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Robert Lowell: An Exchange


To the Editors:

In his review of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, James Fenton puzzles over the meaning of “Beyond the Alps” and especially of the phrase “Paris, our black classic.” His interesting discussion misses at least one important trick.

After Phoebus Apollo and a brilliant mountain dawn, the train descends to Paris (Lowell’s European geography was conveniently and endearingly sketchy—he believed that all places forty miles from London must therefore be extremely close to one another, so Oxford, Maidstone, and Colchester ought to be immediate neighbors; he never quite managed to figure out why the University of Essex was so bafflingly far from All Souls, or why his wife Caroline Blackwood’s house near Maidstone was so far from Colchester). The descent in the poem is from lightness to darkness, illumination to chaos and old night. 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, abducter 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. The low morals of the prince of Troy are transferred to his namesake city, which seems to be crumbling into broken black-figure shards. Obviously Paris the wife-stealer could not have “broken up” in the manner described, but the city for which he stands could, and did. So Paris, France, reveals itself, by word-cricket, as a modern Troy. To Eliot’s falling cities—Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London—are added Troy and Paris, while Rome still stands, just about, as the city of God, though Lowell had ceased to be a practicing Catholic by the time he wrote the poem, which revisits his loss of faith, as the leaving of Rome by train implies. The journey of the poem leads from Saint Peter, and his electric razor–wielding successor Pius XII, to Paris, prince of doomed, secular Troy.

This is the kind of far-fetched, verbal-sleight-of-hand connection that often infuriates Lowell’s detractors, but has magic for me. Rather obscure magic, admittedly, but magic still. There’s some mania in it. Lowell said, “I like to write in mania, and revise in depression,” and “Beyond the Alps” is perhaps one of the poems where a bit more depressed revision wouldn’t have come amiss, and rather too much playful manic brilliance survives. Paris/Paris is a characteristic manic pun, like “peter out” (“Peter out”) in “The Drunken Fisherman”—a pun Lowell made me eliminate from a Faber selection of his poems from which the footnotes of mine quoted by Fenton are drawn.

Just to add to the clutter of allusions, I notice that Fenton gives the poem an incorrect, but altogether more logical title in his second reference to it, calling it “Crossing the Alps”—which is the usual short form of the title of Turner’s painting Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, another study in darkness and light that reverses the terms of the poem by having Hannibal descend from the blackness of the clouds toward the sunlit valley below. Whether fortuitously or by intention, the two are satisfyingly complementary. Hannibal was an important figure in Lowell’s personal mythology, and I can’t imagine that Lowell could have crossed the Alps without thinking of him and Turner’s monumental painting.

Jonathan Raban

To the Editors:

In his review of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems [NYR, August 14], James Fenton worries over the concluding couplet of “Beyond the Alps”:

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

Fenton wants to know what makes Paris a “black classic.” The answer is straightforward enough. Lowell calls Paris black because at the time he wrote the poem Paris was black, covered with the soot of centuries. (This was before André Malraux arranged to have the city cleaned up.) Lowell contrasts the black city, through whose irregular blocks the train is making its way to the station, with the white Alps that figure in earlier lines and, of course, in the title.

Edwin Frank
New York City

James Fenton replies:

In his 1982 biography of Lowell, Ian Hamilton calls the final image of “Beyond the Alps” “one of Lowell’s most perfect and impenetrable.”

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

He goes on to concede that “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.’” The author Hamilton is quoting here is Hugh B. Staples. Hamilton concedes the possibility of the interpretation, but goes on to say that “the image continues to resist simple exegesis.”

In my opinion, both Staples and Edwin Frank slightly overstate their case when they refer to “the white Alps” and the “pure whiteness of the Alps.” It’s what you’d expect at dawn in the Alps, but it’s not what the I of the poem necessarily sees. In the first stanza, while the stewards on the Paris pullman go through the train banging their gongs (calling travelers to dinner, I had thought), the train is described as “mooning across the fallow Alpine snow.” I understood, perhaps wrongly, a moonlit landscape. The next morning, at dawn, he sees

each backward, wasted Alp, a Parthenon,
firebranded socket of the Cyclops’ eye.

That is, he sees each Alp as a desert, a waste, a ruin, charred like the giant’s eye-socket of legend. It is from this vision of charred Alps that the poet, or the I, descends to Paris.

Although I agree with Frank and with Jonathan Raban that Paris would have struck one coming from Rome (or anywhere else) as grimy, my problem—and that of many other readers whom I have asked—is not with the word “black” but with the phrase “black classic.” Why is Paris a black classic, why is it breaking up, and why is its breaking up like the image of the beautiful last line? I find that many people believe that “black classic” has something to do with Baudelaire, and I am perfectly ready to accept that it does. But then it must surely count as a private reference, difficult for the uninitiated to fathom.

As to the word “Paris,” in line three of the poem we are on the Paris pullman. In the penultimate line we arrive in Paris. The headnote confirms that we are on the train from Rome to Paris. Nothing else in the poem suggests to me the presence of the Trojan prince Paris, and I resisted this suggestion when it was forcefully put to me at the editorial stage. I also resisted the idea that Paris was breaking up because of anti-NATO riots. I just feel that interpretation should stick closer to the text. I am sorry to have made a slip with the title of the poem, while berating others for their slips.


To the Editors:

Without a copy of Lowell’s text at hand, the general reader cannot possibly evaluate James Fenton’s use of specific textual details in his review [NYR, August 14] of Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (co-edited by myself and David Gewanter). So I feel I need to respond. Because Fenton’s characteristic way of moving from evidence to conclusion is magisterial but willful, weirdly deceptive, full of feint and sleight of hand, I hope to proceed calmly, carefully, in the reader’s eyes as if without prejudice. He has just quoted Part III of the Sappho poem in Imitations:

Modern readers and poets have often seen that little phrase [line 3], translated by David A. Campbell as “and time goes by,” as meaning “the hour of the appointed tryst has passed,” and read it therefore as a poem of disappointed love. A.E. Housman made two attempts at it, leaving it non-gender-specific (“The rainy Pleiads wester…”). In his day, Lesbians who knew no other Greek were said to have this poem by heart. Lowell himself puts it in another poem, “Sappho to a Girl,” in History, joining it up with number 31. None of this important, well-known information—and remember these notes are addressed to the reader who does not know that Boulder is in Colorado—is provided.

One winces: none of this “important, well-known information” is provided? Then one looks back to remind oneself what this “important, well-known information” is. David A. Campbell translated line 3 a certain way, and thought the poem “a poem of disappointed love”: why should an editor mention this? That “disappointed love” underlies the poem is perfectly clear from every modern version I’ve seen of it, including Lowell’s. A.E. Housman translated it twice: nice to know, but the notes don’t attempt to list every interesting prior version of the poems Lowell imitates. Next we learn that “in [Housman’s] day, Lesbians who knew no other Greek were said to have this poem by heart”; the notion that readers of Lowell’s Collected Poems should be informed that this was “said” in Housman’s day needs, I think, no comment. The notes generally attempt to cross-reference Lowell’s other versions of the same poem: so their failure to do so here, pointed out by Fenton, is definitely a slip-up. (This is the final item of his “important, well-known information.”)

The eerie disconnection between Fenton’s chastising conclusion—“none of this information is provided”—and the importance of the information itself is startling. It is characteristic of Fenton’s way of moving from evidence to conclusion. The reader might well ask if Fenton, so confident, so free from a critic’s normal self-protective caution, merely is contriving showily to display the bric-a-brac of his learning (however irrelevant he fears it is). But the answer that grows as one reads further and further is: no, he is obsessed.

Fenton artfully deflects questions about his “information” by a sudden interjection, as if kicking up dust: “and remember these notes are addressed to the reader who does not know that Boulder is in Colorado.” Lowell is studied in American literature classes all over the world. The “Boulder” reference occurs in a poem about Ford Madox Ford. Why should a Chinese student expect that Ford, who was English/German, one of the founders of Modernism, ever read from his work in Colorado? (Why should a foreign student even assume that “Boulder” is a city?) I remember my own surprise when I first learned that Ford had been there. When I am reading Tu Fu, I don’t recognize place-names that I imagine are familiar to a Chinese student; I am always grateful when they are identified. This issue extends, of course, much beyond place-names: the notes identify Tacitus, Lucan, Thoreau. Serious people disagree about the usefulness of this; but the crucible of teaching undergraduates drives one to value the kind of identifications earlier generations scorned.

Fenton’s best moment leads swiftly to his worst. He doesn’t know Lowell’s work—and it shows. He points out that the Latin words of a family motto mean the opposite of the translation that Lowell supplies. I agree with him that the notes should have included this. But then Fenton spoils his point by badly misreading what Lowell is saying about the motto and the way of life that it represents. This is from Lowell’s prose memoir, “91 Revere Street”:

Bailey-Mason-Myers! Easy-going, Empire State patricians, these relatives of my Grandmother Lowell seemed to have given my father his character. For he [Lowell’s father] likewise lacked that granite back-contrariness which Grandfather Arthur Winslow attributed to his own ancestors, the iconoclastic, mulish Dunbarton New Hampshire Starks. On the joint Mason-Myers bookplate, there are two merry and naked mermaids—lovely marshmallowy, boneless, Rubensesque butterballs, all burlesque-show bosoms and Flemish smiles. Their motto, malo frangere quam flectere, reads “I prefer to bend than to break.”

Lowell’s point is the contrast between two sides of his family heritage: the New Hampshire Starks with their “back-contrariness” are unlike the New York Mason-Myers, whose ethos is all worldly accommodation to pleasure and whatever compromise is necessary for survival or success, preferring “to bend than to break.” Lowell has mistakenly reversed the two Latin infinitives; nonetheless, the contrast between what the Starks represent and what the Mason-Myers motto represents is perfectly clear. Later, Lowell reinforces this; he is describing the portrait of a Mason-Myers ancestor:

Great-great-Grandfather Myers had never frowned down in judgment on a Salem witch. There was no allegory in his eyes, no Mayflower. Instead he looked peacefully at his sideboard, his cut-glass decanters, his cellaret—the worldly bosom of the Mason-Myers mermaid engraved on a silver-plated urn. If he could have spoken, Mordecai would have said, “My children, my blood, accept graciously the loot of your inheritance. We are all dealers in used furniture.”

In his discussion of the Mason-Myers motto, Fenton weirdly confuses the value-systems of the two sides of the family: “Many mottos are written in crude Latin, and this one may well have been intended to mean what Lowell clearly thinks it means: I prefer death (to be broken) than to be bent from my purpose.” But Lowell “clearly thinks it means” what his English plainly says that it means, what all his images of Rubensesque butterballs and “merry and naked” mermaids vividly say that it means: It is better to bend than break. Discussing Colonel Shaw (who “cannot bend his back”) in “For the Union Dead,” Fenton repeats the same mistake: “But if Colonel Shaw in his unbendingness is an embodiment of the Mason-Myers motto (that is, of Bostonian values), it would be better to give the right translation of that motto, to correct Lowell’s error for him.” But Shaw’s unbendingness is an embodiment of Stark values, which are the opposite of Mason-Myers values. Neither the Starks (from New Hampshire) nor the Mason-Myers (“Empire State patricians”) are Bostonian—in Lowell’s work, Boston is a battleground where these two value-systems are at war (the Starks usually losing). Here equanimity deserts me: if Fenton had the least understanding of Lowell’s relationship to Boston, how could he imagine that Colonel Shaw represented a univocal set of “Bostonian values”? Lowell’s work consistently rails against Boston’s dominant mercantile, mercenary spirit, its complacent worldliness, its shallow snobbery. Lowell was a Boston Brahmin who somehow acquired in his twenties and forever kept a mildly Southern accent, who early on abandoned Harvard for Kenyon College.

Despite Fenton’s protests (of Lowell’s thirteen books of poems, he admires four “greatly and with great reservations”), it’s clear that Fenton doesn’t much like Lowell’s poems. He understands one of the books that he does like, Life Studies, only as representing an “anti-style”—as if “style” were Lowell’s “Early High Rhetorical style,” and everything else were simply a departure from or rejection of it. (He should look at James Longenbach’s review in Boston Review [Summer 2003], with its brilliant discussion of how the texture of Life Studies is a made thing in its own right, a construct that created an illusion of “naturalness” and “authenticity” so powerful that when Lowell departed from it his audience punished him for it.)

Instead of looking at Lowell’s poems, Fenton devotes almost two thirds of his space to the notes. His propensity to bury or obscure the relation of evidence to conclusion persists: “In this case [‘A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich’], then, one feels that neither the text nor its annotation is satisfactory.” Turning back to remind oneself of what in the text is unsatisfactory, three paragraphs earlier one finds only this passage: “The spelling is an improvement on ‘Keonigsplatz,’ which used to grace English editions, but the normal German rendition is Königsplatz, and there is no pressing reason for not adopting it, especially when you have Fraülein on the same page.” One thinks: Is he actually saying the text is unsatisfactory because the spelling of one word doesn’t follow “the normal German rendition”? Is he joking? Does he think his reader will not look back?

Fenton’s struggles with the book’s annotation increasingly have an obsessed, over-determined air. He is convinced that the key to “A Mad Negro Soldier” is a specific fact about the Koenigsplatz; because this fact is unmentioned in the notes, the notes won’t do. But of course no set of notes could exhaust all possible grounds of association and implication; good criticism thrives by itself discovering these things. Surely Fenton, in a more rational, less driven mood, knows this. Something drives him so often to misread: he asserts that Lowell tells us the speaker of the first Sappho poem is a man, whereas Lowell says no such thing. Lowell’s headnote simply describes the relation of “the man” in the first line to Anaktoria (who is addressed) and to Sappho (who speaks). Fenton then wonders why the notes contradict Lowell, whereas they contradict only his misreading. Something drives him to claim expertise when he doesn’t possess it: he quotes the editors’ description of panettone as “a tall, sweet Italian holiday bread,” but after “holiday” inserts “[they mean Christmas]”. He is wrong; panettone is also available at, for example, Easter.

And so on. Fenton has assembled a jumble of quibbles, instead of writing about the work of Robert Lowell. One asks why. What animates the whole feels less like calculated deception or the preening will to wound, than something unstated and perhaps unstatable.

As luck would have it, when the notes are expansive they are not expansive about the specific subjects (often geography) that Fenton prefers. At times they are probably too expansive: my note on Marian Anderson in “1958” (p. 1069) could, I fear, be mistaken for an excerpt from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (I signed this note to absolve my co-editor, David Gewanter.)

I’m sure that the notes contain errors. As Helen Vendler says, reviewing the book for The New Republic (July 28 and August 4, 2003): “History aims at nothing less than a secularized redescription of the whole human story.” With a project whose range of reference is bottomless, there have to be errors: but the errors that must be there are not, mysteriously, the errors that Fenton thinks he has found.

Reading Fenton’s review, I was suddenly struck by the pathos of a critic’s position. All his learning must be sustained by judgment and a good ear. When Mr. Fenton tells us that he can hear no rhythmic difference between “after-dinner” (the two words hyphenated) and “after dinner” (separated by a space) and “afterdinner” (printed without a space), he makes a brave admission. In each case the duration between the two words is different; therefore inevitably the rhythm is slightly different. If the words were in a line of poetry, there would be no metrical difference between the three ways of punctuating them; but there is certainly a rhythmic difference. If a critic’s ear for idiom fails him, self-parody waits in the wings. When Mr. Fenton solemnly raps me over the knuckles for glossing “papà” as “father” rather than “dad”—the Italian falls somewhere between the two English terms, so Cassell’s gives both—the stage abruptly, Chekhov-like, is torn between comedy and pathos.

Fenton’s vehemence, throughout this long review, exceeds the evidence that he can marshal for it. There is a fury in his words, a fury incommensurate with any cause that he can articulate.

But I have left out one element from Fenton’s memorable self-portrait as critic-hero: the setting. Whatever his motives, the piece that Fenton has chosen actually to write and publish seems to say: I have been willing to appear obsessed and foolish in order to slay the reawakening dragon in his very lair, the pages of the magazine that he helped to found.

Frank Bidart
Cambridge, Massachusetts

James Fenton replies:

As to Frank Bidart’s letter, if the needs of the Chinese student are to be borne in mind, very well. The Chinese student will want accuracy and clarity just as much as any other student will. To be told that Nein means no (p. 1031) may be helpful. To be informed (p. 1091) that “Samuel Pepys (1633–1703)…wrote a diary in cipher (published after his death)” is doubly misleading. The diary was written in shorthand, and it was not published until 1825.

To point this out may look like quibbling, but stating the matter accurately in the first place would have avoided the quibble. Pepys’s diary only seemed to need deciphering because the man who gallantly undertook the task in the nineteenth century did not realize that the shorthand system in question was twice published (and the key book was in the diarist’s own library). Pepys also knew, and corresponded in, codes. His latest biographer tells us that he was “good at ciphers,” which he prepared for government correspondence. So there is a distinction here (between stenography and encryption) that’s worth preserving.

All this is relevant to the understanding of Lowell’s poem, “Samuel Pepys,” which ends with the poet’s judgment on the diarist: “an inconsequential, not Hermetic, mind.” Here is the full note on this line:

Hermetic: Pepys’ diary was “sealed” in the sense that it was in cipher (lowercase “hermetic”), but his mind lacked an interest in the magical, the occult, in mystery sealed beneath a difficult surface, inaccessible to all but the initiate (“Hermetic”).

The Chinese reader is asked to ponder two meanings of “Hermetic,” when only the second seems in any way valid. Meanwhile a quotation in line 10 of the poem goes unidentified. And at the end of it all I still do not understand why Lowell should criticize Pepys (if that is what he does) for not being interested in the occult, and why that should make his mind inconsequential. Actually, Pepys was very interested in the occult, although he does not seem to have taken it particularly seriously.

It is the mixture of false pedantry and reticence on the same page that proves so exasperating, as on p. 1068 where casa is glossed as “Literally, ‘house’; but with some of the larger implications of the French maison” (as if the word “house” itself had no “larger implications”). Above, bell’età dell’oro is given simply as “Golden age.” But this phrase, “beautiful age of gold,” is clearly quoted from something, and it might be important to know what. And then there is the inability to decide, in the course of a single note, p. 1116, by what name to refer to the hero of the Odyssey.

Bidart claims I have a destructive attitude to Lowell, just at the moment when this dragon is reawakening. He has a nerve. It is a quarter of a century since Lowell’s death, and we have waited all this time for the Collected Poems. The more you admire the poems, the keener the disappointment should be.

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