Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Few Thoughts on 'Beyond the Alps' by Robert Lowell

While many poets seem to have got their knickers in an unsavoury twist over royal shindig invitations, I (good republican that I am) have been thinking about Robert Lowell. More specifically about ‘Beyond the Alps’, which kicks off his most famous collection, Life Studies, and also the little Faber Selected Poems, edited by Michael Hofmann. I believe several versions of the poem exist, some with extra stanzas, but I’m going to stick to the one from the Hofmann Selected (two 14-line stanzas, one 12-line stanza and a final couplet). The poem isn’t online and I’m not going to reproduce it here (I can’t afford Faber’s copyright fees), so this post will continue a long line of Surroundings articles which have, at best, a limited audience. Given Lowell’s lack of popularity in the current climate, that audience may be almost nil, but not quite. This “not quite” is exactly what Surroundings is about and, I hope, it's a "not quite" that is set to grow.

Now, ‘Beyond the Alps’ is a fantastic poem. I love it! It concerns a train journey from Rome to Paris through the Alps, with various diversions – the failure of a Swiss group to climb Everest, the train stewards (from the restaurant carriage?) who, amazingly, go “forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs”, a “skirt-mad Mussolini”, and the Pope’s purring electric razor and pet canary. The poem is about Catholic faith, perhaps the loss of it or at least a distancing from its orthodoxy. The train moves off from Rome and heads into the mountains and, as it leaves the Alps and comes back to ground-level, each stark peak begins to resemble a “fire-branded socket of the Cyclop’s eye.” The landscape, where we might expect woolly snow, feels more like a barren burned-out desert: clearly also a psychological state. One of the main arguments concerns the ambiguous closing couplet:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

I stared at this for a little while, as it seemed a curious way to end. It contains the virtue of surprise, but also evades any sense of closure. Or, even if “closure” isn’t desirable, the couplet asks more questions than it answers and not all the questions stem from what’s happened previously in the poem. There is debate on this online in the New York Review of Books – Jonathan Raban and Edwin Franks debating with James Fenton. The debate sheds some light on the poem, I think. The reference to the Etruscans must have to do with a great civilisation, vastly influential in its cultural milieu, which nevertheless disappeared and left behind no literature and whose geographical power collapsed completely. The killer kings have themselves been killed by events, time, shifts of culture and power. Paris feels the same to Lowell. His world-view is disintegrating as he nears the city and he seems himself in it or, perhaps sees himself as it.

Paris would be black, as Raban and Frank suggest, because it would have seemed grimy at the time compared to Rome. However, why “our black classic” is the real question, as Fenton says. If something is “classic”, it is untouchable. It has status, accorded by the influential. A ‘Penguin Classic’ (Morrissey aside) or a “classic album” is such because it has been ‘canonized’ by those who have the power to make such decisions. Paris has that canonical quality. It is a great, iconic city. It is a “classic”, but a sooty, tarnished classic here. It mirrors Lowell’s internal crisis of faith, dramatized within the poem by the Pope (expressly exercising papal infallibility) making the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a dogma in 1950, the idea that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at the end of her life:

The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke,
angel wing’d, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?

Lowell’s loss of faith in strict Catholic dogma has led him to a city breaking up before his eyes, a city beyond the Alps where gods once held sway. It is a poem that still resonates in the shattered cities, physical and psychological, of 2013.

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