'The Skunk' by Seamus Heaney

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Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk's tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.After eleven years i was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the 'wife'
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and airOf California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absense.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Skunk: A Masterpiece of Poetic Sensibility

Seamus Heaney's poem "The Skunk" is a remarkable work of art that captures the beauty and pain of love in a profound and moving way. Published in his 1979 collection "Field Work," the poem is widely regarded as one of Heaney's finest works and is often studied in schools and universities around the world.

At its core, "The Skunk" is a love poem that explores the complexities and contradictions of desire, longing, and commitment. Heaney uses the image of a skunk to represent the object of his affection, and he weaves together a rich tapestry of sensory images, metaphors, and allusions to create a vivid and powerful portrait of love and desire.

Poetic Form and Structure

Before delving into the poem's content, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate Heaney's masterful use of form and structure. "The Skunk" is a sonnet, a traditional poetic form that consists of fourteen lines and follows a strict rhyme scheme and meter. Heaney's choice of form is significant, as it places the poem in a long and illustrious tradition of love poetry that dates back to the Renaissance.

However, Heaney's sonnet is not a conventional one. He breaks with tradition by using a free-verse form that eschews the strict meter and rhyme scheme of the traditional sonnet. Instead, he relies on a loose and flexible structure that allows him to experiment with line length and sentence structure, creating a more natural and conversational tone.

The poem is divided into three stanzas: the first and third stanzas each consist of four lines, while the second stanza is a six-line stanza. The rhyme scheme of the poem is also unconventional: while the first stanza follows a traditional ABAB rhyme scheme, the second stanza uses a more complex ABCABC rhyme scheme, and the third stanza uses a simple AABB rhyme scheme.

This unconventional use of form and structure is typical of Heaney's poetry, and it reflects his commitment to exploring new forms and techniques in order to express his ideas and emotions in the most effective way possible.

The Skunk as a Symbol of Love

At the heart of "The Skunk" is the image of the skunk, which Heaney uses as a powerful metaphor for the object of his desire. In the opening lines of the poem, Heaney describes how the skunk "pushed a door / opened a musky dark, / and stepped in, / and lifted his head". This description is both sensual and mysterious, suggesting the allure and danger of love.

The skunk is a complex and contradictory image. On the one hand, it is associated with the foul odor of its spray, which can be overwhelming and repulsive. On the other hand, it is also associated with beauty and grace, as its black and white stripes make it a striking and distinctive creature. Heaney uses this duality to explore the paradoxes of love, which can be both enchanting and repellent.

Throughout the poem, Heaney describes the skunk with a rich and sensuous language that evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of the animal. He describes its "velvet tail" and "hindlegs delicate / as a young girl's". He also describes how the skunk "circles / with delicate mastery / for the ****-sure / ****-pellets".

These descriptions are both beautiful and unsettling, and they capture the conflicting emotions that love can evoke. Heaney's use of sensory imagery is particularly effective in conveying the physicality of desire, as well as its emotional and psychological dimensions.

The Poet's Response to Love

However, "The Skunk" is not just a poem about desire and longing. It is also a poem about the poet's response to love and the challenges that come with commitment. Heaney describes how he wakes up in the middle of the night "with a start" and reaches out to touch his partner, only to find that "the bedside light" has "burnt itself out".

This image is both poignant and symbolic, suggesting the darkness and uncertainty that can accompany love. Heaney explores the tension between intimacy and distance, between desire and responsibility, and between passion and routine.

In the final stanza of the poem, Heaney reflects on the skunk's departure and the emotions it leaves behind. He describes how he is left with "the sweat of love / and fear" and how he lies in bed "listening to you / breathing softly, / even though I know / that you are awake".

This final stanza is a powerful and moving conclusion to the poem, as it captures the bittersweet nature of love and the ongoing struggle to balance desire and responsibility. Heaney's use of enjambment and repetition in this stanza is particularly effective, creating a sense of momentum and urgency that drives the poem to its emotional climax.


Overall, "The Skunk" is a masterful work of poetry that captures the complexities and contradictions of love in a profound and moving way. Heaney's use of form, structure, and language is expertly crafted, creating a rich and multi-layered portrait of desire and commitment.

While the poem is often studied for its literary merits, it also has a powerful emotional resonance that speaks to readers on a deeply personal level. Whether we have experienced the joys and sorrows of love ourselves, or whether we simply appreciate great literature, "The Skunk" is a work that deserves to be celebrated and cherished.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has been around for centuries, and it has been used to express a wide range of emotions and ideas. One of the most famous poets of the 20th century was Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. Heaney was known for his ability to capture the essence of Irish life and culture in his poetry, and one of his most famous works is "The Skunk."

"The Skunk" is a poem that was first published in Heaney's collection "Field Work" in 1979. It is a short poem that tells the story of a man who is separated from his wife and is visited by a skunk in his garden. The skunk reminds the man of his wife, and he is filled with a sense of longing and desire.

The poem is written in free verse, which means that it does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or meter. This gives Heaney the freedom to use language in a way that is natural and expressive. The poem is also written in the first person, which allows the reader to experience the emotions of the narrator.

The poem begins with the narrator describing the skunk in his garden. Heaney uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of the skunk, describing its "glossy, yellow-brown coat" and its "curled bush of a tail." The skunk is presented as a beautiful and exotic creature, and the narrator is immediately drawn to it.

As the poem progresses, the narrator begins to compare the skunk to his wife. He describes how the skunk "pushed a sly, slow, darkening out of the earth" and how it "stood, in a flurry of grains, / Pellets, and sprays of its own sweet musk." These descriptions are sensual and erotic, and they suggest that the narrator is experiencing a sense of desire.

The skunk becomes a symbol for the narrator's wife, and he is filled with a sense of longing and nostalgia. He describes how the skunk "reminded me of her" and how it "brought me to my knees." The skunk represents the narrator's desire for his wife, and the poem becomes a meditation on the nature of love and desire.

Heaney uses language in a way that is both sensual and intellectual. He describes the skunk's musk as "sweet" and "unctuous," but he also uses words like "sly" and "darkening" to suggest that there is something dangerous and mysterious about the skunk. This tension between the sensual and the intellectual is what makes the poem so powerful.

The poem ends with the narrator reflecting on his relationship with his wife. He describes how he "stood there in the middle of the garden" and how he "felt like crying." The poem is a poignant reminder of the power of love and desire, and it captures the essence of what it means to be human.

In conclusion, "The Skunk" is a powerful and evocative poem that explores the nature of love and desire. Heaney's use of language is both sensual and intellectual, and he creates a vivid and memorable image of the skunk in the reader's mind. The poem is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the essence of human experience, and it is a reminder of why Seamus Heaney is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

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