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A Prisoner’s Dream: Eugenio Montale in Translation

Collected Poems 1920-1954

by Eugenio Montale, translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 626 pp., $40.00

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.
(“Non chiederci”)

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.
(“Meriggiare”)

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.
(“In limine”)

Or again:

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.
(“Falsetto”)

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.
(“Non rifugiarti”)

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.

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