Study Guide

Beyond the Alps

by Robert Lowell

Beyond the Alps Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lowell once remarked that this poem is “about people who go beyond nature, Mussolini or the Pope.” Throughout Lowell’s work, he was concerned about the way human nature abdicates nature. Although the mountains in the opening stanza are symbolic of man’s thwarted ambition and aspiration, they come back in the last stanza to loom over the “mountain-climbing train” that “had come to earth.” He is exhausted by his mental traveling and his “blear-eyed ego” that will not allow him any rest. Human ego—whether it is Mussolini’s, the pope’s, or his own—often causes people to be inhuman. In fact, the occasion for this poem is an example of human ego. Mary must rise bodily into heaven because human vanity does not like to imagine her moldering in the earth like everyone else.

In “Fall 1961” from his subsequent book, For the Union Dead (1964), Lowell wrote that “Nature holds up its mirror” to provide a contrast with humans who “have talked our extinction to death.” In that poem, his only “point of rest” as he looks out the window of his apartment is an oriole’s nest. In both poems, he suggests that humans return to earth, terra firma, and abandon the ego that causes many of humankind’s problems.