Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Robert Lowell's "Beyond the Alps"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Robert Lowell's "Beyond the Alps"

Article excerpt

In the New York Review of Books (September 25, 2003, p. 91) several critics offered both far-fetched and all-too-obvious explanations of the closing couplet of "Beyond the Alps," "one of Lowell's most perfect and impenetrable" images: "Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up / like killer kings on an Etruscan cup." James Fenton asked: "Why is Paris a 'black classic,' why is it breaking up, and why is it breaking up like the image of the beautiful last line?"

Jonathan Raban, with a rhetorically unconvincing "surely" and "certainly," suggested: "There are two Parises in play here, surely: Haussmann's city, in its postwar grime, which, after Rome would certainly have registered as 'black' to an American--if not a British--eye, and Paris the treacherous houseguest of Menelaus, abductor of Helen and only begetter of the Trojan wars--black in character, classical in period, and of a piece with the killer kings on the Etruscan cup." Edwin Frank, deftly ignoring the most difficult issues, vainly tried to simplify matters by stating: "The answer is straightforward enough. Lowell calls Paris black because at the time he wrote the poem [1950] Paris was black, covered with the soot of centuries." But Rome, like Paris, occupied by the Germans during the war, was also covered with the soot of even more centuries.

James Fenton quoted Ian Hamilton quoting Hugh Staples: "it is entirely permissible to say of these extraordinary lines that 'the black of Paris is in contrast to the pure whiteness of the Alps; it appears pagan, sinister, mysterious. He has returned to the twentieth century, Etruscan in its remoteness--a buried world.'" Fenton added that both Staples and Edwin Frank overstated the contrast between the white Alps and black Paris, and (dispatching Raban) that nothing "in the poem suggests to me the presence of the Trojan prince Paris." He also "resisted the idea that Paris was breaking up because of anti-NATO riots." All this discussion still left the meaning of the lines unclear.

There are, however, two keys to explain the enigma. Fenton mentioned that "many people believe that 'black classic' has something to do with Baudelaire, and I am perfectly ready to accept that it does," but failed to pursue this promising point. Indeed, Baudelaire had specifically associated Paris with blackness. In his densely allusive poem, Lowell contrasts Apollo and Minerva, Ulysses and Cyclops, classical and modern, pagan and Christian, emperor and poet, Rome and Paris, Caesar and Mussolini. …

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