Concluding his poem “To Silvia” in 1828, Giacomo Leopardi addresses the abstraction that had been his childhood companion: hope. The lines of that bitter statement were to become some of the most quoted in Italian poetry:
All’apparir del vero
tu, misera, cadesti: e con la mano
la fredda morte ed una tomba ignuda
mostravi di lontano.
(“At the dawning of the truth, wretch, you were undone, and motioning from afar your hand showed cold death and a bare tomb.”)
Dwarflike, ugly, hunchbacked, the figure of the unhappy Leopardi dominates his country’s poetry throughout the nineteenth century, and the central intuition of his work, its driving force, is his awareness of the nothingness behind all human illusion, the fact that if there is one thing that will not help us to live it is the naked truth. His writing fizzes with the excitement of what may best be described as negative epiphany—a horror made somewhat less unbearable only by the thrill of its revelation, the eloquence of its articulation. A scholar of immense erudition, Leopardi wrote frequently of the need to elaborate some collective illusion that might save society from the corrosive effects of a futility now evident, he imagined, to all. But he was too clearheaded a man to offer illusions himself; nor in the end could he admire the susceptibility of others. One of the last entries in his enormous diary suggests three things humankind will never accept: that they are nothing, that they achieve nothing, that there is nothing after death.
Born in 1896, Eugenio Montale begins his work in the immediate shadow not of Leopardi but of D’Annunzio, a poet who did have a vocation for illusion on a vast scale, a man whose fantastic pantheism and extraordinary mastery of the Italian language produced the most purple celebrations of the world, humanity, nature, and above all himself. It is not surprising that D’Annunzio would find himself in tune with the aberration of Fascism; nor can Leopardi be blamed if the enthusiasm for collective illusion that characterized the first half of the twentieth century should end so badly. Growing up in provincial Genoa, writing his first lines in the atmosphere that would bring Mussolini to power, Montale was determined to establish his distaste for the still-rising star of D’Annunzian grandiloquence and the grotesque complacency that is its inspiration. Perhaps necessarily, the young poet looks back to Leopardi, as much on a personal level as anything else. He feels alienated, whereas D’Annunzio epitomizes not so much integration as the very spirit that coalesces the crowd.
Montale hates crowds. Like Leopardi, he feels emotionally, perhaps sexually, inadequate, where D’Annunzio likes to appear as the nearest thing to Pan himself. But what Montale cannot share with his model Leopardi, or indeed with a poet like Eliot, to whom he has frequently been compared, is the thrill of that negative epiphany. He will not indulge in grand gestures of apocalyptic despair. Rather he begins on the stoniest of ground, carefully measuring his distance from those who precede him, rejecting intoxications whether positive or negative. As can happen with the greatest of artists, his corrosive voice and direction are there in the first stanza of the first poem of his first collection, Cuttlefish Bones.
Enjoy if the wind that enters the orchard
brings back the tidal flow of life:
here, where a dead
tangle of memories sinks under,
was no garden, but a reliquary.
Deprecating, apparently trapped in a domestic backwater, oppressed by a moribund past, the young Montale is frequently obliged to define his early vision by negatives. The second stanza of this poem “In limine” (“On the Threshold”) warns, perhaps reassures: “The whirr you’re hearing is not flight.” The collection’s closest thing to a manifesto tells us:
Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,
just a few gnarled syllables, dry like a branch.
This, today, is all that we can tell you:
what we are not, what we do not want.
Cuttlefish Bones was published in 1925. Its arid landscape is oppressively illuminated, bleached even, like the bones of its title, by the scorching sun of Ligurian summers. The sound of the sea, in turns threatening and reassuring, is never far away. Inside the confining walls of his orto—the Italian kitchen garden, locus of unchanging domestic subsistence—the protagonist is starved of life; outside, along the seacoast, he is thrilled, overwhelmed, frightened, humbled. At first glance, the subject matter of the collection would appear to be a yearning for escape from confinement, for an illuminated, liberating moment, an epiphany. Barriers such as the walls of the orto suggest a beyond and thus encourage yearning, but turn out to be insuperable. Montale differs from his nineteenth-century predecessors, however, in his implicit acceptance of this condition. He never rails. The underlying stupor at the nature of existence that informs the entire collection could never be characterized as angry surprise. He seems old beyond his years.
And walking in the dazzling sun,
feel with sad amazement
how all life and its torment
is here in following this wall
topped with broken bottle-shards.
Rapidly, the poet establishes a variety of approaches to the idea of limits and epiphany, approaches which, with endless ingenious variations, will be the staple of a lifetime’s production. Another figure is in the kitchen garden, a girl, a loved one perhaps. Is liberation possible for her if not for him? Can he help her escape? In this scenario the protagonist’s life might at least have the sense of an offering or sacrifice:
Look for a broken link in the net
that binds us, you jump through, run!
Go, I’ve prayed for this—now my thirst
Will be mild, my rancor less bitter.
Before I give up I’d like
to show you this way out,
unstable as foam or a trough
in the troubled fields of the sea.
And I leave you my scant hope.
I’m too tired to nurse it for the future;
I pledge it against your fate, so you’ll escape.
(“Casa sul mare”)
One young female figure does escape, it seems, with a splendid dive into the sea while the poet, at once too dreamy and too rational, can only yearn, admire, reflect:
At the end of the quivering board
you hesitate, then smile,
and, as if plucked by a wind,
plunge into the arms of your friend
and god who catches you.
We look on, we of the race
who are earthbound.
Later, it seems that the beloved figure can offer as well as receive, help rather than merely escape. “Pray for me then/that I may come down by another route/than a city street/in the wasted air, ahead of the press/of the living” (“Incontro”). But more often than not, at least in this early collection, the yearning for liberation or privileged vision is temporarily appeased by a fleeting Keatsian experience not so much of “ceasing upon the midnight hour” as of feeling one’s confined selfhood dazzled out of its limits in a flood of Mediterranean light.
Like that circle of cliffs
that seems to unwind
into spiderwebs of cloud,
so our scorched spirits
in which illusion burns
a fire full of ash
are lost in the clear sky
of a single certainty: the light.
“Disappearing is the destiny of destinies,” the poet tells us in another poem, apparently aspiring to the inanimate peace of his cuttlefish bones on the beach; he concludes:
Bring me the plant that leads the way,
to where blond transparencies
rise, and life as essence melts in haze;
bring me the sunflower, crazed with light.
(“Portami il girasole”)
At such moments, it becomes evident that Montale’s deeper subject is the relationship of self to other, the possibilities of some real exchange, perhaps even communication between the two, which would become an experience of epiphany. His overriding concern is how he can speak of such things in Italian at the moment he writes, for beneath the surface of his enterprise lies a fear that speech itself may generate the limitations he wishes to overcome. “Don’t ask us,” he says, “for the word that squares/our shapeless spirit on all sides.” (“Non chiederci”) Elsewhere he declares with the angst of Beckett or Cioran: “The deeper truth belongs to the man who is silent.” (“So l’ora”) Hence along with the vocation “to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old and courtly language,” as he once put it, there is also a fascination, if not with imprecision, then with all that must elude precise definition, all that must be allowed to remain shadowy, Protean, on the borders of self and other. Everything is in flux, above all consciousness; and poetry, Montale claims in his essay “Intentions,” is “more a vehicle of consciousness than representation.”
The genius of Cuttlefish Bones, then, and indeed of much of the poet’s later work, lies in an ever denser play of delicate, indefinable, but always convincingly authentic states of mind which record an individual spirit’s long negotiation with the other: the world, women, poetry, the past. Needless to say this will lead commentators into all kinds of difficulty when it comes to establishing the content of many of the poems, while presenting translators with what often looks like a worst-case scenario. Here is one of the “easiest” lyrics from Cuttlefish Bones as it appears in Jonathan Galassi’s new translation:
Haul your paper ships to the seared
shore, little captain,
and sleep, so you won’t hear
the evil spirits setting sail in swarms.
In the kitchen garden the owl darts
and the smoke hangs heavy on the roofs.
The moment that overturns the slow work of months
is here: now it cracks in secret, now bursts with a gust.
The break is coming: maybe with no sound.
The builder knows his day of reckoning.
Only the grounded boat is safe for now.
Tie up your flotilla in the canes.
We have an address to a boy launching paper boats, a boy apparently in danger from evil spirits at large. That familiar kitchen garden is full of ominous portents. The last stanza is ambiguous about whether grounding those boats will prevent the disaster occurring or not. Is the builder the boy who built the boats? Probably not. But at least sleep will guarantee unconsciousness. Here is an earlier translation by William Arrowsmith:
Haul your paper boats
to the parched shore, and then to sleep,
little commodore: may you never hear
swarms of evil spirits putting in.
The owl flits in the walled orchard,
a pall of smoke lies heavy on the roof.
The moment that spoils months of labor is here:
now the secret crack, now the ravaging gust.
The crack widens, unheard perhaps.
The builder hears his sentence passed.
Now only the sheltered boat is safe.
Beach your fleet, secure it in the brush.
Aside from the cohesion of assonance, rhythm, and diction which is very much on Galassi’s side (and this is true throughout his excellent new translation), actual differences are minor, though sometimes intriguing. Presumably Galassi goes for the unusual “paper ships” to achieve alliterative effects with “paper,” “seared,” and “shore.” Arrowsmith’s standard phrase “paper boats” is closer to the familiar tone of the opening address. But these are the inevitable small swings and roundabouts of translation.
Something of the same thing is going on with the apparently irreconcilable versions “putting in” and “setting sail,” to describe the activity of those evil spirits, Galassi concentrating once again on achieving assonance (notice also “seared,” “hear,” “here,” or again “sound” and “grounded”). But what are these evil spirits up to, are they arriving or departing? Are they only going to “spoil” the work of months, as Arrowsmith’s version weakly suggests, or “overturn” it altogether, as Galassi’s more dramatically announces? And if we look at the translation syntactically, what is the “it” of Galassi’s “now it cracks in secret”—the work, or the moment? What, overall, is the poem about? Here is the original:
Arremba su la strinata proda
le navi di cartone, e dormi,
fanciulletto padrone: che non oda
tu i malevoli spiriti che veleggiano a stormi.
Nel chiuso dell’ortino svolacchia il gufo
e i fumacchi dei tetti sono pesi.
L’attimo che rovina l’opera lenta di mesi
giunge: ora incrina segreto, ora divelge in un buffo.
Viene lo spacco; forse senza strepito.
Chi ha edificato sente la sua condanna.
È l’ora che si salva solo la barca in panna.
Amarra la tua flotta tra le siepi.
Even those who cannot read Italian will immediately be aware of the poem’s careful rhyming, almost chiming, which finally breaks with the very last word, siepi, the boat, the lyric, being brought to prosaic ground at last. Montale loves to end on a dying fall, and Galassi is astute here to close not with Arrowsmith’s alliterating “brush” but with a word quite outside his translation’s sound pattern: “canes.”
The original also has a great deal of internal rhyming, some of it at least potentially significant—cartone/padrone (cardboard/master) rovina/incrina (destroy/crack) and the weighty half-rhyme svolacchia/fumacchi. These latter are difficult words to translate. The rare svolacchiare, borrowed perhaps from D’Annunzio, whom Montale at once rejected and ransacked, suggests sudden clumsy flight, while a fumacchio is a fumarole or a smoldering log, the one suggesting an infernal connection with those evil spirits, the other giving us a picture of the domestic roofs as themselves alight, the houses slowly burning themselves out, as almost everything in Montale’s world consumes itself in fire.
While one cannot expect a translation to measure up to a rhyme pattern, it’s odd that both English versions ignore the implications of fumacchi. In any event, internal rhyme is ubiquitous in Montale’s verse and usually in combination with enjambment. It transmits an uneasy sense of an imprisoning mesh, or a series of short circuits, the poem being brought to sudden halts, often in mid-line. The reader will frequently have the disorienting sense that something connects, while remaining uncertain about where and with what, for often the inner ear picks up the rhyme without immediately finding its earlier partner.
Here is not the place to examine the complex mix of Montale’s diction, its weaving back and forth between literary and prosaic, but one or two observations on how the poem achieves its quiet force would be useful. Fanciulletto padrone—“little boy master” has to be translated for consistency of metaphor as “little captain” or “little commodore,” but read in Italian the line cannot help but recall the Wordsworthian idea that the child is father to the man. The lines invite the boy to retreat, to sleep, not to risk it, not to grow up perhaps. For those spirits are not just evil, they are malevolenti, they wish him evil. And the tu of the first stanza is important. Redundant in standard Italian syntax, the personal pronoun is introduced (in the most prominent of positions) for emphasis and contrast. The idea is “Sleep, so that at least you may not hear those ill-wishing spirits,” who, rather than “setting sail” or “putting in,” veleggiano, a word that can mean to “soar in flight” or to “sail about” and that allows Montale to maintain his nautical image while increasing the sense of menace: the air is swarming with spirits. But if the boy is to be spared hearing those spirits, who will hear them? The poet? The builder? Or the adult the child will give birth to as he sleeps? Even with this simplest of lyrics, the essential nub winds off into a cloud of possibilities.
A few pages earlier, moreover, in a poem dedicated to fellow poet Camillo Sbarbaro, Montale imagines his friend as a boy launching paper boats, his poems, and invites a kind passer-by to pull them safely to shore with his walking stick. So this later lyric cannot help but gather whimsical associations from the first. Is Montale suggesting that these early years of Fascism are not a moment for poetry, but for keeping one’s head down? Delicate verses have little chance out there.
Or is he talking about youth coming to consciousness? Addressing his younger self perhaps. Or simply expressing a momentary loss of confidence? Whichever way we read the poem, the line that takes on the most rhetorical and rhythmical force, to a large extent lost in the translations, is the very last line that rhymes: “È l’ora che si salva sola la barca in panna” (literally: “The hour has come when only the grounded boat will be saved”). This pessimistic invitation to inaction pulls together the odd collage of images which, while still refusing to be pinned down, establishes an all too recognizable cocktail of emotions: fear, inadequacy, desire to sleep, desire to spare another person disappointment, or see one’s own disappointment destroy another.
From all of this Montale extracts himself with the quiet skill of one who knows that the poem’s poignancy is generated precisely by its refusal to insist too much, its capacity to remain as light and precarious as a paper boat. The translations, which are probably as good as translations can be of such a poem, remind us that for all Montale’s determination to distance himself from Italian’s vocation for high-flown rhetoric, a poem nevertheless remains a felicitous event above all in its own language. The little boat bobs and dips and is eventually beached into prose rather more convincingly, more attractively, in the original.
It is generally agreed that the core of Montale’s work consists of three major collections: Cuttlefish Bones (1925), The Occasions (1939), and The Storm, etc. (1956). Galassi chooses to publish all three together, separating them from a body of work of almost equal length that came later. He defends this decision in a brilliant afterword that offers the best short account I have yet come across of the nature, import, and elusive content of Montale’s work. Above all he has a firm grasp of its extraordinary interconnectedness both inside itself and within Italian and European culture as a whole. This is the key not so much to understanding Montale—“understanding” is the wrong word—as to appreciating his vision of what contemporary poetry might be and do.
The passage from Cuttlefish Bones to The Occasions is crucial. At its simplest, Montale drastically reduces the first-person presence in the poems, together with any obvious autobiographical reference. He concentrates on constructing small groups of images, events, exhortations which will generate a complex emotional state without revealing the personal situation that sparked it off. Since the poet is living in Florence now, the vivid coastal landscape that gave an easy homogeneity to the first collection is gone. Everything is more fragmented, harder to get the mind around.
The change in direction inevitably led to accusations of hermeticism, while critics and indeed Montale himself theorized at length about objective correlatives and the like. Such talk seems less interesting now than reflections on the whys and wherefores of the change and the direction it would ultimately lead Montale to take. Perhaps if poetry is to be a vehicle of consciousness and if the poet’s own consciousness is the only one immediately available to him, the twin problems of retaining privacy and of giving his work resonance were beginning to make themselves felt.
Montale is considerably older. We become aware of various relationships. Poems are addressed to different women. Not to mention quite serious political considerations: while preparing this collection the poet would lose his job for failing to join the Fascist Party. So one might remark that any artist whose form of expression requires a semantic content will take steps to preserve that double life without which it often seems any life at all is impossible. Certainly in his essays on Dante and D’Annunzio Montale is attentive to such problems, reflecting at length on the extent to which poets hide or fail to hide the biography behind the verse.
No doubt his decision, as the work progresses, to draw on the Renaissance convention of a sequence of poems to an ideal beloved is taken partly because it will serve to cover tracks. In fact, I can think of no major figure who, without resorting to the provocative, almost showy secrecy of contemporary writers like Pynchon or Salinger, has more successfully and unspectacularly kept the exact nature of his private life out of the public domain. Although we now know their identities, the place in his life of the two women addressed in his poems as Clizia and Volpe, or again of the woman with whom he lived while addressing poems to those others, remains quite obscure.
Such reflections are, I hope, appropriate, but inevitably reductive. Montale remarks that in writing Cuttlefish Bones, “I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant piercing that veil—but this remained an unreachable goal.” Yet referring to The Occasions, he then claims, “I wanted to go deeper.” How can one go deeper if, while being able to think of the world as a veil, one can never penetrate it? What does Montale understand by “going deeper”?
Galassi’s afterword presents Montale’s work as an autobiographical novel. What initially are relatively simple verses in which a man or a woman is seen as involved in a search for some form of overcoming have become progressively more complex. Montale loves a Jewish American, Irma Brandeis, a Dante scholar, who leaves Italy at the outbreak of war. The poems to her, or to her memory, slide from intense personal pain and pleasure to visions of individual, then even universal salvation, drawing on the symbolism of centuries past and Christian and Jewish traditions, not to mention relatively obscure heresies such as Nestorianism. Here, in a constant construction and deconstruction of fantastic allegory, clearly fueled by the catastrophic events occurring all around him, each poem is built on those that have gone before, to the extent that it is hard to read any one of them separately.
Later, arriving at the work addressed to Volpe, a younger woman whose sensuality usurps, though never completely, the position of the more spiritual Clizia, it will be impossible to read the poems without a thorough knowledge of all that has gone before and indeed some wonderment about the nature of the poet’s relationship with Mosca, the lifetime companion he eventually married. Meantime, Montale’s contact with Florentine and later Milanese literary circles, his enviable familiarity with a huge range of European and American literature, his personal difficulties with Fascism and mass culture in general, are all drawn together in work that, in his role as translator, Galassi despairingly describes as characterized by an extraordinary “overdetermination”: a single reference may take us back to Dante and Browning, or to Baudelaire and D’Annunzio, another to the contemporary inferno of war and to a girlfriend, or compound of girlfriends, while almost everything will gain resonance from its connection with any number of earlier poems.
Thus intensity is achieved not through revealed meaning, or lyric flight, but through a prodigious density encouraging ever more complex levels of consciousness, and evoking the finest shadings of emotion colored by every variety of thought. This is what the poet meant by “going deeper.” The strategy and its effects are difficult to summarize and if Montale is always interesting but never particularly revealing when he writes about poetry in prose, this is no doubt because he senses that poetry presents ideas which, as he laconically puts it in “A Dialogue with Montale on Poetry,” “are acceptable only in that form.” As a result the following brief lyric, “The Fan,” from the collection The Storm, etc., merits more than 1,000 words in Galassi’s excellent notes.
Ut pictura…The confounding lips,
the looks, sighs, days now long since gone:
I try to fix them there as in
the wrong end of a telescope,
silent and motionless, but more alive.
It was a joust of men and armaments, a rout
in smoke that Eurus raised, but now the dawn
has turned it purple and breaks through those mists.
The mother-of-pearl gleams, the dizzying
precipice still swallows victims, but
the feathers on your cheeks are whitening
and maybe the day is saved. O raining blows
when you reveal yourself, sharp flashes, downpour
over the hordes! (Must he who sees you die?)
The notes begin:
Another highly allusive “pseudosonnet” (Montale to Contini, June 6, 1942) (Op, 943), its title drawn from the “éventails” of Mallarmé (Greco [142-43] finds parallels with Mallarmé’s first “éventail” [“Avec comme pour langage”], which is also an Elizabethan sonnet). Its occasion is another “Petrarchan” attribute of Clizia’s, drawn from her war chest of jewelry, “a holy relic in time of war” (Cary, 312). (According to Macrì [2, 11], the poem describes the disastrous rout of Italian forces at Caporetto in October 1917.)
I quote this snippet with no satirical intentions, but in an attempt to tease out what is the experience of reading this collection, what it might mean for someone to have generated the original work over the course of a lifetime, and for another to have dedicated years of his life to the unbelievably painstaking and ill-paid task of translating and annotating it.
As with Arrowsmith’s translations, and indeed most serious contemporary translation of poetry, Galassi presents his version side by side with the original. This could be seen as an honest admission of defeat from the outset. “Poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language,” Celan remarked. Montale himself spoke of the untranslatability of poetry in essays that Galassi himself has translated. Here nostalgia for the original is overwhelming. Yet bravely the translator proceeds. Indeed, precisely as poetry in this century has become more cryptic, more private, more untranslatable, translations have multiplied. Why?
In Montale’s case it is very much as if the translator were seeking to continue and expand the poet’s work of interconnection, introducing into another language and tradition—with all the new connotations this inevitably opens the way for—the immense spider’s web of the man’s thought. And the voluminous notes Galassi provides, absolutely indispensable for a fruitful reading of Montale, the frequent quotations of critics and sources and letters, make us aware of a huge joint effort in which the reader is invited to take part, an effort to put everything together, to understand it all in a flash. It is in this way that the yearning for epiphany is exorcised. With each new lyric the mind is momentarily appeased, dazzled out of limits, not by the Mediterranean light, but by the complex expression of its own and by extension everybody else’s experience.
In his recent book Ka,* Roberto Calasso tells how the first Indian god, Prajapati, did battle with Death. On the point of succumbing he was consoled by the reflection that if he went under nevertheless the connections his mind had made would survive, for how can a web of thought be killed? Later, when his body had been broken and dispersed, becoming all that exists, the same Prajapati taught the younger gods that to overcome death they must construct the altar of fire. The bricks required numbered the hours of the year. It was a task that would take all the time there was. So much so that the brahmans of the Vedic periods were still involved in the same enterprise. Calasso comments: “By creating an edifice of such connections, they imagined they had beaten Death. And thus died the more serene.”
Reading Montale, watching with what admirable stubbornness he sets out to arrange and rearrange the same elements over and over, to thicken his web, and then observing the translators and critics as they minister about him with the commendable solemnity of priests, one cannot help feeling that the altar of fire is still under construction. Why not? And as the eye moves from original to translation—Arrowsmith’s, Galassi’s, but Charles Wright’s too, and Edith Farnsworth’s, an uncanny connection floats to mind. The original stands to these translations as the impossible communion of self and other appeared to the young Montale. Each translation reenacts the yearning the poet expressed, the frustration of another attractive but not quite successful attempt to overcome barriers—in this case that between Italian and English. Yet the absence of the definitive version at least allows us to fill our time by trying again.
One of the great pleasures of reading a bilingual edition is that you can enjoy the liberty (as I have in the first quotations in this article) of imagining different approximations to the impossible perfect solution. Montale’s third and most ambitious collection, The Storm, etc., closes with a poem whose title, “The Prisoner’s Dream,” might well be applied to all his work. In Galassi’s version the last stanza is as follows:
from my sharp pallet, I’ve become
the flight of the moth my sole
is turning into powder on the floor,
become the light’s chameleon kimonos
hung out from the towers at dawn.
I’ve smelled the scent of burning on the wind
from the cakes in the ovens,
I’ve looked around, I’ve conjured rainbows
shimmering on fields of spiderwebs
and petals on the trellises of bars,
I’ve stood, and fallen back
Into the pit where a century’s a minute—
and the blows keep coming, and the footsteps,
and I still don’t know if at the feast
I’ll be stuffer or stuffing. The wait is long,
my dream of you isn’t over.
In 1985 Arrowsmith offered:
I’ve risen only to fall back
into that gulf where a century’s a second—
and the beatings go on and on, and the footsteps,
and I don’t know whether I’ll be at the feast
as stuffer or stuffing. It’s a long wait,
and my dream of you isn’t over.
In 1978 Charles Wright arranged it thus:
and still I don’t know when the banquet is finally served,
if I shall be the eater or the eaten. The wait is long;
my dream of you is not yet over.
In 1970 Edith Farnsworth wrote:
and still no inkling whether at the feast
I’ll be the stuffer or the stuffed.
The waiting lasts a long time, my dream
of you has not yet found its end.
It often seems translations tell us more about poetic sensibility in our own language than in the original. What about:
and still I don’t know who’ll be eating whom
when I get to the table.
Time is long,
I’m not through dreaming of you yet.
Knopf, 1998. ↩