Term Paper: Physical Spiritual Emotional Isolation and Solitude

Pages: 6 (2114 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Government - Foreign Policy  ·  Buy This Paper

Robert Lowell's "The Skunk Hour"

Robert Lowell's poem, "The Skunk Hour," written in 1959, captures a time when two different worlds appear to collide. Nautilus Island is a place of both past and present, a location where dreams of reality seem to disappear into a realm of apparent reality. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing is quite real or tangible but the skunks themselves and the notions of what should occur. The island's leading resident attempts to preserve a vanished world, as do the fishermen. The hill is a lover's lane - a place of romantic imaginings - yet it is also a graveyard of vanished hopes. Nautilus Island is a world of opposites. The poem's narrator tries to capture the spirit of the place; tries to live its many possibilities, but always fails. He cannot be what does not actually exist.

So, alone in the moonlight, he watches the skunks - animals that are at once combinations of other animals, mixtures of different lifestyles and goals. The skunks scavenge, taking what they need from the leavings of others, and raising their young to do the same. The narrator, to survive, must do the same. He must discover the reality of Nautilus Island or face being absorbed into its wasteland of intangibles. Neither this nor that, here nor there, Nautilus Island is everything and everywhere. It is a hope built upon the past.

The real Nautilus Island is a small island off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay. Its geographical reality is that of most Maine islets - a small rocky patch set in the cold Atlantic swells, home perhaps to fisher folk or vacationers from other parts of the country. Still, the "hermit" of Nautilus Island recalls another famous Nautilus - the marvelous submarine of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. Nemo's Nautilus was a fantasy, a creation of Verne's imagination. It possessed wondrous capacities for exploring the unknown depths of the sea. Lowell's Nautilus also permits the reader to explore the realms of imagination. it, too, is a vessel into the unknown and the often improbable. The first line also introduces the Island's chief resident, the "heiress" of the second line. The heiress, a woman of wealth, lives in a "Spartan cottage" - another sign of incongruity. Nevertheless, the Spartans were a highly disciplined people. They organized their society around the dream of defending their homeland against all outside forces, much as does the heiress. "Her sheep still graze above the sea" - yes, no doubt as those of her ancestors did, and those of the Spartans did too, on the rocky cliff tops of the Peloponnesus. Her son, her heir, is a bishop, likewise the guardian of a "flock" of adherents. The farmer on her estate is first selectman in the narrator's village. This places him in a position of authority. Selectman is an old New England title for a town councilor - another example of tradition. He is also the one "selected" to take the place of the senile heiress. In her dotage, she not only is incapable of overseeing her domain, but she also "dotes" on it, lavishing motherly affection upon her fantasy island.

Aged, and no doubt dried out like some overripe fruit, the heiress is "thirsting" for the "hierarchie privacy" of the Victorian Era. Hierarchy is purposely given an archaic spelling that calls to mind old royal titles and offices. Victorianism is a code word for old-fashioned morality and traditional social order. And much as Queen Victoria saw her realm become the empire on which the sun never set, so too does the heiress purchase all she can as a means of eliminating any rival to her dream. The purchased properties are "eyesores" in need of her benevolent care - again like the benighted savages brought under Victoria's rule in the far corners of the globe. These rival kingdoms are also allowed to fall. Nothing must stand in the way of the heiress's dream of expanding her vision of the world until it takes over the whole island.

But there is, or was, another rival for dominion over Nautilus Island. Apparently, the island was once the summer home of millionaires from other parts of the country. One of them has stopped coming, and he was symbolic of the entire group. An unreal character, he appeared to have stepped out of the pages of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Clearly, he too was playing a part. His summer stay was only a fantasy, as indeed was his once real wealth. His yacht has been auctioned off, a victim of changing times and fortunes. Fittingly, the millionaire's yawl was snapped up by lobstermen. The lobster is a rapacious creature with claws. It gobbles up everything in reach much as crass commerce has devoured the pleasanter dreams of the heiress and the summer millionaire. Another summer pleasure has also gone the way of all flesh - the blood of a red fox stains "Blue Hill." No more will the millionaire and his ilk ride to hounds with their blue blooded companions. That dream is dead.

The fairy decorator is a not-too-politically correct term for another group of foreign "invader" arriving on the shores of Nautilus Island. Fairy, as well, must call to mind the overly-precious and kitschy merchandise that so often graces shops that cater to the tourist trade. It is another sing of changing times. The pleasures of the old rich have given way to the hard commerce of the lobstermen, which in turn is being edged out by the money of the day trippers. It is a long way from the brusque manliness of Sparta, but perhaps in keeping with other Spartan interests. At any rate, good old-fashioned manual labor yields little as is shown by the fishnet empty of everything but its orange float. Orange seems a festive color, one that goes well with the corks that will be pulled out of countless wine and champagne bottles as tourists celebrate their summer sojourns.

The cobbler, too, has no work, because nothing old is repaired or saved. It all just goes to ruin. He would be better off marrying than staying in this place and depending on the work of his own two hands.

But dream are usually more vivid at night. The narrator drives up the "hill's skull" in his Tudor Ford. The ancient hill is the head, or seat of intelligence of all the hopes and aspirations that are buried somewhere inside Nautilus Island. Too bad the flesh has worn away, and only the bones remain. The Tudor Age was long ago, centuries before even the heiress's beloved Victorians; somewhere in between Sparta and the present. Nonetheless, a "love-car" could be a modern day Tudor rose, an emblem of a way of life. The love-cars; however, are more like ships, unlighted vessels lying side-by-side in the darkness. The island, like a gigantic graveyard, seems ready to shelve off into the boundless sea. Past dreams are dead and buried. The love represented by the love cars lasts for but a moment and then is gone like lights turned off, or lives ended forever. Past and present, reality and dream, land and sea, nothing is easily understood - the narrator's "mind's not right."

The narrator cries out for "Love, O careless love," or rather the car radios blare a song with that refrain. The radios bleat like sheep, lost sheep, possibly some straggler from the heiress's flock. Nautilus Island is a strange place, bits and pieces of lost dreams come together here and there. The narrator's body is but a jumble of independent cells, each one sobbing for life. The spirit is ill and knows not what to do. It is under attack. The narrator feels as if he is fighting off an unseen hand. It tries to strangle him, to choke off the last bit of his dreams. A constructed throat cannot breathe and cannot drink. Like the heiress, it thirsts, but is never satisfied. Possibly the life has already gone out of the narrator's cells, for his spirit is in hell, and it is all alone. Dreams come from the spirit and with nowhere to go on Nautilus Island they must go somewhere else. The dreams of others have all gone, and only the narrator's remain.

In place of human aspirations, come those of the skunks. Black animals with white stripes, they must appear as eerie visions in the night. They search in the moonlight for a bite to eat. An island full of refuse, and they must search for food. They march "on their soles" up Main Street, like so many soldiers on their way to their last desperate battle. Soles are also "souls" - an army runs on its stomach, and an army deprived of food cannot get far. A spirit deprived of dreams can get no further. What remains of the soul is crushed underfoot. Main Street is the heart of any traditional American town, and the skunks must visit it… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Physical Spiritual Emotional Isolation and Solitude.  (2008, November 26).  Retrieved September 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/physical-spiritual-emotional-isolation/1737115

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