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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Robert Lowell's poem Skunk Hour


  1. Sarab Singh says:

    “the season’s ill”, although refers to the seasonal change but it implicates a diseased civilization. with expression “my mind’s not right”, the poet seems to loose insanity at the depressive prospect that greets him in his search of love. the love song that blares from the radio seems to be bleating meaninglessly in the atmosphere of general sterility. the appearence to skunks, looking for something to eat at a deadly hour, is the only sign of life and therefore survival.

  2. Susan Jeswine O'Shea says:

    This poem sort of flew into my house like a stray summer baseball, but there was no wide-eyed child to be dismayed by my broken window. So I was in no hurry to pitch the poem back out, and had the leisure to handle it a bit.

    I am a scientist by training, though now old enough to be more appreciative than analytical. I have no notion of poetry neither of Mr Lowell and Ms Bishop (perhaps the mother of Bishop Bishop?) nor, even, of Nautilus Island. I presume this scene to be of our US Northeast, as he lives in a ‘village’ governed by ‘selectmen,’ nomenclature which sounds, mmm, quaint to my Northwestern ears.

    Okay. That is the “I” who speaks to you here.

    The poem has a rhythm of promise and despair. It begins with the promise of a village with roots and a heritage but then traces it’s decay. The summer millionaire is gone and the heiress is in her dotage. A red fox stain covers Blue Hill. Perhaps the local ‘landed gentry’ no longer ride to hounds and the red foxes once again roam ad libitum. The ‘fairy decorator’ – frost? – brightens the lobsterman’s shop for fall; it is abandoned and cold. Nature taking over what had once been the realm of human activity, the heiress herself promoting it with purchases of old houses to let them fall.

    Then, in a Poe-esque turn, his car takes over and carries him up ‘the hill’s skull’ to where love-cars take over the cemetery. Love-cars with radio blaring is so evocative of the American soul nowadays conceived, born, and raised in a car. (Yet how we yearn for the soul of the humble immigrant become the soul of the Western high country!) His nostalgia for his own youth becomes melancholy, despair, and a momentary vision of his own annihilation.

    And then the skunks take centre stage, marching down Main Street (the stripes in the pavement?) to become the hero of the play. They (and the foxes and the frost) are the ones who do assure the continuity of that place and its deep, rich life-enhancing air. The mother skunk and her kits make life of our garbage ‘and will not scare’.

    Okay. That’s the poem of which I speak.
    The baseball’s on the coffee table and my window is repaired.

  3. rosy davies says:

    The poet is full of despair of what he sees around his society and brings forth the meaningless life the people lead.He curses him of being one at the moment and suddenly finds a ray of hope in his existence on seeing the mother skunk and its kttens rummaging the garbage for the leftovers for survival.

  4. Dibya says:

    The poet is so much frustrated of the emptiness and futility of the American civilization that he finds each and every aspect of the society spiritually failure but the poem moves from the frustration to the individual revitalization when he observes the skunks living with the garbages blissfully.

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