Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Jacob Bacharach revisits Robert Lowell’s poem “Beyond the Alps.”
I think I must have first read Robert Lowell’s poem “Beyond the Alps” the summer before my junior year of high school, when I was at the Young Writers Workshop at the University of Virginia. I know I bought a copy of his Life Studies and For the Union Dead at one of the used bookstores there. I’d read “For the Union Dead” in some anthology or other, and it seemed to me that there was something intensely apropos about rereading this contemplation on a union colonel “and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry,” as depicted in Saint-Gauden’s civil war sculpture, on the Boston Common while living a poetical teenage summer in Charlottesville, surrounded by so much evidence of Jefferson’s cruel, horrible vision of a utopia with slaves.
At the time, I gave “Beyond the Alps” very little thought, because it rhymed, and I’d recently learned from my peers that rhyming poetry was extremely silly. I was actually at the workshop as a songwriter, and I was able to smuggle my interest in rhyme past their censorious gaze by writing song lyrics, which existed in a weird zone of exclusion. Otherwise, I took their exaggerated disdain to heart.
A few years later, in my first year at Oberlin, my poetry professor forced us through a syllabus dedicated to various poetic forms. It was then, having been induced to write an actual, rhyming sonnet, that I discovered I loved writing sonnets. Oberlin had a one-month winter term in which students were encouraged to embark on projects of independent study, and I’d been invited by one of my best friends at the time, Valerie M., to spend the month with her family in Rome. I cobbled together a proposal to write a sonnet sequence based on my Roman travels. My poetry professor was obviously wise to my half-assed scam, but he was that wonderful breed of college faculty who thinks a month in Rome is more important than an independent study. He signed off.
Valerie and I had decided that, while we were in Europe, we’d take a train to Paris for a few days. Suddenly I thought about “Beyond the Alps,” which is loosely set on a train from Rome to Paris, a strange, allusive flight from pagan, papal Rome—the newly proclaimed dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption, the wreck of Mussolini—to Paris, “our black classic.” When I read it again, I was slightly astonished to discover that the poem was, in fact, a short series of sonnets, each stanza a neat, rhyming fourteen lines.
There are actually several versions of the poem. The earliest, which appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1953, is seven stanzas long, overwrought, and frankly a bit pedantic:
St. Peter’s idols, white as death and hope,
Turned ultra-violet when you cheered the pope …
It verges on sounding, well, extremely silly. The allusions are feathered and dragged out with didactic glee. But by the time it got into Life Studies, Lowell had pared the piece down to a modest three stanzas, and the density of its wild leaps of reference gives it a feeling of unstoppable onrush—very much like a train.
Our trip was even less elevated than Lowell’s, who, from his “Paris Pullman,” envied
… the conspicuous
waste of our grandparents on their grand tours—
long-haired Victorian sages bought the universe,
while breezing on their trust funds through the world.
We shared a six-bunk sleeping compartment with a lovely family—Albanian, I believe—who spoke no English, French, or Italian, but who had enormous bags of salty popcorn that they insisted we share with them. They disembarked at Pisa; we never could work out if they were tourists or migrants. Valerie and I clacked on and crossed the Alps at night.
Tired of the querulous hush-hush of the wheels,
the blear-eyed ego kicking in my berth
lay still, and saw Apollo plant his heels
on terra firma through the morning’s thigh …
each backward, wasted Alp, a Parthenon,
fire-branded socket of the Cyclops’ eye.
Lowell’s geography was full of radical elisions, and he doesn’t mention that, once you cross the mountains into France, you have another good fifteen hours of stopping and starting at every Podunk French village along the way, until you finally tumble out onto the platform at the Gare d’Austerlitz.
All the poems I produced on that trip were lousy imitations of Lowell stanzas, and the closest we got to his Paris of “killer kings on an Etruscan cup” were the cheap Heinekens they served at the hostel. When we returned to Rome, I went out for a walking tour with my friend’s mother. We walked through the Piazza Venezia, and she pointed out the balcony from which Mussolini had delivered addresses to the fascist crowds. I remember asking if this could be the same square where “The Duce’s lynched, bare, booted skull still spoke,” only to learn that Lowell’s poetic history, like his geography, took a certain degree of liberty with the facts. Mussolini was shot in a village in the north, his body hung for display not in Rome but in Milan. “Minerva,” as the poet put it, “the miscarriage of the brain.”
Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh. His second novel, The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates, was published in March.