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Subject Skunk Hour
Posted by Sylvia
Posted on Wed Dec 16 14:53:21 1998
From IP h220.s117.ts30.hinet.net  

"Skunk Hour"

As it's original title," Inspiration", suggests, the enlightenment and stimulation that Lowell got from the "skunk" and Elizabeth Bishop play an important role in this poem, which is full of emptiness and sterility. In response to Bishop's "Armadillo," in which the armadillo is implied as Lowell's self-restriction in seeing his own life and writing poetry, this poem can be seen as Lowell's first step to break through his former writing style in terms of it's irregular rhymes, freer forms, or even content.
In my opinion, the poem can be divided into three parts: the first four stanzas, the last two stanzas, and the two stanzas in between. Basically, it starts with a casual tone giving some common-life details and experience then go deep to physiology dilemma and existentialism questioning. In the first part, the speaker seems to use a third-person narration to describe the declination of a village. In the second part, the speaker goes further into the despairing feelings inside himself (My mind's not right, I myself am hell). As for the last part, the tone changes from pessimistic to optimistic. By "standing on top" and "breathing the rich air", the poet seems to find his own direction and hope, which make him feel scare no more.
The poem begins with a description of the sterility in a sea town, where Lowell had spent a summer. By introducing several isolated and loveless inhabitants, the speaker enhances the sadness of the separateness in human civilization. The heiress in the first two stanzas is a poor old lady. Being an heiress and the mother of a bishop, the old lady should have a comfortable and rich life. However, she spent winter in "Spartan cottage" raising sheep; "she is in her dotage"; she longs to come back to the splendid hour in Queen Victoria's century. In the first stanza, we can feel that the mother has a bad relationship with his son, since they don't seem to be close to each other. This lack of maternal love gives us a kind of preparation and foreshadow for the latter sadness of the lifeless "millionaire" and the moneyless "decorator". Since this old heiress is in such helpless solitude and despair, she "buys up eyesores" and "let them fall" projecting her unhappiness into those eyesores.
In the third stanza, "the season's ill", to me, has two meanings. First, it can corresponds to the last sentence, "A red fox stand covers Blue Hill", referring to the changes of the season, namely, the approaching of the fall. Secondly, it represents the illness in nature, which indirectly reveals the illness in human society. Similar to the heiress in the previous two stanzas, the "millionaire" here shows as a pathetic figure. "His yawl was auctioned off to a lobstermen" suggests that his past beautiful existence disappeared by and by in the daily life of this small seatown without getting people much notice. It seems that his life is nothing but a lifeless subject with a price on an "L.L.Bean catalogue", or I would say, his life had been so hollow and meaningless that it's likely that it had never really existed
The "fairy decorator", of course, is another miserable character in this declining seatown. As it is implied in the previous stanza, the "fall" season is coming, which is clearly pointed out in stanza four. Connotatively speaking, falls is a sad time full of grieves and sorrow. Ironically, in such a sad season, the decorator tried to "brightens his shop" with some old things, such as "his fishnet" and "his cobbler's bench and awl", to attract customers. The last two lines push the decorator into a more desperate corner, since his work is penniless and the decoration is hollow, "he'd rather marry" to seek for the warmth of love.
Starting from the fifth stanza, the speaker turns to question the inner feelings of the nothingness in his unconscious underworld and to seek the freedom by reaching Camus' point of self-suicidity. As Lowell himself had explained, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existential night," the "dark night" here is the "final darkness" that one must come through before reborn. The "hill's skull", where Jesus was crucified, is like the "graveyard" giving readers a strong hint of death. The sexuality in the car projects the spiritual emptiness in this sick town. The sexual intercourse, which should based on true love and intimate relationship, now becomes "careless love," in which the lovers physically "lay together" but spiritually isolated from one another (hull to hull). Being bathed in the hollowness and loneliness of "the graveyard" covering entirely the whole town, the speaker gradually begins to be aware that "my mind's not right" and that he is desperately in lonesomeness where "nobody's there". The songs in the radio is sarcastically reminding the speaker of the cruel reality of facing the "careless love" in human society and in himself. The "ill-spirits" of separateness is so deeply rooted in each of his "blood cell" that he almost wants to commit suicide (my hand were at its throat) to look for his reborn freedom. Quoting from Milton's "Paradise Lost," the meaning of "I myself am hell" here is compared to the role of Satan, who is outcast of the society suffering from his self-ill-spirit. In addition, the "hell" also could be related to the image of prison, where one would lose his freedom.
The first two words in the 7th stanza (only skunks) are deliberately put after the dash where the 6th stanza ends with the despair of "nobody's here," which suggests that in contrast to the hopeless nothingness in the previous stanzas, the skunk brings some new hope and inspiration. In the last two stanzas of the poem, we can see that the skunks appear in a rather positive way. The words like "march," "red fire," "will not scare" indicate the vitality and the strong will that the skunks have when facing the disorder in their depressing and dirty environment. They "search for a bite to eat"; they have red-fire eyes; they take of the kittens; for they have the hope and love for life. In contrast to the optimistic image of the skunks, "the chalk-dry spare spire of the Trinitarian Church" seems to be lifeless and indifferent. Standing between the church and the skunks, the speaker feels alienated from God, who can offers him faith and comfort no more, while the skunks provide him with some kind of stimulation to "stand on top" to "breathe the rich air" of life. The skunks, who are usually disliked by most of the people but successfully find their own way of life, gives readers the hope to survive from the emptiness in the modern waste land. Furthermore, in parallel, they gives Lowell the inspiration and encouragement to break through the restrictions in life and to enter a new world of himself.


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