Study Guide

Skunk Hour Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem is a mouthful! The first two lines are hard to say without sounding like you have a mouth packed with marbles. There's a lot going on in many of these lines – some are super long and chock-full of syllables. Others are short and direct. This creates contrast, and really sets off the short, usually declarative lines. Think of listening to the sound of running water for a while, then all the sudden someone bangs a pot against the wall! For example, in the fifth stanza we have these two really syllabically tight lines, "my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull" and, "where the graveyard shelves on the town." But the last line of the stanza is the short, "My mind's not right." This switching from long, descriptive, and poetic language to the simple declaration make those declarations stand out big time. Also, these fluctuations between long and short, poetic and plain, mimic the restlessness and unpredictability of the speaker's mind.

    Then there's the rhyme. It's doing much the same thing as what the short vs. long lines is doing. Rhyme is present throughout the poem, but it doesn't follow a predictable pattern! It's like Lowell was trying to show us how this poem (like our fragile speaker) is trying so desperately to keep it together, but just keeps going off the rails a bit. Very clever!

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Robert Lowell has plenty of fun throughout this poem toying around with double meanings and puns. When he writes one thing, be ready for the wink wink, nudge nudge that leads you to the tongue-in-cheek meaning. The title is just another example of that wordplay. "Skunk Hour" is a play on "witching hour" – literally midnight, but thought to be the time when witches are active, doing all their creepy, witchy stuff like boiling frogs and casting spells. So, "Skunk Hour" is the time of night when the town is empty except for the skunks, and it's spooky and the speaker is feeling ill at ease.

  • Setting

    "Skunk Hour" is set on an island off the coast of Maine. In the first part of the poem, the speaker shows us the major players of the community, and it seems to take place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem, however, takes place at night as the speaker journeys up the town's hill in his car. The town is deserted and he's abandoned the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks – and not much else.

  • Speaker

    The speaker is someone who is mentally ill. He seems sad and lonely, as well as bitter (note the tone he uses when describing the townspeople) and restless (driving around all night, standing on his back porch watching the skunks). So can we trust this guy? Well, it's hard to say. You can definitely see the descriptions, especially as the poem progresses, getting stranger. It's pretty cool, actually, to know that everything we find out about this place is slightly distorted because it's seen through the lens of somebody who's mentally unstable. Who knows, maybe the sane version would have been super boring.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    At first read "Skunk Hour" can be a little bit of a head scratcher. Understanding what the skunks have to do with anything can be super frustrating. But once you start to break it down and become more comfortable knowing the uneasiness of the speaker, you can relax and give in to the wildness of it all. So you'll need your compass and the right tools, but no need to set the distress flares off yet.

  • Calling Card

    The Zigzag

    Lowell is known for including tons of stuff in his poems. They often seem to start out with a narrative style (telling a story), then a wrench gets thrown into the system – he starts off on something entirely different, interrupts himself, or makes bold statements seemingly out of nowhere. What you end up with are rich poems full of twists and turns, and that often give the reader an emotional shock. Look at this poem, for example – we start off talking about rich old ladies, move to L.L. Bean characters, then drop into the abyss of personal sadness, and finally end on skunks! If you find yourself scratching your head, don't worry –you've been zigzagged like the rest of us!

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    This poem seems to be formally organized, but it's really all over the place. At first read, you see that the stanzas are all the same length (six lines apiece) and that there's definitely some rhyming going on. But, going back through the poem trying to figure out the rhyme scheme is like banging your head against the wall! In some stanzas, Lowell sticks to a perfectly predictable pattern. Look at the fourth stanza: ABCBCA. Perfectly neat. But none of the other stanzas follow that pattern exactly. They all have some rhyming in them. In fact, most of the time each end word (the last word in a line) has a rhyming match within the stanza, but when and where the match comes varies throughout the poem.

    There's no predicting this man. The fake-out rhyme scattering that Lowell does in "Skunk Hour" mirrors the progress of the poem, and of our fragile-minded speaker.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    The Skunks

    Let's face it, the skunks don't get a whole lot of "air time" in this poem, but they're definitely major players on the symbolic level. We get the first hint that they're important when Lowell sticks them in the title. "Skunk Hour" is a play on "witching hour," or midnight – the time when witches are supposed to be most active doing all their weird, witchy stuff. So right away we see that the skunks are being compared to witches, at least indirectly – they're associated with the spooky and otherworldly, where strange and disturbing things are possible. They also (not coincidentally) pop up right after the speaker admits that he's feeling kind of crazy. So whatever the skunks do in this poem, they sort of act as the backdrop or catch-all of this guy's madness. It's not just skunks being skunks anymore, but skunks as seen through the eyes of a mentally ill man – needless to say, these animals take on a stranger, darker light.

    • The Title: "Skunk Hour" = witching hour.
    • Lines 37-38: The skunks' debut! Lowell describes them searching under the moonlight – werewolf-ish, witchy!
    • Line 39: Marching through the middle of town is a pretty bold move. This line almost makes you think of zombies marching through the place and, while all the people are sleeping, they're gathering numbers to take over. Of course that isn't what's happening with the skunks, but Lowell wants us to create that same feeling of uneasiness.
    • Line 40: OK, this is definitely a creepy way of describing skunks. Lowell is using horror movie buzzwords here – "moonstruck eyes' red fire." He might as well be talking about a monster!
    • Line 45: This line is interesting because it interrupts the exaggerated scary things he was turning the skunks into before. Here, they seem like regular old skunks – a mother and her kittens even. It's almost sweet!
    • Lines 46-47: In these lines, though, Lowell's back to his old tricks. He describes them as other than what they are, giving us that distorted, crazy feeling again before getting to the last line in the poem.
    • Line 48: So, unlike most wild animals that will skitter away if you approach them, these skunks aren't afraid of anything – which makes them kind of scary.

    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.
    • Sex Rating

      PG-13

      There's a tongue-in-cheek mention of homosexuality near the beginning of the poem, and then we get the "love cars" in the next stanza. Nothing actually happens, but there are moments of potential steam. Tuck the babies in before you open this poem up.

    • Shout Outs

      Historical References

      Pop Cultural References

      • L.L. Bean (line 15)
      • Tudor Ford (line 26)
      • "Careless Love," a traditional song (line 32)