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 …