Skunk Hour

Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” and Robert Lowell’s.
“Skunk Hour” is dedicated to one another not simply out of friendship, but because each poet imitates each other’s style and alludes to the other’s key personality traits. While Bishop comments on her friend Lowell’s rage against humanity’s cruelty, Lowell writes of Bishop’s isolation and inner darkness, yet also resilience to persevere. Written first, “The Armadillo” describes a celebration in which fire balloons are illegally set aloft, only to fall and burn animals’ homes. The poem moves from describing something apparently delightful, as the balloons “flush and fill with light/that comes and goes, like hearts” to a sudden violent scene of the burst balloon burning an owls’ nest, frightening the birds from their home. As it burns, an armadillo and baby rabbit flee the scene. Scholar Penelope Laurens writes: “Bishop dedicated this poem to Robert Lowell, who became a conscientious objector when the Allied command began fire-bombing German cities.
Bishop’s poem points directly to these fire bombings, which wreaked the same kind of horrifying destruction on a part of our universe that the fire balloons wreak on the animals” (“On ‘The Armadillo’”). The seemingly beautiful balloons become something ugly – “falling fire and piercing cry” – and the armadillo seems to symbolize Lowell, the “weak mailed fist” clenched against the war’s cruelty. However, it is less about his anti-war stance than about Bishop’s appreciation for Lowell’s ability to write beautifully even about ugly, harsh subjects. According to scholar Bonnie Costello, “The Armadillo” “has been read as a critique of his way of making art out of suffering [but here] she dramatizes this aesthetic distance and the inevitable return to the rage of the suffering body”(“On ‘The Armadillo’”). Indeed, Bishop moves from a detached description of the balloons on strictly aesthetic terms and makes their effects dramatic and personal, with a sort of quiet anger at the cruelty of their effects.

In response, Lowell playfully alludes to her as the “hermit heiress” with a bishop for a son (indeed, Bishop was childless and reclusive), and the “fairy decorator” seems a nod to Bishop’s homosexuality, but these figures matter far less than the skunk at the end. As Bishop acknowledged Lowell’s gesture against warfare, Lowell pays tribute to Bishop’s view of the world around her – not as quaint and antiquated, as the first stanzas suggest, but also as a decaying place, but also one where life continues nonetheless. Lowell himself claimed, “The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town…[but then] all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night… not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical” (“On ‘Skunk Hour’”). The skunks seem a symbol of humanity, carrying on despite the unnamed malaise, much like the armadillo symbolizes Lowell’s gesture against cruelty.
Here, Lowell identifies with Bishop; Steven Gould Axelrod writes that Lowell “personifies that disease [and] is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator” (“On ‘Skunk Hour’”). A sense of self-loathing and inner darkness permeates the poem, implying that Lowell sees these in Bishop. However, the skunk at the end “will not scare,” making its way despite the world around it. These two poems comment on their subjects’ personal traits and outlooks, using symbols to describe each other. Bishop’s armadillo, a small, clenched being in the midst of chaos, pays tribute to Lowell’s antiwar stance, while Lowell’s skunk, which moves furtively in its decaying New England setting, acknowledges Bishop’s sense of despair but also her tenacity and willingness to persevere as both person and artist.

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Anonymous. “On ‘The Armadillo. ’” 2000. Modern American Poetry. 18 March 2006. <http://www.english. htm>.
“On ‘Skunk Hour’. 2000. <>.
“The Armadillo. ” 1997. <>.
“Skunk Hour.” 1997. <http://www. poets. org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15279>.

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