by Robert Lowell
Wordplay: What you see isn't always what you get
This poem is told through the lens of someone who is mentally ill. The speaker even admits, "My mind's not right." So it shouldn't surprise us that the words and phrases in this poem have shifting, sneaky, and sometimes funny, double meanings. In some instances the other meaning is important to the poem, and in others, it appears as though Lowell was just having a bit of fun. Either way, this poem's chock full of 'em, and they add an extra dimension to what's going on.
- Line 1: This line literally talks about a hermit (specifically an old woman who stays at home all the time) living on Nautilus Island, Maine. But this word's doing all sorts of sneaky stuff to make us think about water. Nautilus is a curved shell. The Island part is obvious, and hermit makes us think of hermit crabs. Tricky!
- Line 2: An heiress is a woman who has inherited money or property. "Spartan" describes something simple or severe. These are seemingly straightforward descriptions, but they also carry other associations. "Heiress" takes us to another time period. So does "Spartan" – all the way back to ancient Greece!
- Lines 8-9: "Hierarchic," "Queen Victoria's century" – these are both ways of describing a fancier, maybe more regal time, but they also really distort the place the speaker is talking about. We're tugged from a simple seaside town to ancient Greece, then over to the United Kingdom over a century ago. It's wacky way of telling us about the people and the place.
- Line 18: This line is triply crazy. The image Lowell is trying to get across is the red leaves of fall covering a place called Blue Hill. But the way it's worded totally trips us up a bit. First of all, the mention of red makes us picture red, but in the same line he mentions blue! We pause for a second. And in a creepier interpretation, "red […] stain" makes us think of a bloodstain, giving us an uneasy feeling from a totally normal image.
- Lines 19-20: Here Lowell is having a bit of fun. "Fairy decorator" sounds like "fairy godmother." It's also a way of taking a jab at the man for being maybe being a little feminine, or possibly gay.
- Line 21: Again, a dig at the shopkeeper. Here Lowell is literally talking about the nets that contain fish, but we might also associate it with the stockings.
- Line 26: This is a strange way of saying hilltop. And much creepier!
- Line 39: The speaker was just talking about how his soul was sad. It's no coincidence that Lowell uses "soles" in this line. Is there an echo in here?
- Line 48: What Lowell means is that they won't get scared and run away. But, this line can also be read as, they won't scare (us/anyone). It's the perfect mixed-up ending to a mixed-up poem.