The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1074

“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.

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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 opposed him. He was also infamous for his mistresses; he and his mistress Clara Petacci were shot and hung by their heels for the public to scorn. Lowell refers to this in the second stanza, when he says, “The Duce’s lynched, bare, booted skull still spoke.” Lowell implies that all people are potential Mussolinis if they are given enough power; for Lowell, this dramatizes the imperfection of God’s creation.

The second stanza illustrates one cost of Lowell’s traveling: his vision and moral integrity. His point of view enlarges to that of an omniscient narrator. He therefore can simultaneously observe the crowd yelling “Papa” outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, and Pope Pius himself. The pope is shocked by the crowd’s reaction to the announcement about Mary’s Assumption, and he drops the mirror he was holding while shaving. This scene subtly suggests that the pope is merely a man—one who has to shave every day, too. He has an electric razor and a pet canary. This humorous scene is further developed in the next sentence, where Lowell playfully combines two clichés to show how unreasonable and ridiculous he thinks this new interpretation of Mary’s Assumption is. The “light” of science is not even a “candle” when compared to Mary rising bodily into heaven “angel-wing’d, and gorgeous as a jungle-bird.” He cannot imagine any reasonable person believing this or understanding this belief.

Lowell thinks that people tend to confuse the icon with the saint; the pilgrims to the Vatican still kiss Saint Peter’s bronze sandal as if that will bring them good luck. They indulge ostentation and neglect their faith. Lowell suggests that people have not learned much from the example of Mussolini and that God himself, by allowing these traits to flourish, “herded this people to the coup de grâce. A coup de grâce is a stroke that kills someone who is wounded; it literally means a “stroke of mercy.” The “stroke” here can either refer to Mussolini’s hanging or to the dogma that ended Lowell’s faith. The fact that the Vatican’s Swiss Guard must guide the pope through the crowd with their pikes to keep the people from crushing him implies that these people have again confused the man with what he represents and that in human nature the light of reason shines rather dimly.

This theme is further developed in the final stanza. The “mountain-climbing train has come to earth,” and with it Lowell’s aspirations for himself and humankind. Although he had aspired to faith and a more generous view of humanity, his experiences at Saint Peter’s and his reading of history have caused disillusionment and despair. Lowell was graduated with a degree in classics from Kenyon College, and in a sense the third stanza can be seen as a yearning for a myth system in which he had once found value. Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, poetry, and music, has had to “plant his heels” on the ground; this questions the value and efficacy of aspiration in general and art in particular. Each disappearing mountain peak becomes a metaphor for some “wasted” and “backward” achievement of the past, such as the Greek Parthenon or Ulysses poking out the eye of the Cyclops. The lack of distinction between historical events, artistic achievements, and mythological feats implies the depth of Lowell’s despair. About three thousand years of human history are indicted by this poem—from the “killer” Etruscan kings of the tenth century b.c.e. to Rome of the 1950’s. Lowell is as blind or “blear-eyed” as the Cyclops, because he can find no clear access to “that altitude” to which he once aspired, and his reading of history is no help.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

The poems that Robert Lowell wrote before Life Studies were tightly formal, with a restless urgency, a barely containable energy. “Beyond the Alps” begins this book to announce both an intellectual and stylistic deviation from his previously published poems. Lowell’s line relaxes; the syntax is clearer, and there is a confident ease in the language. This casualness is evident in the opening line, where he has just finished reading the paper and looks out the window:

Reading how even the Swiss had thrown the spongein once again and Everest was stillunscaled, I watched our Paris pullman lungemooning across the fallow Alpine snow.

He enjambs the lines so that the reader reads past the rhymes; one does not linger on “sponge” because one needs to know the preposition that goes with the verb “thrown.” In the second line, one reads past “still” to get to the verb “unscaled.” By disguising the rhymes, Lowell puts more weight on the narrative.

There is still a rich medley of sounds in his language. If one considers “mooning across the fallow Alpine snow,” one can see how complex it is. The assonance (the a and o sounds), the consonance (the I and s sounds), and the meter allow the reader to participate in the beauty Lowell observes.

The only formal deviation from typical sonnets is in the stanzas’ rhyme schemes. In fact, the rhyme scheme of each succeeding sonnet becomes more and more Shakespearean, which also echoes the intellectual progress of the poem: from chaos to a nostalgic yearning for a classical myth system.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98

Axelrod, Steven Gould, ed. The Critical Response to Robert Lowell. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Cosgrave, Patrick. The Public Poetry of Robert Lowell. New York: Taplinger, 1970.

Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Mariani, Paul L. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Perloff, Marjorie G. The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Wallingford, Katherine. Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

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

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