Study Guide

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket—
    The sea was still breaking violently and night
    Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, (1-3)

    Our first introduction to the sea is not a pleasant one. Usually the word "violently" indicates that some violence is being done to someone, and in this case it's to the sailors who have to battle the waves. It's dark, too, which makes the sea storm extra dangerous for our men. Lowell is starting off the poem by basically saying, "Hey, humans… the sea is not your friend."

    The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
    In these home waters. (29-30)

    The sea might not be too concerned about the death of the sailor, but the birds are feeling pretty bummed. Yeah, yeah, we know it's personification, but the crying seabirds are the only creatures that seem to feel grief for the loss of human life. They're a friendly figure in the otherwise unfriendly world of the poem. At least someone cares.

    The winds' wings beat upon the stones,
    Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
    At the sea's throat and wring it in the slush (39-41)

    The wind seems to be mourning the death of the sailor, too. But don't be too easily fooled; it's also causing one crazy storm, beating upon the stones and causes the sea to whip about wildly. Is the wind mad at the sea, or at the sailors?

    In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
    The bones cry for the blood of the white whale, (94-95)

    Man and whale are definitely not "BFF" here. The bones of the sailors who drowned aboard the Pequod are calling out for revenge against the whale. But it wasn't the whale's fault that they drowned, was it? It was Ahab's obsession that led them to their deaths. The men don't see that, though.

    It's well;
    Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, (132-133)

    The sailors are blue, and we don't mean they are sad. They're drowned, and the speaker says that it's good that the Atlantic is "fouled" with them. Yikes. Their bodies are making the water less pure and more dirty.

  • Death

    When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
    Flashed from his matted head and marble feet, (4-5)

    Lowell might describe the sailor as "clutching," but it's really the net that is clutching him. Lest we get our hopes up that he may still be alive and kicking, Lowell describes his skin as "marble." You don't get much less alive than stone.

    The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
    Its open, staring eyes
    Were lustreless dead-lights (8-10)

    This is pretty graphic stuff. The sailor is now just called the "corpse" and "it," and physically he's just a puppet being thrown around. It's strange that throughout the poem Lowell addresses him as if he is still there. With this image, though, we're meant to know very clearly that he's gone.

    This is the end of running on the waves;
    We are poured out like water. (84-85)

    Even the whaling industry, which once thrived, dies. Lowell compares it to the tide going out, leaving the beach bare. Ultimately, everything meets its end. Yay?

    Who will dance
    The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
    Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? (86-88)

    Though he's asking who will make Ahab rise from the dead, he's already answered the question: no one. In the poem, you can't cheat death, or the sea. Both are final. Sorry, Ahab.

    The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
    The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, (96-97)

    Here, the butchering of the whale is likened to the destruction of a sanctuary. When man kills a creature, he destroys something scared, says Lowell. Not good.

  • Humility

    All you recovered from Poseidon died
    With you, my cousin, (45-46)

    Though the drowned sailor managed to "recover" a few things from Poseidon, they didn't save him. Lowell's referring to the skills that the sailor, and all sailors, must learn in order to navigate the sea; it's hard work, no doubt. Ultimately, these skills weren't enough, because the sea (and God) are stronger than anything the sailor could learn. That's a good reason not to get too cocky about your talents, huh?

    […] rock
    Our warships in the hand
    Of the great God, (53-54)

    These "great" (big) warships are being portrayed as an affront to God because of their prideful destruction. Because of their lack of humility (and lack of respect for the sea's power), they were "rocked" in the hands of the creator and destroyed (much like Winslow's ship, which exploded at sea).

    There once the penitents took off their shoes
    And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
    And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file (107-109)

    The people visiting the shrine are meek, taking off their shoes out of respect. Their humility is on display, as is the humility of the shrine itself; the trees are small, and there's a stream with neatly trimmed hedges. Are we meant to compare this display of man's humility with the prideful pursuits of the sailors?

    When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime
    And breathed into his face the breath of life, (140-141)

    Think you're so powerful, humans? Well, you came from sea slime—at least, according to the poem. That'll humble anyone.

  • Religion

    "If God himself had not been on our side,
    If God himself had not been on our side,
    When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
    Then it had swallowed us up quick." (65-68)

    The Quaker sailors are echoing Psalms here, even as they drown. They believe that God is still on their side, and that their deaths are his will. Now that's devotion.

    In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
    The bones cry for the blood of the white whale, (94-95)

    The Valley of Jehoshaphat is where the God of the Bible will gather everyone for judgment. Considering the amount of judging going on in this poem, we think that might be bad news for our sailors, whose bones are there, waiting to be judged.

    This face, for centuries a memory,
    Non est species, neque decor,
    Expressionless, expresses God (121-123)

    The Lady's face is impossible to read; she's got no expression. She's not even smiling. But the poem says that blank face expresses God. Say what? Maybe God is something we can't understand, or even recognize.

    The Lord survives the rainbow of His will. (143)

    In the Old Testament, God flooded the world, killing off all but a few select humans. Here, the poem reminds us that God promised he would never do that again, no matter what, by reminding us of the rainbow that represented that promise. Aw, pretty. So even if God is mad, he isn't going to flood the world. But he still will do what he wants, according to His will, says Lowell.