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It's not often that an elegy—a poem about a dead person or thing—involves whale guts, angry Greek gods, and cows. You've probably read a few elegies yourself, and we guess that most of them were more about missing the person who died than about battling giant sea monsters. Well, in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," poet Robert Lowell elegizes the loss of his cousin in a… different way.
To be fair, the poem isn't just about his cousin, who drowned aboard a Naval ship in WWII. In the seven-part poem, Lowell also spends plenty of time considering the other drowned sailors aboard whaling ships and warships, and how their deaths represent some heavy truths about mankind. It's a long poem, and he uses plenty of famous works, like Moby Dick and the Bible, to get his point across.
Because of these allusions, the poem moves around a lot, taking us from graveyard to the deck of a sinking ship, from inside a whale's stomach to a religious shrine in England. If that doesn't make you motionsick enough, Lowell uses changing rhyme scheme and meter to recreate the unsteady feeling of choppy seas (which is pretty appropriate for a poem about shipwrecks).
People don't seem to get too sea-sick from reading it, though; the poem is considered one of Lowell's best works. Published in 1946 and first appearing in his collection Lord Weary's Castle (which won the Pulitzer prize in 1947), "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" has gone on to be among his most anthologized poems. At the time, World War II had just ended, and people were looking for a way to make sense of the massive tragedy and the personal losses they faced.
They were also looking for a way to put these losses into context, and Lowell—by writing about both his cousin's death and the deaths of all those lost at sea—offered a way to express grief while reaching for meaning. Ultimately, he says, men die by the will of God and by the result of their own foolishness and pride. So, despite being mostly about whaling and sailors, the poem manages to be pretty universal. We think you'll feel the same way, even if you've never been to sea.
It's no big secret that mankind hasn't had the best effect on the earth and its inhabitants; for example, more and more creatures are becoming endangered and extinct, and the quality of the air is getting worse. Our habits and use of the earth's resources are to blame, and we know it; it's all over the news. As a result, environmental concerns affect the products we use, the politics we follow, and the lifestyles we choose.
Believe it or not, the idea that humans aren't good for the earth's health isn't a new one. It existed in the 1940s when Robert Lowell wrote the poem. Though people back then didn't have TV news keeping them constantly posted on the state of things, plenty of folks still thought that we should take better care of our planet, including Lowell. As a result, humans messing things up (and having to pay for it) is the central theme in "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," and the poem also serves as a warning: if we take poor care of the earth, including its creatures, we face God's retribution… and it ain't pretty. The poem doles out a timely, if ominous, message.
The Poetry Foundation offers up a great bio and links to Lowell's work.
Here you can explore the actual Quaker graveyard on Nantucket where the poem takes place.
A Whale of a Tail
This site has great info on the history of whaling, and other activity, in and around Nantucket.
Lowell and War
Want to hear more about how Lowell felt about war? Check out this brief video about his political involvement in the '60s.
Lowell Memorial Lecture
Lots of famous poets got together to memorialize Lowell. The video is long, so choose your favorites.
Tour of Nantucket
Check out this video tour of Nantucket, where much of the poem is set.
Lowell reads "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"
Hear the man himself read his poem.
"For the Union Dead"
Dig this recording of Lowell reading another of his famous poems.
Lowell, Looking Sly
Here's Lowell, you know, just chillin' in a suit.
1967 Cover of TIME
Lowell got on the cover. What's that on his head?
1961 Interview with Lowell
The Paris Review interviews Lowell about the art of poetry and the art of life.
The Letters of Lowell
Want to read some love letters? The correspondence of Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop are profiled in this New Yorker article.
Why Read 1,200 Pages of Lowell?
This article gives a good argument for reading the poet's lengthy works.
Lowell's Collected Poems
They're all here; it's a big one. This is great for reading and also for weight-lifting.
Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell
Read more about the poet and his life.