A Master

Eugenio Montale: Selected Poems

Introduction by Glauco Cambon
New Directions, 161 pp., $1.95

Montale made his bow before the English-speaking public in June, 1928, when his first important poem. “Arsenio,” appeared in The Criterion in a strange translation by Mario Praz. Now, nearly forty years later, New Directions brings out a pioneer selection designed to introduce him, once again, to the English-speaking public. What happened? Why, outside Italy, is Montale not yet recognized for what he is, a twentieth-century master?

He is “difficult,” certainly. Difficult in that he has complicated things to say, and also in the sense that most of us must read him dictionary in hand. We tend to play down the hazards of getting across the language barrier because it would be humiliating to have to confess imperfect access to a writer from an approachable country like Italy. It is nonetheless a fact that oddly few people in the Anglo-American literary community now know Italian well or are familiar with the traditions of Italian literature. Moreover Montale has not had the luck to meet the kind of distinguished sponsor that Cavafy found in E. M. Forster. A good word in the right places opens many doors. There is admittedly Robert Lowell; Imitations contains ten versions from Montale. But Lowell habitually writes so magnificently that the reader of Imitations is inclined to say, not How fine must the original be to prompt such poetry in English; but simply that Lowell has done it again.

THE ITALIAN who set out to write poetry in the second decade of the century had perhaps no harder task than his colleagues in France or America, but it was a different task. The problem was how to lower one’s voice without being trivial or shapeless, how to raise it without repeating the gestures of an incommodious rhetoric. Italian was an intractable medium. Inveterately mandarin, weighed down by the almost Chinese burden of a six-hundred-year-old literary tradition, it was not a modern language. Worse, it had become a provincial language. The last great master, Leopardi, could find everything he needed within the Graeco-Roman-Italian tradition. His speech is the Italian dialect of the high language of European poetry. His successors, Carducci, Pascoli, D’Annunzio, are all in different ways provincial, local. The task was to bring Italy back into full commerce with Europe and (it was really the same thing) to create a modern language, a modern poetic. Montale’s immediate predecessors, the rather dim figures of the various “schools” that sprouted in the first years of the new century, served at least to fracture the century-old patterns and confuse the categories of words and objects that could be admitted into poetry, but their achievement was meager and it was left to two younger men to build on the ground they had left bare.

THE COURSE FOLLOWED by Ungaretti, Montale’s senior by eight years, was in a sense the more predictable one. Ungaretti took the formal elements of poetry, the word, the phrase, the line, the syntax that knits lines into periods, and systematically cleaned them up, one by one. He effected a genuine reform of the Italian lyrical tradition and it is unfortunate that his English and French translators have done him into a conventional “free verse” and so failed to suggest how traditional, in the best sense, he is. Montale’s approach seems, superficially, more casual; certainly it is bolder. For in the first poem he has chosen to preserve, “Meriggiare pallido e assorto,” written in 1916 when he was twenty, he emerges with a diction, a metric, and a tone of voice that are already recognizably his own. From the beginning he uses rhyme (and internal rhyme and assonance), regular (and irregular) stanzas, and the traditional hendecasyllabic line (subtly dislocated, as Laforgue and Eliot dislocated their traditional lines) with impressive originality and confidence.

Meriggiare is one of a group of twenty-two short poems which constitute the most notable segment of his first book, Ossi di Seppia (first edition, 1925). Pound’s approximately contemporary Mauberley provides a convenient term of comparison, and the claims Eliot made for Pound’s sequence—“document of an epoch…in the best sense of Arnold’s worn phrase, a ‘criticism of life’ “—apply to Montale’s. Arguably they apply better to Montale than to Pound, for where Pound does not usually look beyond the cultural maladies of the time, Montale already offers a radical critique of experience that makes one rather think (here as so often) of Eliot.

These poems cannot be summarized, nor (though they are not as difficult as his later work) can they be read quickly. At a first inspection we notice the metrical virtuosity and the curious diction, combining colloquialisms with rare poetic or dialect words. We notice the maturity of tone, the cat-like certainty of tread. And we take away some recurrent images: images of exhaustion (the oppression of midday heat), cautiously checked by hints of replenishment; fleeting intimations of grace—children dancing hand-in-hand on a dried river-bed, a remembered face that forms in a brimmed bucket (“Trema un ricordo nel ricolmo secchio,/nel puro cerchio un’imagine ride“), then sinks back into the dark depths. There are moments of revelation. But what exactly is being revealed?

Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro

a poem begins: “Perhaps one morning walking in an arid air of glass, as I turn round I will see the miracle take place: nothingness at my back, the void behind me—with a drunkard’s terror. But then, as though on a screen, trees, houses, hills will suddenly take their place again, by the usual trick. But it will be too late; and I will go quietly among men who do not turn round, with my secret.” Montale’s poetry offers a number of these ambiguous moments of liberation when the machine stops, a link in the chain breaks, and the solid compact reveals a chink through which to escape. Against a much grander setting, “Arsenio,” the most ambitious poem in the first book, offers just such a moment.

Professor Praz has surmised that when he submitted his translation to The Criterion, Eliot must have found in it “a kindred inspiration.” Whether Eliot knew enough Italian to do anything of the sort is doubtful, but Praz’s point is nonetheless justified. For this sixty-line poem is in a real sense Montale’s Waste Land and it is “doctrinal to its age” in the same way. And although Montale locates the action within the consciousness of a single figure or persona instead of devising an “epic” structure, the imagery is curiously similar.

THE SCENE IS SET with great economy. It is a showery late summer afternoon as Arsenio walks along the seafront of an Italian resort. Music is heard (does it come from the smart hotels or is it inside his own head?) and this is the “signal” for him to go down to the sea where salvation, perhaps, may be found:

è forse, molto atteso, che ti scampi
dal finire il tuo viaggio, anello d’una
catena, immoto andare, oh troppo noto
delirio, Arsenio, d’immobilità…

(“It is perhaps the long-expected moment that may save you from finishing your journey, link of a chain, motionless movement, oh too familiar delirium, Arsenio, of immobility…”) The storm breaks, there is a liberating downpour of rain and with a deepening sense of anguish Arsenio, “trembling with life,” reaches out towards “a void resonant with muffled lamentation.” But the will is too weak and he is left, paralyzed, amid the “frozen multitude of the dead.” The moment came, but he was incapable of the “awful daring” of surrender, and by the last line the new life struggling to birth has been “strangled.”

The volume ends with the word “rifiorire,” the image of life coursing again like sap through the branches of a tree. “The cure was premature,” Montale noted dryly years later. And indeed the next book, Le Occasioni (1939), reveals how long a road there was to travel. The title was carefully chosen. Discussing his earlier poetry, Montale criticized what he called the dualism between the precipitating factor, the “occasion,” and the poem itself. The poems he wanted to write would “contain their motives without revealing them or at least without blurting them out.” The occasion, then, inevitably quite private, was to be completely absorbed within the resulting poem. Such an ambition is likely to produce a very concentrated poetry (in this respect Occasioni marks a decided advance on Ossi di Seppia which, particularly in the sea sequence “Mediterraneo,” is sometimes relatively diffuse) but a very difficult poetry. And in fact it is at this time that the charge of obscurity begins to be increasingly leveled at Montale.

The charge can best be substantiated by the group of twenty short poems which he called Motets, mostly written during the later Thirties in Florence. Even a hasty reading reveals their singular formal mastery (they have been compared to Mallarmé’s octosyllabic sonnets); even a prolonged reading is often baffled by these impenetrable little poems. The images are always sensuously lucid—the “strong glare of tar and poppies” through which a gondola “slithers” down the Grand Canal, a “fringe of pine” “burnt” on a wall turning gold in the glitter of dawn—but they often point back to some “occasion” which it is impossible to reconstruct, and as a result we do not know how to relate the images to each other or to the poem as a whole. These are in no sense formal exercises: the accent is too serious, the note of suffering too marked. But they do suggest that the artificer was in some danger of overcoming the experiencing man. Partly, but only partly, this may be understood in political terms. Montale’s poetic answer to Fascism was a contemptuous withdrawal to a private world where the braying voices from the piazza could not reach. Not completely private, though; for in these poems begins the long dialogue with the beloved woman (Ange où Sirène, qu’importe?) which plays an increasing part in his later poetry.

PROBABLY THE MOST IMPORTANT, certainly the most moving, poems in Occasioni are those in which he develops the use of the persona. Arsenio is an evidently symbolic figure through whom the poet suggests a generalizing statement about the condition of modern man. The personae in the new poems are presented more glancingly; they are also more sharply particularized and still half immersed in their private destinies. Thus “For Liuba, going away” is merely the conclusion of an unwritten poem. A note virtually invites the reader to invent the body of the poem—the occasion, as it were—for himself. We are also told that she is a Jewess. She is going away—escaping from the Nazis, presumably—accompanied by her cat, “splendido are della dispersa tua famiglia,” traveling in a hatbox, all that remains of her possessions. This, the poet declares in the last two lines,

sovrasta i ciechi tempi come il flutto
arca leggera—e basta al tuo riscatto.

(“surmounts the dark times like the ark, light on the flood—and serves for your salvation.”) It is utterly unexpected that this fragmentary piece should end with a couplet of such classical solemnity.

Dora Markus,” one of Montale’s most celebrated poems, shows the method more completely. We are told very little directly about Dora: she is in Ravenna, in some kind of exile; in the second part she is back in her native Carinthia; a note lets us know that she too is Jewish. She is presented through a series of images—light playing on the scales of a dying mullet, migratory birds beating against a lighthouse, a blackened mirror that saw her when she was younger—that are more intense and evocative through being unrelated to any narrative line. And like Liuba, she is “saved” by some familiar, domestic object—

By an amulet you keep beside your lipstick,
Your powder, your nail-file: a white ivory mouse;
And this is how you exist!

The later poetry of Montale is full of these talismans, magical, emblematic points of vitality in a universe that has gone dead. The larger promise of salvation that was at least offered to Arsenio has now been withdrawn; Liuba and Dora and Gerti (most of Montale’s personae are women) are hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

It is late,” “Dora Markus” ends—“Ma è tardi, sempre più tardi.” The premonitions of evil that thicken throughout Le Occasioni burst out in the group of fifteen poems published in 1943, in Switzerland, under the title Finisterre and subsequently included in his latest complete volume, La bufera e altro (1956). These are poems of terror and despair, the most haunted, the most completely private he has ever written. In one of the finest of them, “Earrings,” a mirror poem initially suggesting Mallarmé, it seems as though the phenomenal world, which once offered its ambiguous hopes, has failed altogether:

Non serba ombra di voli il nerofumo
della spera (E del tuo non è più traccia.)

(“The smokedark of the sphere—i.e., the darkened mirror—retains no shadow of flights. And of yours there is no longer any trace.”) The almost hieratic diction registers each phrase with a kind of appalled attention. The absent beloved has been decomposed into the absence of her attributes (or emblems), the “defenseless glitter” of her jewelry, her “strong mastery.” Yet it is still presence that the poet seeks, the “incarnate goddess.” And air-raid is apparently taking place outside, evening falls, and in the softer light marine shapes, “le molli meduse della sera,” begin to stir in the depths of the mirror. This is the signal for the sinister epiphany on which the poem closes: a pair of “squalid, trembling hands” (whose?) fastening the coral earrings on the lobes of her ears.

Bufera seems to me the finest of Montale’s three volumes, and the finest section of it must be the group of eleven poems called “Silvae,” written between 1944 and 1950. I cannot think any sensitive reader, however shaky his Italian, could fail to be moved by the formal splendor of these poems, the incomparable language moving in long, beautifully controlled periods; and by the gravity and courage with which the aging poet struggles to come to terms with a lifetime’s experience, with his childhood and his landscapes, with his dead and his living. I have in mind two poems in particular, “Proda di Versilia” and “Voce giunta con le folaghe,” which seem to me in no way inferior to “L’Anguilla,” though this is more famous and generally held to be his greatest achievement. “L’Anguilla” is nonetheless the logical conclusion to all his work, the lived, painfully realized “rifiorire” to which the last poem in Ossi di Seppia merely gestured. Bufera however includes two important later pieces, “Piccolo Testamento” and “Il Sogno del Prigioniero,” the latter a nightmare poem in a new, freer style which Mr. Lowell should some day put into his English.

THE NEW DIRECTIONS VOLUME unfortunately does little to suggest Montale’s stature. Mr. Glauco Cambon’s introduction is too Italianate in manner and reference to be very helpful to the English-speaking reader; and the translations, apart from those by Lowell and a couple by G. S. Fraser, are mostly less than adequate. Prose versions would have been much more satisfactory; at least they might drive some readers to the facing Italian. A better introduction is provided by the more extensive selection translated by George Kay (University of Edinburgh Press, 1964). On an entirely different level is the small, unobtainable set of translations by Edwin Morgan, impressively faithful to the poetic tone of the original and to the literal sense (University of Reading, 1959).

A first step towards the study of this poet would be to reprint Morgan. Then, since Montale’s Italian is going to keep many people away, we should have the complete poems with an accurate translation. There is of course a large critical corpus in Italian, but criticism is something that every country must perform for itself, and Montale’s densely organized poetry needs the kind of close reading we go in for here. In the meantime, there is a most useful critical study by a young Florentine writer, Silvio Ramat,* which surveys the whole field and answers a number of preliminary questions.


Letters January 12, 1967

Montale Issue December 15, 1966

  1. *

    Montale, Vallechi (Florence), Lire 2,500.