“Beyond the Alps” is a lyric poem written in iambic pentameter; each of its three stanzas is a sonnet. The rhyming pattern of each sonnet is irregular and typifies, as do other elements in the poem, Robert Lowell’s experiments with convention.
Lowell’s career was marked by several dramatic shifts in style, and this poem does not fit snugly into a formal category. The epigraph suggests that the poem is an occasional piece, written as a consequence of Pope Pius XII’s pronouncement that made Mary’s bodily Assumption church dogma; however, the structure of the poem is primarily personal narrative. In the first and third stanzas, the speaker, who can only be viewed as Lowell himself, is on a train that has left Rome and is bound for Paris. He notes the “Alpine snow,” stewards “banging on their gongs,” and the “hush hush of the wheels.” The second stanza is a meditation about the pope’s decree. The poet’s mind moves over the landscape as well as historical, religious, and literary issues. In the third stanza, he refers to his “blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth,” which illustrates the depth of his personal religious struggle, which is the emotional center of the poem.
“Beyond the Alps” was the first poem in Lowell’s third book, Life Studies. It serves as an announcement that he no longer can believe in the dogma of the church. The title is an allusion to the religious debate over papal authority; the transalpiners were a group in the Roman Catholic church who opposed the ultramontanes and their belief in the infallibility of the pope. The poet is literally and figuratively crossing over the Alps, leaving both Rome and traditional Catholic doctrine, to arrive in Paris and uncertainty.
Lowell begins the poem very casually by saying that he had read in the newspaper about an expedition of Swiss climbers who had given up trying to scale Mt. Everest. This sets the scene for his own travel and metaphorically suggests that he too has “thrown the sponge/ in once again”—on traditional religion. He says that “Much against my will/ I left the City of God where it belongs.” Pius’s interpretation of Mary’s Assumption, and Lowell’s own observations about human nature, have made it impossible for him to reside in his previous convictions. The subsequent lines, “There the skirt-mad Mussolini unfurled/ the eagle of Caesar. He was one of us/ only, pure prose,” suggests that the City of God is inhabited by people such as Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was the Fascist dictator of Italy from 1923-1945; he imprisoned, tortured, and murdered people who...
(The entire section is 1074 words.)