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 …

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Letters

Letters January 12, 1967

Montale Issue December 15, 1966