The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

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The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

Robert Lowell 1946

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” one of Robert Lowell’s most anthologized and respected poems, was published in Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) and serves as an elegy for Lowell’s maternal cousin, Warren Winslow, who was killed in an explosion aboard a naval ship during World War II. The poem is unusual because, while it mourns the lost cousin, it also assigns him responsibility for his own death. By the time Winslow died in January of 1944, Lowell had already served approximately six months in jail for refusing to fight in World War II, having converted before that to Catholicism in 1941. Considering this history, Lowell appears to have used the occasion of his cousin’s death to compile a poem of not only political and religious importance, but of immense referential scope—a poem assembling snippets of Melville, Thoreau, Milton, The Bible, and still other sources. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” uses the occasion of a relative’s untimely death to cobble together a poem asserting that humanity’s decimation of nature and humankind’s self-destruction in war are affronts to a ever-present Judeo-Christian God, who may forgive, but cannot forget.

Author Biography

Robert Lowell—the so-called father of confessional poetry, which was inaugurated in his 1959 poem “Skunk Hour”—was born March 1, 1917, an only child in a wealthy and distinguished family. His father was a naval officer; his great-great-uncle was James Russell Lowell, a poet, educator, and editor; and his cousin was Amy Lowell, the poet whose name Ezra Pound used to sarcastically dub a degenerating Imagism (“Amygism”). Lowell attended Harvard University for two years. During his summer vacation in 1937, he and novelist Ford Madox Ford stayed at the home of poet Allen Tate. The following fall, Lowell transferred to Kenyon College to study with poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. At Kenyon, Lowell met poet Randall Jarrell and short–story writer Peter Taylor. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in Classics and, in 1940, married novelist Jean Stafford. Lowell then pursued graduate studies at Louisiana State University under critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. In 1941, Lowell officially converted to Catholicism and married Stafford once again, in a Roman Catholic ceremony. Before finishing graduate school, Lowell and Stafford moved to New York, where he became an editor for a Catholic publishing house. In 1943, when Lowell refused to fight in World War II because he opposed the bombing of civilian targets, he was jailed as a conscientious objector; he served half of a year-long sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. In 1944, Lowell’s first book, The Land of Unlikeness was published, followed by Lord Weary’s Castle (the volume containing “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”) two years later. Lord Weary’s Castle won what would be the first of Lowell’s two Pulitzer Prizes; Lowell also won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize. During 1947, Lowell was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. The next year he divorced Stafford. During 1949 he served on the committee for the first Bollingen Prize. With Lowell’s vote, the award went to Ezra Pound for the Pisan Cantos. In April of 1949, Lowell was teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was arrested for unspecified behavior. He was then put in a small private hospital near Georgetown, Massachusetts, for a short stay. There he was visited by writer Elizabeth Hardwick, whom he married shortly after being released. Lowell would continue to suffer from a bipolar disorder and be sporadically hospitalized.

During the 1950s, Lowell travelled in Europe and taught at Kenyon, the University of Iowa, Indiana University, the University of Cincinnati and Boston University. Among his many students were poets W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton and critic Helen Vendler. Lowell also published

three books of verse, won two prestigious awards, and had his first child, Harriet Winslow. For the whole of the 1960s, Lowell lived in New York City, worked as a poet-librettist for the Metropolitan and New York City operas, published poetry and plays, received more awards and a lifelong appointment at Harvard, and taught at Yale University. From 1970 to 1976, Lowell lived in England and taught at Essex University for two years. In 1972, he was divorced from Elizabeth Hardwick and then married writer Caroline Blackwood, with whom he had already had a child in 1971. In 1973, Lowell’s tenth volume of poetry, The Dolphin, won the Pulitzer Prize. Still more awards followed for books and lifetime achievement. Then, while in New York City in 1977, Lowell died suddenly in a taxi. By the time he died at the age of sixty, Lowell was considered one of the most important writers in English in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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Poem Summary

Title, Dedication, and Epigraph

Nantucket Island lies off the coast of Massachusetts. Once a whaling capital, there is now a whaling museum in the main city, Nantucket. Warren Winslow was Lowell’s maternal cousin who died along with his crew when his ship accidentally exploded in the Ambrose Channel of New York Harbor on January 3, 1944, during World War II. The epigraph comes from Genesis 1:26, in which God declares humanity superior to the rest of nature. This epigraph will be important, especially in respect to humanity’s treatment of nature and, more specifically the whale—the first-created animal and, in Islamic myth, the one holding the world on his back.

Lines 1-7

Madaket is on the east side of Nantucket. A drowned sailor—an analogue for Winslow—is seen hanging from the dragnet of the narrator’s naval vessel one stormy night.

Lines 8-12

The following lines come from the early pages of Thoreau’s Cape Cod, when Thoreau sees a wrecked ship on the beach. Cape Cod is just north of Nantucket. The drowned body is compared to a drowned ship, a shipwreck.

Lines 12-16

The corpse is weighted down and buried at sea, making the “Graveyard” of the title applicable to both the ocean and to an actual graveyard on Nantucket. An association is made between the drowned sailor and Ahab, the whaling captain of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851); they share identities as both attackers and victims. The ocean is a place where the dogfish “barks” its nose— “barks” referring both to the sound a dog makes and to the verb form of the word, meaning “to break.” “Ahab’s void and forehead” is ambiguous but might be a variation of heart and head. The “name / … blocked in yellow chalk” possibly refers to the sailor’s name (found on his dog tags) written in block letters (capitals) upon an empty coffin to be later placed in a cenotaph in a graveyard on land. Thoreau, in Cape Cod, says he saw coffins on the beach upon which the names of the bodies were written with red chalk. Lowell might have substituted the more-common yellow chalk for his description.

Lines 17-19

The body that is pitched back into the sea from “whence it came” (a reference both to the place where the corpse was found and to the sea as the source of life) is a “portent,” or sign, to other dreadnoughts (a kind of battleship) of what happens to those with too much pride, to those with a “hell-bent deity”—namely, military sailors and whalers.

Lines 20-24

The narrator tells the sailors that they cannot protect their ship and themselves against the stormy Atlantic, deified as a “chaste” (punishing), “green” god—Poseidon or Neptune from Greek mythology—with fishlike “steel scales” and called “the earth-shaker” because of its ability to unleash powerful storms. Further, the sailors should not expect to be saved by the likes of Orpheus, who was considered

Media Adaptations

  • Robert Lowell: A Mania for Phrases can be found in the PBS Voices and Visions series, New York: Center for Visual History Productions

the greatest Greek poet before Homer and who was given the lyre (Lowell’s “lute”) by Apollo. Orpheus hoped that with his lyric power he would be able to rescue his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. The lute’s charm worked, allowing her to leave, under the condition that Orpheus would not turn to look at her as they escaped. When he did, she was swallowed up into the inferno.

Lines 24-26

Once the body is tossed overboard, the naval vessel shoots its guns. “Recoil” refers both to the backward kick of the guns and a standard reaction to seeing something horrible, such as death. The salute for the dead has been repeated so many times that its sound has become “hoarse.”

Lines 27-39

The birds in these lines are able to sympathize with the sailor’s death because they have experienced the peril of stormy seas. The narrator then asks the sailor if, in the land of the dead, he can hear the Pequod, Ahab’s destroyed whaling ship, breaking apart on the shores of Siasconset on Nantucket and off Madacket where fishermen fish with artificial squid bait for blue-fish.

Lines 39-44

In this stanza, the birds, Ahab’s ship, and the wind itself are all described as having wings. All of nature, as well as the bones of the Quakers, keen and moan for both Winslow’s death and the whale’s.

Lines 45-49

As at the end of the first stanza, death is final. There is no redemption either for Winslow or the tortured (“harrowed”) ocean. Poseidon, as a blue beard (Bluebeard was a fictional personage who killed his numerous wives), is unsympathetic to the sailors. The description of Spain as “Nantucket’s westward haven” is mysterious, since Spain is east of Nantucket.

Lines 49-57

In the twentieth century, warships carry out violence on what whalers long ago violated: nature. No lesson has been learned, and so time is contrite, “blue,” sad. Time also “blues” these dead lessons— killed or forgot by people—because time must continually bury them in the blue ocean.

Lines 57-62

Lowell uses metonymy when he states that time was young, since it was the sailors or humanity that was young and naive when they believed in sea monster gods—often whales—that Lowell goes on to equate with IS, or God, since God told Moses he was called “I AM THAT I AM” or simply “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God, by the way, goes unnamed, because names contain or sum up, but God cannot be. The “whited monster” is a reference to Isaiah 23:27, where a “whited sepulchre” is mentioned, meaning a grave site that looks beautiful on the outside but contains bones and “uncleaness on the inside.” Moby Dick was considered, likewise, a beautiful monster.

Lines 62-68

It is likely that the secret cost to the death of the mariners was their salvation, since Lowell has already intimated that the sailors would not be reborn, especially since—even as they were drown-ing—they could not understand that what they were doing was an affront to God and nature. Lowell imagines that even when the sailors’ ship was destroyed and they were drowning in the “sperm-whale’s slick” (slick referring to a substance called ambergris that originates in the whale’s intestines and is secreted into the water), they rationalized that God must have been “on their side” or else they would have died long ago. Lines 65 to 68 are slightly altered from Psalm 124.

Lines 69-72

“This” refers to the Nantucket graveyard (death). “Whaleroad” is a variation of railroad, to make resonant that whales spew like trains, and in the case of Moby Dick, “spewed Nantucket bones” just as train engines once spewed smoke and whales spew water from their blowhole. “The end” is the literal end of the whaling expedition, the virtual end of whaling, the death of Moby Dick, and the death of the Pequod’s whalers.

Lines 73-78

Those who chased whales were fools, paying for it with their lives. They were “drowning men clutching at straws,” a cliché meaning that they were desperate for money and adventure while living and desperate for life while drowning. “Clamavimus” is Latin for “We have cried.” Compare this to Psalm 130:1—“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.”

Lines 78-84

The seagulls seem the most sympathetic of all of the entities in this poem. Where before birds sympathized with Winslow, now they mourn for the hurt sea, imagined as being sucked dry by the land at low tide.

Lines 85-88

Again, this is the end of the whaling journey. “We are poured out like water” comes from Psalm 22:14, meaning to be exhausted with reference to sweating. The question beginning “Who will dance” will likely be answered “No one,” since no one is able to bring back the dead “mast-lashed master.” Odysseus was tied to the mast to resist the Sirens’ call in The Odyssey, and Ahab was hoisted up the mast to look for Moby Dick in chapter 130 of Moby Dick. “Mast-lashed” indicates that these captains were victims of fatal desire.

Lines 89-93

“Corruption” refers to the whale body corrupted by whalers’ harpoons. Wood’s Hole is the closest point to Martha’s Vineyard on the mainland of Massachusetts. Here Lowell asks the crucial question of whether the military man of World War II is similar to the whaler of yesteryear.

Lines 94-102

Jehoshaphat was said by Lowell to refer to “the valley of judgment. The world, according to some prophets and scientists, will end in fire.” By way of comparison, see Joel 3:12—“Let the heathen be wakened and come unto the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about.” The other lines depict the slaughter of the whale, with it twisting and turning in agony from having its “sanctuary” (body) violated by harpoons. The whale, however, is not wholly depicted as a victim, since, in its violent death throes, it can become a weapon, a “swingle”—the freely swinging part of a flail. The implication appears to be that if whales destroy ships, as Moby Dick sunk the Pequod, it is because they are treated savagely.

Lines 102-105

These lines describe the ship destroyed. The singing stars come from Job 38:7, where God describes them singing at the time of the creation of the world. Why they are singing in Lowell’s poem is puzzling, which just might be the point: humans, like Job, are too insignificant to understand the workings of the universe, such as why stars would sing as a ship sinks. The red flag comes from the last chapter of Moby Dick, where the Indian sailor, Tashtego—in a final human act of arrogance and foolishness—tries to nail a red flag to the mast even as the ship quickly sinks.

Lines 105-106

The statement “Hide, / Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side” is a plea for redemption from a syncretic god. Jesus was pierced in his side by centurions and crucified, then resurrected after three days; Jonah was vomited up from the belly of the whale after three days; and the whale was harpooned. The plea to hide the spear or harpoon is a plea for salvation from the very being who is crucified or killed. It appears that the plea will go unanswered without a confession of sin, something these sailors do not do. In Catholicism, one does not, without right action, get saved without confessing. These sailors are Quakers (characterized by their use of “Thy”), not Catholics.

Lines 106-112

Walsingham is a famous shrine in Norfolk, England. For much of this stanza, Lowell relied upon E. I. Watkins’s Catholic Art and Culture, where the author describes the lane leading to Mary as well as Mary’s display and expression. There, Catholics walk barefoot along a lane to Mary in order to be healed. But Lowell is unhappy with this ritual as the penitents walk unthinkingly, like cows. The “munching English lane” is an instance of metaphor combined with metonymy: the penitents are seen as cows, who munch as they walk down the lane. Therefore, the lane is called “munching.”

Lines 113-116

Lowell’s critique continues as the lane is described as lined with the druid tree (oak). Druids were pagans, and Lowell, by not capitalizing the word, shows his disapproval. The stream refers to the peaceful waters of Shiloah or Siloam in John 9:7 and Isaiah 8:6, also referenced in the opening lines of Paradise Lost. These peaceful whirlpools are in marked contrast to the turbulent ocean of previous stanzas, and in John they are also healing, as a blind man cures his blindness by splashing the waters of Siloam on his eyes. The Sailor in this poem once came to Walsingham and sung Sion, a reference to Isaiah 51:11, where Jews return to Zion, a hill in Jerusalem, singing. The Sailor (standing for a kind of everyman) was glad here.

Lines 116-120

Mary is expressionless, even if somewhat sorrowful with her heavy eyelids. And the mention that she does not fit under the canopy indicates she belongs more to heaven than earth.

Lines 120-126

Mary’s expressionless face is without comeliness or charm (“Non est species, neque decor”) because she knows what God knows. She is not just the Mary of Jesus’s birth (crib) and death (Cross), but has assumed Heaven. When people learn to do without gladness and cease seeking selfish ends such as being healed, then, with deep meditation, the world will come to Mary and understand. A type of right Catholicism might then be achieved and God’s creatures saved from humanity’s war against itself and nature.

Lines 127-132

The scene shits from a place of sanctuary to a cemetery. This is a graveyard scene out of a horror film: an “empty” wind blowing creaky oak trees against the gravestones of empty graves (cenotaphs). In the ocean, a “gaff” (both a weapon to land fish and a stout pole from a ship) is tossed into a shoal bell (a bell to warn ships of shallow water). This is not a chime marking living time (“untimely”), but a death knell in the “greased” wash, an ocean covered with a slick of ambergris.

Lines 132-135

The death knell is apropos because the sea is filled with dead sailors either compared to, or accompanied by, the fallen angels mentioned in Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially the Philistine sea-god, Dagon: “Dagon his name, sea-monster, upward man / And downward fish” (lines 462-3). These sea devils are unmarried and corroding and “spare of flash” (some versions print “spare of flesh”) because they have lost the lustre and glory they possessed in heaven before their fall. Milton’s reference for Dagon is I Samuel, 5, where Dagon is shown as a false god.

Lines 136-142

The Atlantic is called a “mart,” short for market because the ships shop the waves for sea life. In the phrase, “wing’d clippers,” sails are likened to wings of clippers, or swift sailboats. But the Atlantic also cuts; it is a butcher shop, gutting ships in its “bell-trap.” After describing what the sea does, Lowell proceeds to suggest what it could do if it revenged itself upon humanity: the sea could rise up, cut the wind, and toss humanity off the ocean; the ocean gives life, but it could also take it away.

Line 143

This line references Genesis 9:8-17, where God makes a covenant with humankind and all of nonhuman nature—for which the rainbow is a sign—never to flood the earth again or almost destroy the whole of life. The rainbow was, by some ancients, conceived as a weapon from which lightning bolts were shot. God’s display of his bow is to be read as a sign of former hostility now abated. When Lowell writes, “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will,” he likely means at least two things. First, that the Lord, despite man’s wickedness, will keep his promise and not send down another flood. Thus God remains a trusted protector. Second, and closely related in meaning, the line indicates that despite humankind’s attacks on nature, nature will endure and even be sympathetic to human death. In summation then, whether humanity perpetrates war on itself or on nature, ultimately both will survive, even if humanity does not learn the proper attitude as shown by Mary in section VI.


Violence and Cruelty

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” begins as an elegy for a dead cousin but swells into an elegy for all of creation. And in reciprocation, Lowell configures Nature grieving for drowned humans, an example of the pathetic fallacy. In section I, Warren Winslow is mourned by shipmates and honored with a salute by guns, as if to announce his passing to God and Nature. In section II it is Nature—sea birds and wind—that laments Winslow’s death. But Nature is not one, since the wind attempts to strangle the sea where Winslow drowned. By the time section III rolls around, the person who was mourned is now blamed, a soldier representing soldiers in general who are responsible for violently blasting the ocean and lashing the shore. A link is forged between soldiers and the whalers who stab the ocean with harpoons. While these men are all held responsible for violence, the blame is mitigated by the poet’s understanding that the men were like children who knew no better. Even as the whalers drown, their childlike minds do not understand why—the reason they cry out that God must have been on their side. There is no contrition, since they do not accept error or blame. There is only the sailors’ self-justification. By section IV, the blame is intensified somewhat as the sailors are mostly called (“three quarters”) fools. Moreover, the ocean is not here responsible for engulfing sailors; instead, it has become the victim. The final question of section IV would likely be answered by “No one,” since the poet believes that no one would want to bring back the days of whaling. The violence reaches its height in section V as the whale is gruesomely harpooned and torn apart and, in its death thrashings, brings the ship down with it. The equation is now complete, summarized by many clichés: violence begets violence; he who lives by the sword dies by the sword; reap what you sow; etc. Still, in utter ignorance, the whalers pray for a redemption that Lowell has already remarked they will never receive (“ask for no Orphean lute …”). Skipping to the last section, readers are returned to a synthesis of earlier sentiments: it is right men die for they are devils, “hell-bent” deities, assaulting nature. And the ocean might also be thought of as a “hell-bent” deity, bent on taking down and out the people who cruelly use it. Still, the last line asserts that despite human cruelty and the ocean’s defense of itself, God will never again overwhelm humanity in a flood because He honors his promise—He is not cruel, but fair.

Sin and Punishment

Lowell configures the practices of war and whaling as related because both are crimes of destruction—of murder—against creation, against nature. And because they are crimes against creation, they are sinful. The question, then, is how people pay for sin. Two possibilities are presented: humankind will, at the end of history, in an apocalypse, be washed away with the rest of terrestrial plant and animal life; or, people will pay on an individual basis for their sinful acts. The first answer, says Lowell, is not possible, because God, in Genesis, promised never to commit such a general housecleaning again. Perhaps God made such a promise for He realized that to punish all of terrestrial life for the sins of humanity was an overreaction. Lowell thus comes down on the side of individual punishment—along the lines of reaping what you sow—in a type of karmic retribution either in this life or the next: if you kill whales or fellow humans

Topics for Further Study

  • Discuss the reasons for and effects of using material—wholesale or altered—from other sources. The discussion might be continued with music that make a practice of using melodies and lyrics from other music.
  • Research the history of whaling, especially the reasons for a worldwide effort to stop its practice.
  • Discuss the function of Part VI in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” Why is it included? How does it affect the rest of the poem. How does this section work with the poem’s end?
  • Have a discussion comparing and contrasting what some critics think was the model for “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”: Milton’s “Lycidas.”
  • Delineate the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism and how both religions underpin “Quaker Graveyard.”

you will pay by violent death and/or in the fires of hell. So where does the atonement described in section VI fit in? By asking the following question: if one commits sin and is truly penitent, or more specifically, approaches Mary with the proper attitude, will God spare the rod? Because Lowell included this section, it can be assumed that penitence is a way out of the dilemma of fatally paying for one’s mistakes. But for this solution to be effective, one must realize he has committed sin or made a mistake. This, unfortunately, happens only occasionally. Lowell must, therefore, end the poem more soberly: since God will not punish humankind in an apocalypse, humans pay on an individual basis for their devilishness—their attempt to usurp the superior position of God and, if you will, Nature. Their fall is as inevitable as Satan’s fall for his impertinence before God.

God and Religion

“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is a Catholic, not Protestant, poem because it stresses salvation by one’s actions, by “works.” In other words, in order to be saved from hell or violent victimization, the Catholic must do good. This may include one or all of the following acts: penitence, confession, or right behavior. If Catholics commit sin, they are encouraged not just to confess and ask for forgiveness, but also to correct their action. Lowell’s poem is a plea for the cessation of violence and for right action directed toward all creation. Quakers on Nantucket, on the other hand, are characterized as unrepentant whalers and—if we are to believe Melville in Moby Dick—the most zealous and bloodthirsty of whalers. Quakers, Lowell implies, do not reach salvation for two reasons: first, because they never acknowledge the sin of whaling. Second, Quakers cannot achieve salvation because a basic tenet of Protestantism is that salvation is not won by works, but by faith. Warren Winslow becomes connected with Quaker whalers by Lowell at least partially because Winslow comes from Pilgrim and Puritan stock, both similar to Quakers in that these sects were examples of early American Protestants. Edward Winslow, an ancestor of Warren Winslow’s, came over on the Mayflower, the historic ship that landed just north of Nantucket on Cape Cod. There the religious sect, the Pilgrims, established a colony. Massachusetts, itself, began as a successful Puritan colony, or company, called the Massachusetts Bay Company.


“The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is a complex work both in message and style. In Master-plots Poetry Series, John M. Muste calls the poem “one of the noisiest poems in the English language. Robert Lowell employs a multitude of harsh sounds, broken rhythms, and recurring patterns of alliteration to reflect the poem’s preoccupation with the violence and turbulence of the world it depicts.” Lowell’s poem uses not only what Muste mentions above, but also internal rhyme (“turntail whale”) assonance (“Spouting out”), and a mixture of harsh and mellifluous sounds in the same phrase (“… ask for no Orphean lute / to pluck life back” or “… will your sword / Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?”). In addition to sound play, the poem employs a panoply of allusions to works by Milton, Thoreau, Melville, and to the Bible, Greek myth, etc. Throughout the poem, there are also numerous rhetorical and tropic (as in trope) devices, such as personification (“… the high tide / mutters to its hurt self”), simile (the penitents are “like cows”), metonymy (“night had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet”), metaphor (“its open, staring eyes / Were lustreless dead-lights / Or cabin windows on a stranded hulk / Heavy with sand.”), double entendres (“Then it had swallowed us up quick,” where “quick” means both fast and alive), and near homonyms coupled with double entendres (“whaleroad”). Lowell also writes sentences able to be read in two ways, for example: “Let the seagulls wail / For water, for the deep where the high tide / Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.” A search for other and different devices reveals the immense time and thought Lowell devoted to this poem.

While every stanza could be examined for its particular rhyme scheme and metrical patterns, close analysis of one portion, section IV, should suffice to instigate investigations of the rest of the poem. Section IV is composed of two ten-line stanzas with their respective rhyme schemes, abcbcaac’c’a and abcbcadeed. Both stanzas are, with few exceptions, composed of primarily ten-syllable lines. But the lines differ in accents per line and the kind of feet; while there are numerous trochees and anapests, most are iambs—iambic rhythm seeming fitting for a poem concerning the ocean’s regular repetitions of waves and tides, and the repeated attacks (and the pauses between them) launched on nature and humanity. Perhaps the most incredible of Lowell’s strokes in section IV is the final liquid or “l” sound of each line of the first stanza, culminating with the rime riche of “whale” and “wail”—homonyms said to rhyme. One would be hard put to find a more watery poem.

Historical Context

The event with the most singular impact on “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” was World War II, a war in which Lowell refused to fight. For refusing to obey the Selective Service Act (and accept being drafted), Lowell served six months in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut in 1943. When his cousin, Warren Winslow died at sea with the rest of his crew in 1944, Lowell used the occasion of his elegy to rail against violence perpetrated against humanity and nature. Lowell’s convictions would never leave him: in 1965, he turned down an invitation from President Johnson to appear at the White House, giving this statement: “We are in danger of imperceptibly becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and we

Compare & Contrast

  • 1945: The American bomber Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb used for purposes of war on Hiroshima, Japan, killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people. From 75,000 to 125,000 subsequently died from bomb-related causes. Hundreds of thousands of people were injured. A second atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on Nagasaki three days later killing between 40,000 and 70,000, with 50,000 to 100,000 dying from bomb-related causes.

    1952: In Operation Crossroads, the U.S. military explodes two atomic bombs in a lagoon off Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. These would be the first of some seventy atomic tests on Bikini and nearby Eniwetok, which heavily contaminated islands as far as 200 miles downwind.

    1995-96: France, against world protest, explodes a test series of underground nuclear bombs.

    1998: India and Pakistan exchange hostile displays of nuclear weaponry in repeated underground blasts near a shared and contested borderland.

  • 1946: The International Whaling Commission is established, reflecting increasing concern over the fate of the great whales; many species were already endangered. In its early days, the commission had little power.

    1982: The International Whaling Commission adopts a worldwide ban on whaling that becomes fully effective in 1986. While this ban sharply cut the world’s whale kill, Japan and the Soviet Union continued their whaling practices.

    1985: Whaling around Antarctica is prohibited under an international moratorium, although Japan and the Soviet Union would continue hunting until the end of the decade.

    1993: The International Whaling Commission reaffirms its ban on commercial whaling. Norway openly defied the ban, killing 296 minke whales, some for what it said was research.

  • Late 1990s: Keiko the killer whale, star of the movie Free Willy, becomes a household name as the continuing saga of Keiko’s release back into the wild becomes of worldwide interest. As of January, 1999, Keiko resides in Iceland, and the plan to gradually introduce him back into the open seas is said to show promise.

may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin.” Lowell would march on the Pentagon in 1967, protest the war at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and, in 1968, campaign for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy.

Though Hitler previously invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, his invasion of Poland in September, 1939 was the act that prompted other nations to declare war. The two sides squared off into what would be the Axis powers—primarily Germany, Japan, and Italy—and the Allies—Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and, eventually, the United States. By the time of full participation, fifty-seven nations were at war, forty-six on the side of the Allies, eleven on the side of the Axis. Only nine countries retained their neutrality through the whole of the war: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Siam (now Thailand), Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, Switzerland, and Eire (now Ireland). While Hitler’s and Japan’s imperial actions were the immediate cause of the war, deeper causes might be summed up as destabilization arising from the decay of long-established empires in Central and Eastern Europe; the rise of a unified German nation; and the wide dissemination of nationalist, imperialist, and social Darwinist ideologies (domination by the strongest as natural and therefore morally correct). While Germany was successful at the outset of the war in absorbing Austria and Czechoslovakia, and in controlling Poland, Denmark, Norway the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, the tide began to turn because of two events: when America joined the war after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and when Hitler’s bid to take over the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa failed at the long battle of Stalingrad in February, 1943. The reason Hitler went so feverishly after the vast Soviet Union was due to a combination of factors, including that he was a fervent anticommunist, he associated the Russian regime with what he imagined as a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, and he wanted Germany returned to the glory it held before World War I—before it was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles (1919). With Germany fighting a war on two fronts—the Soviets to the east and the Americans and British to the west—Nazi successes could not be maintained against the superior populations and productive forces of the Allies. Nazi Germany finally began to collapse under heavy bombing, including the ignominious fire-bombing of Dresden in 1943 in which 100,000 civilians were killed by the Allies (this—the killing of civilians—being the primary reason Lowell gave for refusing to fight in the war). By May of 1945, Germany and Italy had surrendered. In August, 1945, Japan surrendered. By war’s end, 400,000 Americans had died in battle and 670,000 were wounded. In Europe, an estimated twenty million Russians, five million Germans, 1.5 million Yugoslavs, and six million Jews died. World War II also presented the world with the largest killing fields in history: the Nazi concentration camps, where nine million were bureaucratically murdered; and the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where approximately 150,000 lost their lives immediately and 250,000 in the aftermath (most of them civilians) after the nuclear-bomb attack by the United States in August of 1945.

The political changes in America set off by joining the war effort were immense. The population became uprooted by the drafting of young men and by relocation of civilians to work in factories for the war effort. Many of these civilians were women, who, for the first time in their lives, were encouraged to work and not depend upon a male for living expenses. This economic independence from a male partner is often credited with preparing the minds of both men and women for a more fully staged political and cultural feminism in the 1970s. While women were readied for independence, African Americans put many of their plans for civil rights on hold. Despite the war, A. Philip Randolph, “the Gandhi of the Negroes” threatened to lead a march on Washington of 100,000 blacks to protest blacks being shut out from high-paying jobs in the defense industry. Franklin Roosevelt responded, in June of 1941, with Executive Order 8802, banning racial discrimination in industry and government. Meanwhile, racism raged to the extent that even black soldiers were subjected to insult, injury, and murder. Pre-Civil Rights era (1954-1965) uprisings also occurred. In Harlem, the shooting of a black military police officer by a white policeman prompted a riot in which five people were killed, 367 injured, and property damage amounted to more than $5 million. In addition to racism directed at African Americans, there was the bigotry aimed at the Japanese living in America. While official acts of harassment directed at Italian and German Americans—curfews, restrictions on entering strategic areas, on carrying cameras and shortwave receivers—were soon lifted, the violations of the rights of Japanese Americans were far more serious and ongoing. In the spring of 1942, several months after Pearl Harbor, the government rounded up and shipped off 112,000 Japanese Americans living in California, Oregon, and Washington to “inland concentration camps” in remote and barren regions of the western states. There, Japanese Americans had to live in one-room barracks after having their land and possessions confiscated, and their professional and private lives ruined. Last of those groups whose civil rights were violated were the conscientious objectors, Robert Lowell being one of them. Six thousand conscientious objectors were jailed during the war years. While America appears in many histories as hero of the “good fight” of World War II, other accounts point to massive civilian casualties in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the violation of the civil rights of African and Japanese Americans, and of conscientious objectors at home as a reason for America not deserving such a positive label.

Critical Overview

Randall Jarrell, a close associate of Lowell, wrote the earliest important criticism on “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” The last line of Lowell’s poem, said Jarrell, does not open out into liberation, but into “infinite and overwhelming possibility.” The most seminal essay on “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is the extended and explicative one written by Hugh B. Staples in 1962. Staples sees in Lowell’s last line a manifestation of Catholic mysticism, an attempt to unite with God rather than the world—a practice also suggested by Father Mapple in Moby Dick. In an article titled “The Growth of a Poet,” Irwin Ehrenpreis sums up the poem as less mystical and more traditionally Catholic: “The world, [Lowell] keeps saying, exists as a moral order in which separate men are not masters but participants: both the sea slime from which we rose and the whale that we plunder lie beneath the same law that subsumes humanity. To sectarian arrogance he opposes the innocence of the humbler orders of creation, for whom cruelty is an accident of their nature. As the solvent of arrogance he offers the Catholic compassion of Christ embodied in Mary his mother.” Philip Cooper, the author of The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell, believes that Lowell does not choose between Catholicism and Protestantism but merely juxtaposes or counterpoints the two. But this multiplicity is seen negatively by Marjorie Perloff, who writes, in “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell,” that the poem has no coherent system. Similarly, Patrick Cosgrave says, in The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell, that the poem has all these meanings and is therefore a failure since to say everything is akin to saying nothing.


Bruce Meyer

Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer asserts that Lowell uses the elegiac form in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” as part of the process by which to understand “that the death of his cousin is a tragic though necessary step in the revelation of God’s purpose.”

Numerous critics have pointed out that Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is an elegy, based largely on Milton’s “Lycidas.” Anthony Hecht, for example, in his essay on Lowell in Obligati, goes so far as to suggest that the original draft version of Lowell’s poem contained the same number of lines (193) as Milton’s poem. Hecht suggests that this was a conscious attempt on Lowell’s part to associate an elegy for a cousin lost at sea with Milton’s remembrance of his drowned friend, Edward King. In both cases, the loss of the protagonist by drowning suggests an enormous fall in nature. But in the case of Lowell’s poem, the fall is not only a fall of Nature but of an individual who is the embodiment of a culture. When Warren Winslow drowns in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” he takes with him the identity of New England—its historical concerns and its psychological structures. Yet his death is an essential element in the recognition of what that identity is about. In “Lycidas,” Milton hopes that, through the poem, “some gentle Muse / With lucky words favor my destined urn” and create a reminder not only of what is lost in Nature with the death of the elegiac protagonist but of what remains. Elegy is, after all, as Lowell notes in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” about both loss and what remains after the loss—what is able to rise above and beyond Nature and endure.

The sense of “fallen” nature that is common to the elegy as a poetic conceit is driven home in the opening lines of the poem, where the scene is set in the “brackish reach” off the extreme tip of Nantucket. The world, or what is given to us by the poet, is all water and it is “breaking violently,” a statement that suggests an enormous sense of disorder and chaos. Lowell presents the image of the drowned sailor. Winslow’s body is hauled aboard a ship and retrieved momentarily from the sea that will eventually reclaim him in an act of Christian burial, as if the sacrament of burial and the grace that comes with it is incapable of allaying the power of destructiveness within nature. Such is the power of the sea that “you are powerless / To sandbag this Atlantic bulwark, faced / By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste / In his steel scales.” Even poetry, it seems in the early going of the poem, is powerless against the destructiveness of nature, and the simple consolations of an “Orphean lute / To pluck life back” present an impenetrable and unanswerable silence.

Part of the enigma inherent in the elegiac form is the paradox that it attempts to answer the unanswerable, to offer life’s reply to a Nature that cannot hear replies. The question, then, is what is the purpose of elegy? There are two answers. The first is that elegy laments. It recognizes what is lost in Nature when the shepherd or the drowned Lycidas-figure is dead and tries to rally what is left in Nature under the banner of stoicism and readjustment. But lamentation, as Milton points out in lines 55-62 of “Lycidas” is hollow and purposeless if all it accomplishes is just a reiteration of woe. The poetry of grief, without any kind of consolation, is empty. Lycidas, at the conclusion of Milton’s poem is “sunk low, but mounted high.” There is a purpose

“Part of the enigma inherent in the elegiac form is the paradox that it attempts to answer the unanswerable, to offer life’s reply to a Nature that cannot hear replies.”

in his death, and that purpose is to enable both the poet and the reader to see some sort of higher force at work in Nature and in human destiny. In the end, Lycidas, the drowned traveler, becomes a “genius,” a spirit that inhabits the place of his death and a protector for all who venture upon the seas. Milton’s solution is strangely pagan, Ovidian in its message and of little Christian recompense. What Milton offers us is the fall of the Arcadian world, where the remnants are protected as a result of the sacrifice or loss of the individual from Nature.

Lowell offers us a more Christian view that is both theologically complex yet true to the Miltonic concept that loss at least provides some sort of consolation. All of Nature, as Lowell suggests in the second part of the poem, must recognize and come to terms with the loss of young Warren Winslow that is being born not only by the poet but by the world so that all Nature “screams for you.” This is the anticipated point of catharsis, the outpouring of grief at the realization of the tragedy that has taken place. It is a natural human reaction that is common both to elegy and to tragedy. But remember there are two purposes to elegy. The second purpose of elegy is to move beyond grief to a reconciled vision of Man’s status in Nature, while still sounding the sober warning to the reader that the world is a fragile and unforgiving place, wracked by temporality, mortality, and inconstancy. For Lowell, there is a glimmer of resurrection that drives us to faith, hope, and belief.

Lowell opens the sixth part of the poem, “Our Lady of Walsingham,” with a reference to the Slipper Chapel near the ancient pilgrimage shrine in Norfolk, England. The Slipper Chapel was so venerated during the Middle Ages that both kings and commoners were required to enter the chapel barefoot as an act of supplication and reverence. As Lowell suggests, the place is holy not just to Medieval Christianity or even to Catholicism (to which Lowell converted) but to ancient pagan beliefs in the druidic tradition that perceived divinity not only through belief but in nature itself. The reference to the “druidic” traditions associated with the Slipper Chapel and the Walsingham pilgrimage is also a direct borrowing from “Lycidas,” where Milton, in line 53, refers to the resting place of “the famous Druids.” In what amounts to a mixture of Wordsworthian Romanticism and Boethian Providentiality, the same savage nature that kills Warren Winslow is invested with the power of forgiveness, grace, and love and is an expression of God himself. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s moment in The Confessions when he asks “where is my God” and sees Him in the beauty, wonder, and power of all creation. Boethius, the fourth-century Roman philosopher, takes St. Augustine’s view a few steps further when he declares that all fortune is ultimately good because it is an expression of a destiny that God (the ultimate goodness) has shaped for mankind. In the post-Boethian Christian world, there is no sense of classical tragedy because everything has a purpose. The struggle is to find what that purpose is. This concept of “Providentiality,” when blended with William Wordsworth’s nineteenth-century view that Nature has the power to restore (as Wordsworth suggests in “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”), is embodied in the statue of the Virgin at Walsingham Abbey. Her visage suggests that “She knows what God knows.”

God, in Lowell’s conclusion, “survives the rainbow of his will.” Lowell refers to God’s covenant with Noah after the flood as related in Genesis 9:13 when, as a promise that He will not again destroy the world by the force of water, he sets his “bow in the cloud.” What Lowell seems to be saying here is that God, or at least our belief in Him, is stronger than either the destructiveness of Nature or the weakness that would have us break into lamentation and declare woe when the world appears to fall from its state of grace upon the death of a young man. In other words, faith is stronger than despair and belief is stronger than the fall of Arcadia. Lowell’s elegy, therefore, which moves methodically through an examination of the New England, seafaring Quaker culture of the nineteenth century via numerous references to Melville and Thoreau, implies that belief, strength of faith, and the very power of “inspiration” (both poetic and natural) that “breathed” into Warren Winslow’s “face the breath of life,” is an element inherent in the culture itself. The courage of the Quaker for-bearers is, in itself, an act of the imagination that can see beyond death into the promise of life after death.

For Lowell, in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Man’s battle with Nature is an expression of both faith and cultural identity. Those who dare to challenge Nature, the Ahabs of Melville’s Moby Dick, are seekers of divinity and God’s purpose who dare to discover God, in all His grace and ferocity, by challenging Nature itself in all of its beauty and extremity. Metaphorically, they seek to draw the Leviathan from the sea by engaging in whaling; yet the whaling story that is told by Melville and retold by Lowell is a dicey business. The seafarer knows the risks but takes the challenge anyway. The New England spirit and culture provides one with an identity that, historically, demands that individuals venture forth to seek the purpose behind Nature. The strength of spirit Lowell is chronicling is the strength that sees the fall of Man and the collapse of the Arcadian or pastoral balance of the world as a test of belief.

The fourth part of the poem, for example, examines the New England tradition of whaling in considerable detail. Lowell makes reference to Ahab’s ship, the Pequod of Moby Dick, and in Melville-like fashion in the fifth part of the poem discusses how the whale, the symbolic Leviathan of The Bible or the devouring sea beast of the Book of Jonah, is harvested and, ultimately, tamed. The metaphor here is not simply a parable of whaling but of how Man symbolically tames Nature and turns it to his own use—a reminder of the first covenant of the Book of Genesis, where Man is given dominion over Nature, especially the “fish of the sea” (Genesis 1:28). When Man falls from Paradise in Genesis 3:22, he is given the power “to know good and evil.” What Lowell is demonstrating in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is the strange and powerful balance between good and evil, that eschatological teeter-totter manifested in a world that can both kill and redeem.

In the elegiac process, therefore, Lowell recognizes that the death of his cousin is a tragic though necessary step in the revelation of God’s purpose. Our perception of God outlasts the force of His destructiveness in Nature (“The Lord survives the rainbow of His will”). The rainbow at the conclusion of the poem is simply a refrain on the Biblical postdiluvian agreement that God offers Noah that enables Man to see purpose in an otherwise purposeless world. The death of Warren Winslow,

What Do I Read Next?

  • Steve Baker’s Picturing the Beast, published in 1993, argues that representations of animals shape our understanding of both animal and human identity. Baker’s examples range from Disney to zoos to political cartoons.
  • Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century is one of the best and most important books published on the West’s cultural history of nature. It is an invaluable reference book for anyone thinking about how the meaning of nature has changed through history.
  • Stephen J. Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections on Natural History is a collection of thirty-four essays, originally published in the journal Natural History, that brings together different manifestations of culture and establishes their roots in nature.
  • Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) works hard at combatting the persistent notion of the inexhaustibility of nature.

therefore, is a death that is a means, albeit a tragic one, of finding a way to see God’s hand at work in the universe. Like the culture from which the elegiac protagonist springs, as Lowell points out, the poem is not only engaged in an observation of Nature but in a challenge to it. The ‘tradition that the poem celebrates through the death and remembrance of Warren Winslow is the New England vision of self-reliance and self-sufficiency—the tradition of examining the world with a straightforward attitude that trusts in God and gives little sway to fear. This is the message of Thoreau’s writings and it is one of the fundamental precepts at the root of the Quaker faith. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” therefore, is not merely an elegy or even a chronicle but a testament to faith, a marker that records and memorializes a culture and its ideals.

Ironically, the actual graveyard on Nantucket that is the subject of Lowell’s poem met a fate that makes Lowell’s poem all the more important as a cultural “marker.” Until the early 1980s, there was a wooden fence surrounding the actual burial grounds, and the fence bore the names of many of those who were buried there as a way of marking the stoneless graves. However, the fence was destroyed in a fire set by vandals, and the names, unrecorded elsewhere, were lost. The plot of ground today resembles an open field, and there is nothing other than a small sign, with no mention of Lowell or his poem, to signify the importance of the place.

Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D. in English and an M.A. in cinema studies. In the following essay, Hochman explains how the doubleness of Lowell’s vision is fleshed out by examining the characters in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

Perhaps you feel the same way I do about Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”: I both like it and don’t like it. On one hand I find the poem “forbidding and clotted” (as John Crowe Ransom said of Lowell’s early poems); the poem tries to do so much that it becomes overwhelmed and overwhelming. On the other hand, I like the poem for this very reason, because it is so replete with imagery, reference, ingenuity of form, and complexity of message. I think my ambivalence issues from Lowell’s conflicted listening to the creatures sitting atop his shoulders (neither of which is devilish or angelic). One creature is the muse of formalism (every section of the poem is an adventure into form), and the other, the muse of the message, of the content of the poem. In attempting to placate the urgent demands of both muses—demands that cannot be completely satisfied—Lowell produces a compromise. The result is that while neither the muse of form or content is completely satisfied, neither is it wholly disappointed. And it is not, necessarily, that Lowell seeks to be oblique in order to be impressive, but, more, that he wants to be so impressive in satisfying the demands of both form and content that he ends up being oblique. The dilemma of doubleness does not stop here: the muse of content is actually itself two creatures, balanced by a tortured or tolerable ambivalence.

This ambivalence is inherent in certain characters throughout “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, specifically, the ocean, whale, land, wind, birds, stars, rainbow, Winslow, God, and the Virgin Mary. Most of these entities are, under Lowell’s scrutiny, bipolar—they are depicted in polarized ways, not at exactly the same time, but not at altogether different times, either. For instance, in section I, the sea is “breaking violently” and is deified as the “earth-shaker,” Poseidon, who allows no rebirth from death. In section II, the ocean is not a threat, but a victim of “lubbers” who “lash” it, and a throat in the wind’s grip. Section III is bipolar: the ocean is once again a victim (“the harrowed brine”), but this time of the onslaught by humanity. The Atlantic is also, as in section I, the drowner of humanity (“When the Atlantic rose against us”). Section IV depicts the ocean as victim of both whalers and land (from whence the whalers come). The sea is a “hurt self” and land is “Sucking the ocean’s side.” Parts VII and III are similar, since the sea is both victim (“fouled with the blue sailors”) and killer of sailors and the wind that previously strangled it: “Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil / You could cut the brackish winds with a knife.”

The whale first appears in the last two lines of section II, in the character of Moby Dick, as, most definitely, a victim (“hurt beast”). But Moby Dick, in part III, is a “whited monster,” and the sailors drown in the sperm whale’s bodily emissions of ambergris. The whale of section IV is also a killer, but only because it is hunted: “Spouting out blood and water as it rolls.” In part V, the whale, though overwhelmingly savaged, becomes a weapon in its death throes: “The gun blue swingle, heaving like a flail.” In section VII, the whale is only implied, the prey of “blue-lung’d combers.” It must be said here that Lowell is least successful when depicting the whale ambivalently since it is more conspicuously a casualty of human rapacity. The land, in part II, is directly beaten by the wind or by ships blown by wind, but in section III, the land is lashed by warships. In contrast again, the land is shown in part IV, “Sucking the ocean’s side.” The wind is most prominent in section II as it “heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,” blows the “yawing” boats, “screams,” and “claws at the sea’s throat.” It makes one other appearance in the last section when it blows the oak and the sea but is also threatened with being cut by an all-powerful ocean: “Atlantic … / You could cut the brackish winds with a knife.” Even what seem to be sympathetic birds are double natured. In part II, “The terns and sea-gulls tremble” because of the death of Winslow, and the sea-gulls have “heavy” (sorrowful) eyelids. Likewise, in part III, sea birds are sympathetic creatures, but this time for ocean and, by implication, for the whale: “the sea-gulls wail / For water.” In section V, however, the sea-gulls appear joyful at the destruction of the ship, for, as the birds “go round,” the stars “sing out together” and the thunder finishes off the whaling vessel.

The rainbow appears in the poem’s last line only, but even in this single instance, it seems an ambivalent symbol, both in Lowell’s hands and in the place from where he took it—the Bible. A rainbow, of course, usually appears after a storm, and so it functions as a sign of calm. By extension, in some ancient cultures, a rainbow was imagined as a bow from which bolts of lightning were shot. When, in Genesis, God hangs up his rainbow in the sky, it is a sign that his anger at human evil has abated. In this way, the rainbow functions like a superannuated antique rifle hung over a fireplace, the sign of perhaps a former hunter, but now of no threat to anyone. Still, the rainbow is a displayed weapon, and, as such, threatens with being used again. And what is to be thought when a rainbow cannot be seen? That the day might again occur when God will destroy the earth with a flood? The rainbow, then, while a beautiful symbol of peace, was once construed as a weapon, quietly threatening in both appearance and absence. This brings us to the wielder of this weapon, God. God once destroyed the vast majority of life on earth with a flood according to The Epic of Gilgamesh and, later, Genesis. Afterward, in Genesis, He promised to both human and nonhuman animals that He would never do it again. Why? Because in Genesis 8:21, God states that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” In other words, it would do no good to create another flood and another ark, for humanity cannot learn and will always be evil, despite God’s threats. So though the Old Testament God might like to eradicate life once again, he restrains Himself. God, it should be noticed here, is not One, but divided within Himself. In fact, it even appears He made a mistake by thinking the flood would cleanse the earth of iniquity. Realizing he made a mistake, he pledges to bow out of any further project for inundation. Indeed, He makes another mistake. Lowell refers, in his epigraph, to the passage in Genesis where God gives humanity dominion over the rest of life. Like

“… [I]t is not, necessarily, that Lowell seeks to be oblique in order to be impressive, but, more, that he wants to be so impressive in satisfying the demands of both form and content that he ends up being oblique.”

the rest of the characters in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucker,” God is not One but (at least) Double, Two, or Ambivalent—sympathetic and protective toward, yet also disdainful of and threatening to, humanity. Going further, God is an ambivalent character because He is at one time the destroyer of individuals (in the guise of ocean, storm, etc.) who commit evil. At another time, God is the victim of human evil, for it is humanity who has ruined His good creation.

As Lowell says, “It’s well.” All there is to do now is figure out why this poem should swim in two directions. My proposition is that Lowell was uncomfortably conflicted—or comfortably ambivalent—about the death of his maternal cousin, Warren Winslow. On one hand, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” is an elegy to a dead Winslow. On the other, it is an indictment of a soldier who fought a war (World War II) that Lowell refused to fight, for whose conscientious objection he was jailed. Lowell, like most of us, maintains the usual respect and sorrow at death. But unusually, Lowell sees Winslow getting what he deserved for fighting a war Lowell was against (if Lowell was not against all wars). In this respect, Winslow bears comparison to whalers about whom Lowell also felt ambivalent. Lowell characterized the whalers as those who did not (or do not) know better since “They died / When time was open-eyed, / Wooden and childish” and suggest that they deserve sympathy for what they suffered by dying. Also plain is that Lowell felt that whalers, like soldiers, deserved to pay for their violence—that both were “Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish,” devils deserving to fall for climbing too high.

Lowell’s ambivalence in this poem—comfortable or conflicted—might have partially issued from his recurrent bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) for which he was sporadically hospitalized and frequently medicated. Lowell, in an interview with Ian Hamilton in 1971, described his illness this way: “I have been through mania and depression.… Mania is extremity for one’s friends, depression for one’s self. Both are chemical. In depression, one wakes, is happy for about two minutes, probably less, and then fades into dread of the day. Nothing will happen, but you know twelve hours will pass before you are back in bed and sheltering your consciousness in dreams, or nothing…. [I think it] dust in the blood.” Esther Brooks had this to say about the poet: “For those of us who loved him there never could have been a Jekyll so opposite to his Hyde, nor a figure who could have suffered more from being so inwardly at odds with himself.” And this description from James Atlas: “Every few semesters he had to be confined to McLean’s, the Boston-area mental hospital described in his poem, ‘Waking in the Blue.’ I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred’s house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary ….”

Recall now, if you will, section VI, Our Lady of Walsingham, where Lowell describes Mary in order to show the proper attitude of the penitent Catholic: neither gladness nor grief. Mary’s is the pose of heavy equanimity, an otherworldness that shows her knowledge of God. Wavering with mania for others and depression about himself, with grief and condemnation of the violent who are now dead, between the good Dr. Jekyll and the evil Hyde, and between the doubleness of phenomena and nature, it is no wonder the bipolar Lowell took temporary refuge (in poetry and episodes of mental illness) in Mary’s image of equanimity. On the other hand, Lowell did not end the poem with Mary’s equanimity, but with an angry God’s fragile promise. Perhaps because Lowell felt closer to the God bursting with Old Testament rage at human violence, he displayed his poems for all to see, poems often being—like rainbows—a sign of anger subsided or sublimated.

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Mary Mahony

Mary Mahony is an instructor of English at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, Mahony discusses Robert Lowell’s use of language, allusion, and symbol.

In a 1964 Book Week review, Richard Poirier described Robert Lowell’s literary status at that time, declaring him “by something like a critical consensus, the greatest American poet of the mid-century, probably the greatest poet now writing in English.” An appraisal of Lowell’s place in the literary pantheon at the end of the twentieth century, however, provides a somewhat less secure position. While it is impossible to doubt the power and influence of his work, several critics have challenged his role as the major poet of his generation. Much of this criticism revolves around his earlier poetry from the 1940s and early 1950s, the period that established his reputation. This is also the era during which he wrote “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” one of the most famous and most analyzed of all of Lowell’s poems.

Published first in two parts in the Partisan Review and then revised in the book Lord Weary’s Castle, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is considered by many critics to be one of Lowell’s greatest works. It also illustrates some of his major weaknesses. Like many of the poems in his first volumes, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is characterized by elaborate poetical structures, dense imagery, and complex symbolic and literary references. Irwin Ehrenpreis, in his article “The Growth of a Poet,” believes it to be “Lowell’s most commonly overpraised work,” adding that the dense use of symbol makes it “more impressive for aspiration than for accomplishment.” Ironically, in many ways, Lowell’s strengths are also his weaknesses. Both those critics who admire and those who criticize the poem do so, in part, because of the complexity of its symbolism, the obscurity of its images, and the variety of its possible meanings.

On a first reading, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is dazzling, a poetic tour de force. Phrases soar, almost attacking the reader. The sheer sensual power of the language is nearly overwhelming. Lines sound and resound as Lowell evokes images from history, classical mythology, the Bible, and literature that are designed to evoke an intense response. Lowell’s words force the reader to visualize the power of the sea, to become sickened by the brutality of the whale hunt, and to ponder the current state of humanity’s relationship with God. The violent power of his vocabulary can be felt in phrases such as this, where nature seemingly turns upon itself, ironically mimicking man’s own mistreatment: “The winds’ wings beat upon the stones, / Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush / At the sea’s throat.” Here, Lowell masterfully uses vocabulary, rhythm, and multiple aspects of rhyme to emotionally engage the reader.

However, while the emotional effect of the poem is undeniable, a student who is attempting to assign theme and meaning to it may be overwhelmed because of more than just the power of the language. Like the night that Lowell portrays storming onto the fleet, the poem assaults the reader—not only with its harsh and powerful language, but with the complexity of its imagery and references. Many readers will agree with this statement from Robert Lowell by Richard Fein: “Has there ever existed a reader not puzzled or disturbed by Lord Weary’s Castle? The reader weathers not only all that knowledge rammed into the poems, all those allusions, all that heavy historicity, and a prosody of wrenched anger, but also an insistence on attitudes that seem almost dictatorial on the part of the poet—dictatorial to history, to God, to the poet himself, and to his rhythms.”

One of the major reasons for Lowell’s use of such elaborate and ambiguous imagery in the poem is because his themes themselves are complex. In “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” he explores abstract historic and religious truths that are not easily explained or revealed. This creates a distinct problem for both poet and reader, because such issues are not easy to conceptualize. His scope includes criticism not only of the religious, military, and economic history of New England and, later, of the United States, but also of the moral commitments and betrayals of humankind. One major focus of the poem is man’s complex relationship with God: both the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament who played such a prominent role in the sermons of his New England Puritan ancestors and the New Testament Messiah who saves the world through love and sacrifice. Lowell attempts to define the parameters of this relationship for twentieth-century America. Because, in his opinion, this society has long favored capitalism, secularism, and militarism over religion, any discussion requires complex symbolism, as well as a wide range of Biblical, mythological, and historical allusions. Metaphysical theory is not easily served up in simple, concrete terms.

An additional reason for the extraordinary complexity of many of Lowell’s poems occurs because of the frequent ambiguity of his language. His phrases hint, or even hide meaning at times, often masking far more than they reveal. Lowell allows,

“Like the night that Lowell portrays storming onto the fleet, [‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’] assaults the reader—not only with its harsh and powerful language, but with the complexity of its imagery and references.”

or perhaps even demands, that his readers draw their own conclusions from his words.

Notice the multiplicity of possible meanings contained in this passage from Part III: “Where time’s contrition blues / Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost / in the mad scramble of their lives.” These lines require the reader to make many decisions: Does time represent God? If so, is God remorseful? What other possible meanings are there for the words “time’s contrition?” How is the word “blues” being used? Making it a verb is vivid, attention-getting, and unconventional; however, the verb has more than one meaning. Is Lowell using the term in the sense of cleansing, since bluing is a type of bleach? Or does the word mean to dye, to turn blue, and is it connected with the “blue sailors” who foul the Atlantic in Part VII?

By using the relative pronoun “whatever,” which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “everything and anything that,” Lowell grants the reader an open-ended invitation to speculate on the dreams and motivations of these nineteenth-century whalers. A few lines later, he adds that “What it costs / Them is their secret.” This is typical of much of Lowell’s poetry. There is not and can not be one simple, single summary that provides readers with an explanation of Lowell’s precise meaning. While this forces the reader to become an active participant in the poem, it can also be unsettling for students seeking to interpret lines. Jerome Mazzaro, in The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell, notes that Lowell’s “obscurity … places a barrier of unconveyed information between the event, the poet, and the reader.”

“Metaphysical theory is not easily served up in simple, concrete terms.”

Still another reason for the poem’s difficulty is because of Lowell’s varied and continual use of adaptation and allusion, much of which may be unfamiliar to the average reader. Fortunately, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” has been analyzed frequently. In fact, it has become, in certain ways, a literary critic’s version of the children’s game, “Find the Hidden Picture.” While many references are direct, others are obscure. Several critics have pointed out that the poem, an elegy, is similar in subject, death by drowning, and the number of lines to Milton’s “Lycidas.” The opening images have been borrowed from Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod, and the section on Walsingham has been adapted from Catholic Art and Culture by E. I. Watkins. The debt to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is clear in the frequent references to Ahab and the Pequod. However, even critics disagree on whether “the mast-lashed master of Leviathans” is Ahab or another character from the novel, Tashtego. Several critics, in fact, find hints of a reference to Odysseus from the poem by Homer. In addition, allusions to classical and Christian mythology permeate the poem. Both Lowell’s personal history and regional history play a role in the symbolism, as well. In spite of this personal connection, however, even the poem’s source of inspiration is obscured from the reader. While it is dedicated to Warren Winslow, Lowell’s cousin who died in World War II, his role in the elegy seems minimal. Even the manner of his death is never explained in the poem, although eventual research has shown that he died in an accidental explosion in New York harbor. Discovering the allusions may enrich the poem’s meaning—and the reader’s knowledge, as well. However, the excessive use of allusion may help to create the barrier that Mazzaro mentioned, since Lowell always seems to know more than the reader.

A final difficulty in interpreting “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” lies in Lowell’s use of symbol. The powerful imagery he chooses is often overwhelming, particularly since symbols often function in different, even diametrically opposed ways. One example is the sea, which, as both object and symbol, is central to the poem. It is, in fact, the graveyard for the Quakers as well as the sailors lost on torpedoed warships, all now buried in “un-stoned graves.” Throughout the poem, Lowell presents the sea in a variety of contexts. Alan Williamson, in his study of Lowell’s vision titled Pity the Monsters, demonstrates that the last lines of the Part I present three different personifications of the sea. The first is Poseiden, the Greek god of the seas, who was also known as the “earth-shaker.” In this guise, Lowell presents the sea as creator of the devastating storms that recur throughout the poem. The reference to the “steel scales” hints at the presence of a sea serpent or Leviathan, a destructive figure in Biblical and Judeo-Christian mythology. In Psalm 74, God crushes Leviathan, who symbolizes primeval chaos; Leviathan is frequently portrayed in the mythology as a giant whale. The words “green, unwearied, chaste” indicate the presence of Lowell’s God, the God whom Mary represents at Walsingham. These three personifications demonstrate the type of contradictions that appear in Lowell’s symbolism. The sea is both the life-giver and the destroyer throughout the poem. The final lines reinforce this concept, reminding the reader that the Atlantic is “fouled with blue sailors,” descended from the time when “the Lord God formed man from the sea slime.”

Another major symbol in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is the white whale, a creature of fable whose literary forerunner is Melville’s Moby Dick. Once again, Lowell allows multiple interpretations. The whale in Part III, “IS the whited monster,” destroys the Quakers. He is clearly a destructive force, but is he also a punishing God whose revenge may be ultimately the fault of the violent and materialistic practices of the whalers? Critics have interpreted Lowell’s religious symbolism here in many ways. Several believe that the whale in Parts III through V represents Christ, Jesus or Iesus Salvatore. They state that Part V’s apocalyptic vision clearly demonstrates the identification of the whale with Christ. He is Christ the Messiah, taking man’s sins upon himself. Other critics, however, believe IS to be a variation of the name that the harsher God of the Old Testament used to reveal himself to Moses in Exodus, “I Am That I Am.” Many critics feel that both interpretations fit the poem’s theme. Patrick Cosgrave, however, in The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell, believes that identifying the whale with Christ contradicts identifying the whale with the God of the Old Testament.

Lowell’s symbolic use of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in Part VI also disconcerts the reader, perhaps more than it aids in clarifying the poem’s theme. This section, with its quiet tone that provides a respite from the tortured violence of the previous sections, is often praised. Some critics, like Mazzaro, even feel that it provides the poem’s resolution. Taken from E. I. Watkins’s Catholic Art and Culture, it describes the pilgrim’s route to Walsingham. However, the end result of this peaceful journey comes as a surprise. Lowell’s statue of the Virgin, unlike the one described by Watkins, is neither warm nor welcoming. Instead, “There’s no comeliness / At all or charm in that expressionless / Face.” This unconventional portrayal contrasts uncomfortably with the pleasant, soothing descriptions of the English countryside. It is difficult to envision the Lady guiding supplicants to salvation. Although “she knows what God knows,” the reader does not share in this knowledge. In The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell, Marjorie Perloff criticizes the entire section, saying that it “fails to cohere with the rest of the poem.” She finds it hard to reconcile these two very separate settings, Nantucket and Walsingham. Although “the world shall come to Walsingham,” what does this have to do with World War II American sailors or Quaker whalers?

Since critics disagree about so many aspects of Lowell’s symbolism in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” it is not surprising they would also disagree about the poem’s ultimate expression of the relationship between God and man. Lowell clearly conveys the fact that man has violated his part in the covenant with God. Nature itself—the sea, birds, beasts/whale—are personified in order to fully demonstrate this betrayal. However, it is possible to draw different conclusions about the future that Lowell envisions. One group of critics believe that the sixth and seventh parts of the poem provide a message of reconciliation, holding out the possibility of the restoration of the covenant, along with the hope of salvation. Others find that the poem presents a dire warning about the consequences of plundering nature, espousing violence, and repudiating God. They believe that the conflicts between man and nature, man and God are almost certainly irreconcilable. A final interpretation views the poem as a despairing vision of the imminent apocalypse that Lowell feels is hanging over twentieth-century humanity.

Despite its complexity and obscurity, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is a poem of great power and vision. In ways, it resembles a kaleidoscope; each slight shift in perspective brings a different insight. And like the kaleidoscope, the separate pictures in the poem enhance rather than negate each other. This multiplicity of visions may be necessary to accomplish Lowell’s extraordinary task. Mark Rudman, in Robert Lowell: An Introduction to the Poetry, noted that “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” seemed almost an attempt to rewrite Moby Dick in 143 lines. However, Lowell’s accomplishment is even more far reaching. The poem encapsulates human history from a Christian theological standpoint, ranging from God breathing life into man and forming a covenant in Genesis, moving through Exodus, Psalms, Job, Isaiah, the gospels, then reaching the apocalyptic devastation of Revelation. Finally, the poem’s last line returns history to its beginning, to Genesis as “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.”

Source: Mary Mahony, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.


Bloom, Harold, ed., Robert Lowell, New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Cooper, Philip, The Autobiographical Myth of Robert Lowell, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Cosgrave, Patrick, The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell, New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1972.

Diggins, John Patrick, The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace 1941-1960, New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.

Ehrenpreis, Irwin, “The Growth of a Poet,” in Critics on Robert Lowell, University of Miami Press, 1972, pp. 15-36.

Fein, Richard J., Robert Lowell, second edition, Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Hobsbaum, Philip, A Reader’s Guide to Robert Lowell, London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Mazzaro, Jerome, The Poetic Themes of Robert Lowell, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965, p. 5.

Muste, John M., “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” Masterplots Poetry Series, Vol. 5, edited by Frank Magill, Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992, pp. 1757-59.

Parkinson, Thomas, ed., Robert Lowell: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Perloff, Marjorie, “Death by Water: The Winslow Elegies of Robert Lowell,” English Literary History, March, 1967 pp. 116-40.

Perloff, Marjorie, The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell, Cornell University Press, 1973, p. 144.

Poirier, Richard, “For the Union Dead,” in Critics on Robert Lowell, University of Miami Press, 1972, pp. 92-6.

Procopiow, Norma, Robert Lowell: The Poet and His Critics, Chicago: American Library Association, 1984.

Rudman, Mark, Robert Lowell, An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1983, p. 20.

The Whale, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Williamson, Alan, Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

For Further Study

The Oxford Annotated Bible: Revised Standard Version Containing The Old and New Testaments, New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

This Bible, because of its annotations, is an excellent reference tool for students of literature and history.

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, London: Everyman, 1993.

A. Robert Lee’s edition of the classic whaling tale contains scholarly material on Melville and the text, and contains criticism from the time the novel was released.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

In addition to intelligent interviews, this volume presents a wide range of essays by distinguished poets, novelists, and critics, including John Crowe Ransom, Norman Mailer, and V. S. Naipaul.

Milton, John, Paradise Lost and Other Poems, New York: Mentor, 1961.

This collection contains helpful annotations and “Lycidas,” part of the inspiration for “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

Thoreau, Henry David, Cape Cod, New York: The Library of America, 1985.

Thoreau documents a walking trip he took along Cape Cod. The work furnished inspiration for a passage in the first section of Lowell’s poem.