The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell: Summary and Analysis

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket is one of the prominent poems of Robert Lowell which was first published in 1946 in his famous collection Lord Weary’s Castle. As the poem is a mourning poem on the death of Lowell’s cousin Warren Winslow, it can be taken as an example of elegy: it has all the necessary elements for the elegy. The poem is divided into seven sections with irregular use of pentameter and trimeter.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

As an elegy this poem can be summarized in the following way;

Lamentation: Like all the elegies, this poem begins with the lamentation. The speaker describes the finding of the dead body of a sailor in the harbor of the Nantucket Island. The lamentation gets further intensified when the speaker brings the literary allusion from Melville’s Moby Dick, he compares his cousin with Captain Ahab, who had gone to explore the resources in the world. His cousin had died fighting with the nature as the caption Ahab was fighting with the whales. Using the mythical allusion the speaker argues that no Orpheus will come to play the pipe to restore his life. He dies and died forever.

Nature in mourning: In this elegy too, nature joins the mourning procession. Terns and sea gulls tremble at the death of the protagonist. The wind is beating upon the stones and screaming. Entire nature had been shocked at the death of his cousin Warren.

Questioning the God and remembering the heroism: The speaker blames God for not protecting his cousin. He even remembers his heroism, saying that all the achievement is fruitless in his absence. The entire sea world will collapse after his death.

Virgin Mary in mourning: The speaker further argues that the Virgin Mary has been shocked at the death of his cousin. She has lost beauty, charm and expression in face. She has been shocked as much as a mother in the death of her child.

Consolation: The speaker accepts the death of his cousin submitting to the will of the God. It is the god who brings him on the earth, grew him up, made him a hero, sent to the sea and it is the same god that took his life.  With this realization, he concludes the lord survives the rainbow of his will. Taking the death of his cousin as the god’s will, he consoles himself.

Robert Lowell in this poem vividly presents the difficult and harsh situations of life and the violence caused by nature. His final line that concludes with the religious faith on the one mighty God shows that human beings always find consolation and the ultimate understanding of reconciliation with God. His cousin’s death is compared to the captain Ahab of Moby Dick,  then to the other dangerous and violent deaths at sea, and finally comes to the understanding that it is God’s will to give and take life of all his creatures.

The poet shows the superiority of nature over the mankind. He brings references from the Moby Dick where the captain despite his fight in pursuit of justice lost his life in the sea. The sea is an opportunity and at the same time a great challenge for the sailors. Even the most courageous sailor have respect and hold fear of the mighty sea. The defeat of the sailors by the sea creatures and the sea waves show the domination of nature over mankind.

Lowell gets angry with the sea for engulfing countless lives and for taking the life of his cousin, he calls the sea Hell and compared it to the Underworld of Mythology which has engulfed the wife of Orpheus. Once one is in the captive of the sea, there is no way coming out of it, no bravery and no second chance. Despite being angry with the ocean, he praises the supreme power of the nature in another way.

The title The Quaker Graveyard is the sea that has the dead bodies of the sailors and all sailors who have died in the sea are compared to the Quaker, a group of religious people who believe in peace and non-violence. The Quakers are supposed to be very watchful and devoted to God's commands, but he shows them as people who have been abandoned by Him and is left to doom at the ocean's hands without any just reason.  

This poem focuses on the sense of loss of life and loss of faith. Throughout the poem, the poet complains to the God and seeks for the justification of his cousin’s death. He feels that the god has been merciless to his own people and the faith of the Quakers are shaken. The whale in the poem is a symbol of the death and scorns it for taking his cousin’s life. He calls sea a 'fruitless' place which inhabits death only, it cannot give life but take only. He longs for the death of the whale, in a sense, the end of the death. But he feels it is not possible and death itself cannot be defeated. Death is the only corrective force in the universe. Finally, he submits to the will of the God and finds the consolation of his cousin’s death.