The Poetry of Montale

Provisional Conclusions

by Eugenio Montale, translated by Edith Farnsworth
Regnery, 352 pp., $10.00

Xenia

by Eugenio Montale, translated by G. Singh
Black Sparrow and New Directions, (limited edition), 50 pp., $20.00

Mosca (meaning “fly”)—as everyone called her—was the wife of Eugenio Montale, the most famous living Italian poet and the incomparable ironic literary commentator of Corriere della Sera. She was a small, auburn-haired, rather heavily made-up lady who wore spectacles with thick lenses that magnified the gaze with which she looked out at the world. She took people in amusedly—not unkindly—but with no illusions about them. Her laugh was of the sort that used to be described as “tinkling.” There was certainly something old-fashioned about her, like a watchful guest at a corner table of a boardinghouse on the sea coast. Perhaps she was called Mosca (Montale seems in his poetry to wonder why) because she seemed glinting and flickering: a firefly rather than just a fly, I would have thought.

It was she who told me one May morning in 1947 in Florence how Montale, having invited Dylan Thomas to dinner, had called on the great young English poet then visiting the city—and had entered his hotel room just in time to observe him scrambling into a clothes cupboard to escape dining with Italy’s foremost poet. Dylan did various things of the same kind in Florence that week. The critic Luigi Berti (whom Dylan insistently called “Berty”) objected to such behavior, on the rather surprising grounds that it was snobbish. I asked him why. Berti said he thought that the moment had arrived in history when English poets traveling in Italy should no longer give themselves the airs of “milords”—behave like Lord Byron, that is to say.

Mosca recounted Dylan’s adventures joyously. “Il était très étrange,” she said. Now, a quarter of a century later, after Mosca’s death in 1963, Montale has written a volume of poems about her which are both gravely sad and evocatively humorous. Having the appearance almost of a pendant or postscript to the main body of his work, nevertheless in some ways they serve almost as introduction to it. They have all its qualities with none, or few, of the difficulties; and thus they clarify problems for the reader of the previous work. One of these is the question of whom the poet is addressing in certain of his poems when he uses the pronoun tu. As Edith Farnsworth points out in the Introduction to Provisional Conclusions (the selection of Montale’s poems which she has translated), ” ‘You’ is one or it may be all; it is the companion, even though, as in the case of Dora Markus, it may be personally unknown. It is the creature, or the essence, to be adored…and yet…it is hard to think of any love poem in any previously accepted sense.”

In some of these poems there is such a feeling of the isolation of the poet that, whether the “you” is intended as Dora Markus, as the unknown, unproved, and withdrawn God, or as a friend, it seems ultimately the poet himself, because there is no communication …

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Letters

In the Cupboard September 21, 1972