The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.