Skunk Hour Summary
The poem starts with the speaker reflecting on a coastal town in Maine. His observations track an elderly, wealthy woman who seems to have a ton of property, but who is quite alone in her older years. Then he starts to describe the things that have begun to go wrong with the place – the millionaire who lived there for the summer is gone, the town decorator seems depressed and poor, and now the whole place is looking pretty sad for fall.
Then the speaker shifts the focus to himself. He remembers a drive he took through the town one night and what he saw as well as how he felt. It all seems pretty gloomy, and he admits to being depressed and feeling kind of crazy. What he observes after he lets us in on his mental state seems to be affected by how he's feeling, and as the poem progresses it gets pretty bleak.
Nautilus Island's hermit
- What a mouthful to begin with! Line 1, though pretty short, is kind of confusing. First of all, it helps to know that Nautilus Island is an actual place in Maine.
- A hermit is someone who stays in his or her house and doesn't get out much. So Lowell is referring to a person in a particular place.
- The first line is tricky because it plays with all these sea words – "nautilus," here the name of a place, is also a sea creature that leaves those familiar curved shells washed up on the beach. They're kind of like those conch shells that we press our ears to and that sound like the whooshing noise of the ocean.
- "Island" has an obvious sea reference, and "hermit," though the word is being used to describe a kind of person, makes us think of hermit crabs! So right away he's playing around with the language in this poem.
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
- OK, more adjectives to jumble things up, but if we unpack it a bit, we can find the necessary info.
- So, this hermit is also an heiress (a woman who's inherited some money, probably a good amount of money).
- The word "Spartan" comes from the ancient Greek soldiers of Sparta, who were rough and tough and didn't need much to get by. So here, when the word refers to the cottage it just means that the place doesn't have a ton of frills or luxuries.
- Now let's also pay attention to the quieter parts of the line – "still" means the hermit heiress has probably been there a while, and "winter" takes us out of the sunny seaside picture we might have begun imagining and introduces us to colder weather.
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
- This heiress owns some sheep that graze on her property.
- Her son is a bishop – a noble occupation, perhaps something that she's proud of.
- Her farmer (probably the guy who tends her land) holds a seat in local government. So he's mostly likely a stand-up guy too.
- So all these things hint at the fact that the heiress lives a no-frills life, but she has it pretty good. Doesn't seem like she has to do a whole lot for herself.
she's in her dotage.
- To say the heiress is "in her dotage" means she's in the last phase of her life. She's old, weak, and doesn't have a ton of time left.
- This is an interesting shift in the description, because everything before it laid out how fortunate she is.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
- Here's another mouthful of words. So this lady wants some privacy. But what's hierarchic privacy? Well, if we take a hint from the next line, it could mean she wants the privacy of a queen – where she's above everyone, so nobody can bug her.
- And what to make of Queen Victoria's century? Queen Victoria was the ruler of the United Kingdom during a time of serious expansion and power. (Her reign is also called the "Victorian era," and is known for being kind of stuffy and prudish.)
- So if you relate the Queen Victoria bit to what comes before it, it probably means that this heiress wants to be left alone during her prosperous golden years, watching over what she's helped build over her lifetime.
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
- She buys all the houses that are blocking her sea view and then gets rid of them.
- This is also playing around with the queen's empire thing from the previous lines. The heiress has the power (and money) to basically be the ruler of this land, and to get rid of all the ugly houses around her that are ruining her property's stately appearance. They're expendable to her.
The season's ill –
we've lost our summer millionaire,
- To say "the season's ill" means that something is not right, or not quite the way it usually is.
- Lowell finally includes the speaker in this line with "we've." Now we know the speaker isn't someone passing through the place, but someone who lives there.
- There was a millionaire who was living at the place over the summer and now he's gone. There are a lot of coastal towns that deal with this sort of thing – rich people have summer homes there, but leave during the cold months. Then there are the people who maybe can't afford to leave, and must stay there all year long.
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
- The L.L. Bean description is pretty funny, maybe a way of poking fun at the fancy schmancy sailor type who wants to look like he's from Maine (L.L. Bean is a Maine company).
- A yawl is a kind of sailboat, and "nine-knot" describes how fast it goes (it's a nice one).
- The millionaire's boat has been auctioned off to the lobstermen (one example of a resident that must stay and work year-round).
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
- This line is kind of mysterious. The red stain makes us think of blood and creates a spooky, "something's wrong" feel.
- But think about the time of year – it's probably late- to mid-fall, and the leaves on Blue Hill (a place in the town) are probably changing colors. Our guess is that the speaker is referring to the bright red foliage in this line.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
- A local shop owner decorates his shop for the season.
- Why he's called a "fairy decorator" we can't be sure. But considering how much Lowell likes to play around with word associations and meanings, he might be working the fairy tale thing from the beginning of the poem (where the old lady in her cottage is a queen, etc.).
- "Fairy decorator" could also be a derogatory way of describing the man – that he's somehow girly or dainty.
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
- "Fishnet" here is literally a net for fish, but if we go a little further with the possibly insulting way of describing the shop owner, it might be a play on fishnet stockings.
- The shop owner is decorating his store with orange things, because orange is one of the main colors of autumn.
- An "awl" is a type of tool for poking holes in leather and a "cobbler" isn't a tasty dessert here, it's someone who fixes shoes – this is probably a shoe repair shop.
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.
- This shop owner doesn't make a lot of money from his business.
- "He'd rather marry" is a funny insight. Apparently the speaker knows enough about the man to know what he wants – that he'd rather settle down than have to work a low-paying job.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
- Now we get to know more about the speaker. He's about to describe his own experience in the town. Where before it seemed as though he might be looking through binoculars as he's telling us about the town, now it's like we've zoomed in and we're sitting right next to him in his car.
- "Tudor Ford" (or a Ford Tudor) is a type of old car (think 1940s).
- He's driving up Blue Hill.
- The "hill's skull" gives us that same chilly feeling that "red stain" did.
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
- He's driving slowly up the hill, looking for parked cars with lovers in them.
- Lowell describes the parked cars with the lights off like docked ships – "hull to hull" in keeping with the nautical theme.
- The speaker is either a very lonely, or very nosy guy (maybe both) to be paying such close attention to what everyone else is doing in the town.
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.
- It sounds like the graveyard is built into the hill to look like shelves above the town (here's an example of a terraced hill to help you picture the scene).
- Mentioning the graveyard continues the spooky vibe that's been scattered throughout the description of this place.
- The ellipsis (…) indicate a passage of time, or a drifting off. The speaker, talking to us again, abruptly changes focus and admits his "mind's not right."
- The fact that the speaker tells us this sheds a little light on why his descriptions of things have been sort of spooky and bleak.
A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
- The speaker overhears a love song playing from one of the cars as he drives by.
- It causes him to feel terrible – his "ill-spirit" reminds us of the line where he declares, "my mind's not right."
- So the speaker's saying (though he's using a little poetic license) that he can hear his spirit crying even in his blood!
as if my hand were at its throat ....
I myself am hell,
- The "its" refers to the soul. So the soul cries as if it were being choked by the speaker. It's a strange image, but a clearly suicidal one.
- Instead of being in hell, the speaker declares, "I myself am hell" – he's the cause of his own agony.
- The speaker is clearly mentally ill – his madness is making him all the worse. It's a vicious cycle.
- This is an interesting shift. Is "here" referring to the private hell the speaker is in? Or is it the actual hill? Perhaps it's both.
- At this point in the poem, we have our interest scattered all over the place – the heiress, the millionaire, the shop owner, the town itself, the speaker. It's interesting to wonder how this might all end up.
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
- So there are no people around, only "skunks" – stinky little scavengers, looking for something to eat.
- This is another bleak description of the place. It's also the first connection we get to the title.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
- They walk up the main part of the town. This seems important – like there are no people in the place, so skunks just have free reign over the night. Total zombie, horror movie stuff.
- Then the speaker describes the skunks' white stripes and how their eyes look red when the light shines on them – another seemingly normal image turned scary.
- It's definitely no mistake that Lowell echoes "soles," as in bottoms of their feet, with the "spirit" kind of soul that is still in our heads from the previous lines.
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.
- "Spar" is like a mast on a boat. So Lowell is still clinging to the nautical imagery. Here he uses it to describe the spire – the pointy top of the church.
- So the skunks are walking under the night shadows of this big, Gothic-looking church. Lowell probably uses this description to enhance the spookiness of the scene.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air –
- The speaker is no longer driving, but back is home on the back steps. The "our" is a little bit of a mystery, but it's probably referring to whoever he's living with. And it's probably someone important enough to be addressing this to.
- "Breath[ing] the rich air" is probably the first positive thing we've seen our sad speaker do, but we don't really get enough at this point to think things might turn around for him.
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
- So a mother skunk with her babies ("kittens" is the technical term for baby skunks – just as baby goats are called "kids," and so on) is rustling around in a garbage can looking for food.
- All of the sudden we've moved from these zombie-like scavenging skunks to different terminology altogether – a mother and her kittens. That's softer language, for sure. Is the speaker forming a different opinion of them?
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
- He's describing the mama skunk in all these different terms – "wedge-head" is obviously to describe the shape of it, and "ostrich" for the tail.
- She's gotten into some sour cream – pretty nasty if you think about it.
and will not scare.
- So the skunk has found something to eat and refuses to be shooed off by anyone, regardless of the threat.
- This last line is so cool, because it almost seems like the speaker is feeling a mix of disgust for the mother skunk (she's chowing down on some nasty sour cream cup) and admiration (she has what she wants and will not let go).