There is no room for hope nor bravery to recover what was lost. Lowell, in his anger at the sea for taking his cousin, gives the sea the despicable title of Hell by comparing the sea to the Underworld of mythology lore.
• “hoarse salute”  Many guns have fired in salute of people who have drowned in the ocean. Due to the countless number of salutes made by guns, the sound of the guns have become “hoarse”





II

Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod's sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall
Off 'Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds' wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea's throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab's whaleboats in the East.

• winds and breath finds a way to show life in inanimate forces of nature
• the living animals that need the sea to survive (terns and seagulls) are grieving for the loss of the life of his cousin. The opening quote gives man dominion over these animals that are mentioned (of the sea and of the sky), but it is his cousin who has died while in the water, not the seagull nor the fish, though they should be his inferior. They continue to survive or even thrive in an environment where he should be the dominant species.
• Reference to Pequod  many lives were lost in the destruction of Ahab’s boat in Moby Dick.
He asks the dead sailor if he can hear echoes of the Pequod’s demise through other boats that cannot control the force of the waves and crash into the rocky walls off the shores of Sciasconset (‘Sconset), which is an extension of Nantucket Island.
• Lowell mentions the “yawing S-boats”, which were submarines used by the Germans during World War II. Lowell’s cousin died during this war.
• He asks his the sailor, particularly his cousin, whether he can hear the “lubbers” (inexperienced sailors) try and snag fish from the sea. He uses the word “lubber” as a disparaging term for others not as skilled as his cousin in sailing.
• Sea-gulls and heavy-lidded eyes  once again pointing to the grieving of other animals who see no justice in what has been done to his cousin
• In the final lines, Lowell addresses his cousin and says that he longs for his cousin’s life to be restored, and his cousin can hear it when the wind breaks across the rocks and lets out a cry that illustrate the pangs of his heart
• Lowell calls the ocean an “old Quaker graveyard”  religious sentiments are expressed in this line.
• The bones of the sailors and others who have died at the merciless hands of the sea cry out for bones of the “hurt beast” which has caused them so much unjustified anguish and suffering. The beats of course is Moby Dick, which brought ruin upon Ahab and his crew in their pursuit of justice.
In the fifth stanza as well, there is a line declaring that the bones cry out for the blood of the white whale. The death of the whale will bring justice to the wrongful death of his cousin, as well as the others who have died at sea.
• Throughout the poem, there is a reverberating cry for justice to be inflicted upon something. But what? Lowell uses the white whale as a symbol for Death, which he loathes for taking his cousin. By killing the whale, the people’s need for justice will be quelled. Lowell wishes to destroy Death himself, but this is an impossible feat, because Death is an insurmountable force. It is necessary as a corrective mechanism for nature because it needs to kill a few for the benefit of all. Keeping this in mind, Death does not need justification. But throughout the poem, Lowell needs it to rationalize why his cousin died. Thus he looks for signs of repentance from the ocean and finds none. He looks to God for it, but is rejected by him as well, and so he calls the ocean a “Quaker’s Graveyard.” The Quakers were very observant and loyal to God’s commands, but he illustrates them as a people who have been forsaken by Him and is left to doom at ocean’s hands without any just reason
III

All you recovered from Poseidon died
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,
Nantucket's westward haven. To Cape Cod
Guns, cradled on the tide,
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand
Lashing earth's scaffold, rock
Our warships in the hand
Of the great God, where time's contrition blues
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died
When time was open-eyed,
Wooden and childish; only bones abide
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale's slick
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
"If God himself had not been on our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick."

• “all you recovered from Poseidon..”  the honor that was earned by his cousin had been confiscated by Poseidon, who is God of the Sea and who believed that he was supreme controller of the water. His cousin took away from Poseidon’s power, and so Poseidon killed him to regain what he believed was his own. Lowell makes an indirect attack on God, implying that his cousin’s death was used just as a display of His omnipotence without any real premise.
• “harrowed brine is fruitless…/Stretching beyond us….”  Lowell compares the area of salt water between Nantucket and Spain to the shape of Poseidon’s beard, and he calls the area “fruitless.” “Fruitless” is defined as unable to bear life, and so Lowell implies that the ocean is a place where death is abundant and will not accommodate human life.
• “earth’s scaffold”  The oceans make up the platform upon which the ships rest and travel. A scaffold may serve to be a platform on which executions are carried out. Many “executions” have been held upon “earth’s scaffold.”
• Time’s contrition alludes to the remorse that a personified Time feels in the wake of the death of the Quaker sailors that the seas have taken. Lowell writes that the event occurred when Time was young and when ships were made just of wood. Lowell once again attributes the death of the sailors to Moby Dick, a personification of Death.
• What is it that the Quaker sailors lost when they drowned? Lowell writes that it is their obscure secret. My interpretation is that the sailors lost their faith as they drowned, not understanding what sin was committed to deserve such a fate from the God who they had served so loyally. As they drowned, they uttered a chant “If God had not been on our side….swallowed us up quick.” In Lowell’s mind, the Quakers believed that God had abandoned them. They believed that if God watched over them, then the drowning process would have slowed down enough for them to try and survive. The result was the opposite, however, and the waves attacked mercilessly as they were forced underneath the water.
The poem takes the form of an elegy which is devoted to his cousin who perished in the waters during World War II. The poem starts with the body of a man gets caught in a fish net, and Lowell refers to him as “sailor” or “cousin” in many of the stanzas. There are many allusions embedded within the poem that refer to Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, and also to the Bible and God
It is a poem that deals with loss: loss of life and loss of faith. Throughout the poem there is a sense of longing, a sense of justification for why his cousin was taken away from him. He wonders why God, the benign and omnipotent being, would ever intentionally harm men who He himself created. A desire for justice also pervades the poem, and is illustrated by the want of the blood of the white whale, which is the symbol for Death who brought ruin upon countless men at sea.
In the sixth stanza, there is a redirection of the poem from the seas to a shrine near Norfolk, England. Our Lady of Walsingham honors a saint who lived in the medieval period who was said experience sight and sound of the Virgin Mary. On her face, there is no welcoming smile or an angry frown. It is a face devoid of emotion, and Lowell it is the expression of God Himself. He is the only one who knows why events play out the way that they do, and He will never reveal to us the reasons behind His actions.





Sonny from United States

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