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Analysis and comments on The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell

Comment 3 of 3, added on December 21st, 2014 at 4:10 PM.

HR5OG3 There is evidently a bunch to realize about this. I consider you
made some good points in features also.

awesome seo from Slovakia Republic
Comment 2 of 3, 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 3, added on March 27th, 2006 at 6:15 PM.

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
• “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
• “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”


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
• 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
• 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

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
• 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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Information about The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

Poet: Robert Lowell
Poem: The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket
Volume: Selected Poems
Year: 1976
Added: Oct 29 2004
Viewed: 12564 times
Poem of the Day: Nov 26 2008

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