"Skunk Hour" is a poem written by Robert Lowell in response to "Armadillo," the poem written to him by Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop's purpose is to encourage Lowell to strip off his formal writing style. The act of Bishop did come into effect, for "Skunk Hour" is the evidence of Lowell's first step into a broader field of creativity. The poem was first named "Inspiration," and was written according to specific form. Upon Lowell's revision, the poem acquires the form of a free verse, though traces of his former writing style could still be read.
"Skunk Hour" consists of three major parts. The first part stretches from the first to the fourth stanza.
The poem begins with the picture of a declining sea town in Castine Maine. The heiress is obviously losing her power, for that is why she is "thirsting for the hierachic privacy / of Queen Victoria's Century." Her deterioration is further depicted by her disconnected relationship with her bishop son, her aging, and the falling of the eyesores she bought; the havoc of the social structure. "Winter" in the stanza projects the same image as "her dotage;" season is in the first stanza used to represent declination.
Season is being personified in the third stanza by saying, "The season's ill." This is depicted in the following lines showing this season of human environment is ill. The loss of a "summer millionaire" not only implies the devastation of a prosperous summer, but also the declivity of the economy of the town. The summer millionaire had to auctioned his possession. The last line in this stanza uses "A red fox stain" to describe the rusty reddish color of autumn on Blue Hill. This creates a sinister feeling whereby nature has grown old and is covered with stain.
The fourth stanza explains the loss of culture in the town. The "fairy decorator" tries to decorate his shop with fishnet with orange cork, cobbler's bench and awl; however, these no longer attract wealthy tourists, for "there is no money in his work." Thus, "he'd rather marry," this hints his yearn for love.
The second part of the poem includes the fifth and sixth stanza.
The first line of the fifth stanza is extracted from the poem by Spanish Poet Saint John of the cross, "The Dark Night of the Soul." Robert Lowell explains that the use of this line is to show that the night is "not gracious, but secular, Puritan, and agnostic. An existentialist night." It is upon this part of the poem the persona picked up the first speaker role. A figure of death is seen in the second line of this stanza-"the hill's skull." This refers to Golgotha, the place where Jesus Christ was crucified as recorded in The Gospel of Luke. The view of hulls laying together in love-cars contributed to the emptiness of the persona. "they lay together" is also extracted from Saint John's poem. Sexual acts, seemingly mechanical, are the evidence of the absence of love and emotion. The adhesion of the body in this stanza is not the union of the soul, it only expresses the spiritual emptiness of the persona. Dull and deadly atmosphere builds up as if the image of death encompasses the town like the shelving of the graveyard. The inability to experience or feel sulks the persona, his self-consciousness reminds him that his "mind's not right."
The love song from the car radio re-emphasizes the condition of human love. The love song juxtaposes with the sobbing of the persona's ill spirit, consolidating a more compound distress in the persona. Thus, the persona tries to strangle himself as if he is fighting against his isolation and uncertainty. He tries to obtain salvation through self-destruction; he hopes for a reborn by coming to death. Puritanism and Existentialism could be derived from this stanza. The idea of death as a form of reborn is an idea of the Puritans; the idea of committing suicide coincides with the idea of existentialist writers Sartre and Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where one could be freed by the act of suicide.
The stanza carries on with the persona declaring, "I myself am hell; nobody's here." "I myself am hell" is taken from Milton's "Paradise Lost," the words of Satan, "Which way I fly in Hell, myself am Hell." The persona feels outside the society; thus, he associates himself with Satan, for we can see in the poem that religious experiences provide him with no comfort but uneasiness. "nobody's here" is again extracted from Saint John's poem. Isolation provides him with a different view of the life.
It is at this state of absolute grief and isolation, the persona sees skunks searching for food in the moonlight. The skunks are described as marching "on their soles up Main Street"; "soles" is a pun for "souls", the skunks have "souls" but human beings have merely "hulls." The persona is trapped between the contradicting images of the Trinitarian Church and the activities of the skunks. The Church's spar spire is portrayed as "chalk-dry" which means lifeless, compared to the lively activities of the skunks.
The persona describes the air as "rich" because life is present in this period of time when "nobody's here." Although the skunks are associated with sinister descriptions, like "moonlight," "moonstruck eyes," and "red fire;" the image of the mother skunk is the most loving as seen in the whole poem. She is searching food for her kittens in the garbage pail; this maternal image of the mother skunk contradicts the relationship between the heiress and her bishop son. The persona finds no solution in traditional belief; however, he sees love and hope still in existence through his encounter with the skunks. The skunks are not scares, unlike him, drowning in anxiety. The skunks represents an image of a new world presented in front of the persona, the "rich air" he breathes in enable him to face his life confidently. The skunk's strong will triggers the persona's will to live. The persona, hence, abandons his subjective view to get in connection with the world through himself as the mean.
Robert Lowell obtained a new perspective to his writing just like the way the persona perceived the hope of love and life in the skunks.