Eugenio Montale—born in Genoa in 1896, died in Milan, 1981—is one of the twentieth-century Europeans who has spoken most meaningfully to American and British poets. His first published poem, written when he was twenty, already exhibits distinctive characteristics of his work: strict rhythm, dissonant music, richness of allusion, and focused, realistic images, deployed to express an anguished temperament, convinced of the inimical nature of “all life and its torment”:
Sit the noon out, pale and lost in thought
beside a blazing garden wall,
hear, among the thorns and brambles,
snakes rustle, blackbirds catcall.
In the cracked earth or on the vetch,
spy the red ants’ files
now breaking up, now knitting
on top of little piles.
Observe between branches the far-off
throbbing of sea scales,
while the cicadas’ wavering screaks
rise from the bald peaks.
And walking in the dazzling sun,
feel with sad amazement
how all life and its torment
consists in following along a wall
with broken bottle shards embedded in the top.1
From the first, Montale’s work has an inimitable decisiveness and originality of tone, discernible even in translation. But how did he become one of the poets most widely translated into English; how did Montale’s private, intensely Italian work become part of our poetic conversation?
Harry Thomas, in the introduction to Montale in English (2004), gives a concise history of the Italian poet’s introduction to Anglo-American letters.2 Starting with early notices by the Italian critics G.B. Angioletti and Mario Praz in the late 1920s and publication in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, Montale by the 1930s was already seen as “one of the best-beloved of present-day Italian lyricists,” “the poet with most to say to contemporaries who would heed him.”3 This involved a firm rejection of the posturing style of the great and histrionic Gabriele d’Annunzio, and a painstaking search for poetic and moral “good usage,” often by way of a via negativa (“what we are not,/what we do not want”). As Montale’s work progressed over the following decades, from Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) of 1925, through the trauma of Fascism (Le occasioni [The occasions], 1939) and the cataclysm of the war (La bufera e altro [The Storm and Other Things], 1956), it evolved into a complex mythic drama that overwrites the Italian lyric tradition to portray a quasi-religious struggle between private experience (exemplified in the poet’s love for the woman he called Clizia, inspired by an American scholar, Irma Brandeis) and the hostile external reality of the war: a kind of cosmic battle between good and evil. In the prolific poetry of Montale’s old age, beginning with Satura (Miscellany, 1971), he revisits his themes from an ironic, disabused, almost postmortem perspective, often questioning the means and matter of poetry itself.
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