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The Great Montale in English

Eugenio Montale, 1970

Eugenio Montale—born in Genoa in 1896, died in Milan, 1981—is one of the twentieth-century Europeans who has spoken most meaningfully to American and British poets. His first published poem, written when he was twenty, already exhibits distinctive characteristics of his work: strict rhythm, dissonant music, richness of allusion, and focused, realistic images, deployed to express an anguished temperament, convinced of the inimical nature of “all life and its torment”:

Sit the noon out, pale and lost in thought
beside a blazing garden wall,
hear, among the thorns and brambles,
snakes rustle, blackbirds catcall.

In the cracked earth or on the vetch,
spy the red ants’ files
now breaking up, now knitting
on top of little piles.

Observe between branches the far-off
throbbing of sea scales,
while the cicadas’ wavering screaks
rise from the bald peaks.

And walking in the dazzling sun,
feel with sad amazement
how all life and its torment
consists in following along a wall
with broken bottle shards embedded in the top.

From the first, Montale’s work has an inimitable decisiveness and originality of tone, discernible even in translation. But how did he become one of the poets most widely translated into English; how did Montale’s private, intensely Italian work become part of our poetic conversation?

Harry Thomas, in the introduction to Montale in English (2004), gives a concise history of the Italian poet’s introduction to Anglo-American letters.2 Starting with early notices by the Italian critics G.B. Angioletti and Mario Praz in the late 1920s and publication in T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, Montale by the 1930s was already seen as “one of the best-beloved of present-day Italian lyricists,” “the poet with most to say to contemporaries who would heed him.”3 This involved a firm rejection of the posturing style of the great and histrionic Gabriele d’Annunzio, and a painstaking search for poetic and moral “good usage,” often by way of a via negativa (“what we are not,/what we do not want”). As Montale’s work progressed over the following decades, from Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) of 1925, through the trauma of Fascism (Le occasioni [The occasions], 1939) and the cataclysm of the war (La bufera e altro [The Storm and Other Things], 1956), it evolved into a complex mythic drama that overwrites the Italian lyric tradition to portray a quasi-religious struggle between private experience (exemplified in the poet’s love for the woman he called Clizia, inspired by an American scholar, Irma Brandeis) and the hostile external reality of the war: a kind of cosmic battle between good and evil. In the prolific poetry of Montale’s old age, beginning with Satura (Miscellany, 1971), he revisits his themes from an ironic, disabused, almost postmortem perspective, often questioning the means and matter of poetry itself.

The young Samuel Beckett translated a few of Montale’s poems in 1930. After the war, some British Italianists, among them Bernard Wall, Bernard Spencer, and Edwin Morgan, produced restrained and responsible if not exactly inspired versions. But it was the 1961 publication of Robert Lowell’s Imitations, with eleven major texts by Montale, more than by any other modern poet, that gave the Italian a felt presence in poetry in English. Lowell effectively presented Montale as the great inheritor of Europe’s symbolist tradition, placing him alongside Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Rilke and tacitly anointing him, in true Lowellian style, a modern classic.

Lowell, whose familiarity with languages other than English was spotty, had discovered Montale’s great lyric of regenerative eros, “The Eel,” in 1948 in Botteghe Oscure, and had struggled with a translation of it. While in Florence in 1950–1951, he and Elizabeth Hardwick had met Montale for what Hardwick later described as “several sweaty, mute evenings of language difficulty and great displays of blundering affection.”4 With the help of two Italian friends, his translator Rolando Anzillotti and later Alfredo Rizzardi, and with George Kay’s 1958 Penguin Book of Italian Verse as a trot, Lowell eventually made versions of fifteen or sixteen of Montale’s major poems.5 As he wrote Rizzardi:

I include him along with Valéry and Apollinaire and Rilke and Pasternak as one of the most powerful poets of our time…. I’m struck by the fact that Montale…is able to take an old theme—a portrait, an erotic poem, an elegy and apply a stupefying, agile, unpredictable, almost surrealistic style. Next to him, most of today’s English stuff seems very tired. Most of the best French poets after Apollinaire are tired and domesticated as well…. In France, the old symbolist tradition has become thin and methodical, the old dynamite of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière, etc seems terribly weakened….6

Rizzardi tried in vain to help Lowell with his versions, but came to realize that Lowell was not interested in producing “accurate” translations; instead, he was “devouring and assimilating a new experience according to his poetic physiology.” As Lowell wrote him, “The versions are very free; in any case, they are somewhat different from my old translations, they are in free verse and have no religious additions. I mean, they are Montale and not Lowell, but they try to be strong English poems….”

Lowell’s versions are often excited, approximate, seemingly offhand where Montale is chiseled, decisive, and rhythmically exact. For the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Lowell has a “tendency to overstep the mark,”7 or, as he himself put it, “to be reckless with literal meaning,” working “hard to get the tone,” or rather “a tone, for the tone is something that will always more or less escape transference to another language and cultural moment.”8 What Lowell responded to in Montale was rhetorical power, a “dynamite” with at least as great an impact as his own, worthy material for his own rapacious talent to gnaw on.

Unsurprisingly, Lowell tended to favor Montale’s more expansive narrative performances, which gave him room to exercise his own “powerful” tone, over the Italian’s more gnomic and inward briefer lyrics. The results show Lowell battling an indomitable antagonist. Montale is the undisputed winner in their wrestling matches; but despite the imitations’ excesses and awkwardness, something of the originals’ austere grandeur does come through, as here in “Dora Markus,” an anguished fictional portrait of a displaced Jewish woman from Carinthia, in southern Austria, awaiting the war:

It was where a plank pier
pushed from Porto Corsini into the open sea;
a handful of men, dull as blocks, drop,
draw in their nets. With a toss
of your thumb, you pointed out the other shore,
invisible, your true country.
Then we trailed a canal to the outlying shipyards,
silvered with sun and soot—
a patch of town-sick country, where depressed spring,
full of amnesia, was burning out.

Here where the world’s way of surviving
is subtilized by a nervous
Levantine anxiety,
your words flash a rainbow,
like the scales of a choking mullet.

Lowell’s Imitations was followed in 1962 by an issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature dedicated to Montale and edited by Irma Brandeis. In this and a 1965 New Directions Selected Poems, Lowell’s muscle-bound intensity is unfortunately rarely matched in the efforts of Cid Corman, John Frederick Nims, or even James Merrill. Words like “cigale” “withal” and “calotte” and lines like “it grows too stuffy, this day” show us that we remain largely in the realm of translationese, far from Lowell’s blustering fire, and even farther from the tonal and metrical force of the poet himself.

The problem was, if anything, exacerbated by Edith Farnsworth’s Provisional Conclusions (1970). This contains all the poems from Montale’s first three collections not selected for the New Directions volume. But for this reader, Farnsworth’s versions often demonstrate a lack of full understanding of what is going on in Montale’s sentences and they use a fusty, outdated “poetic” vocabulary.9

Charles Wright’s translation of The Storm (1978) offered a more inward reading. Wright, a gifted young Tennessee poet, had been bowled over by Italy—and by Ezra Pound—while serving in the army after the war, and his early poetry fairly drips with Montalean influence. His version offers the most internally cohesive response to Montale’s poetry after Lowell’s, aiming at tautness of expression and eschewing Lowell’s externally applied style. If Wright’s Italian is not always perfect, his focus is sharp. Like Corman and other “objectivist” devotees of Montale, Wright gives priority to the image in the Italian, developing an insistent way of hearing Montale’s music that counters Lowell’s dramatizing tone.

And then came William Arrowsmith. A classicist who translated Euripides and Aristophanes, he conceived and edited the Oxford University Press series that assigned contemporary poets to create versions of classical plays with the collaboration of scholars; he was also an enthusiast of Italian cinema and literature, and an admirer of the mid-century Italian novelist and poet Cesare Pavese, translating his Dialogues with Leucò with D.S. Carne-Ross. In 1976, his version of Pavese’s powerful first collection of poems, Lavorare stanca, was published under the title Hard Labor, winning praise for its intense, prose-influenced directness.

Arrowsmith’s first Montale translations were of his greatest book, The Storm and Other Things (1985), and The Occasions (1987). Cuttlefish Bones appeared after the translator’s death in 1992, and was followed by Satura (1998). Norton has now reissued these, along with Arrowsmith’s versions of two of Montale’s three later “diary” volumes, Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (1973) and Quaderno di quattro anni (1976), in a compendium edited by Rosanna Warren.10

What one appreciates most, reading through this collection, is the largeness of Montale’s project, the Dantean singularity and multifarious unity of what he called his “one book,” and the consistency of Arrowsmith’s faithful engagement with it. Warren has omitted his elegant prefaces to the original volumes, but kept some of his idiosyncratic notes, which draw on classical and Italian scholarship; and she has added annotations of her own to the posthumous volumes. Arrowsmith is a committed Europeanist, a proponent of the larger culture of which Montale is one of the last great protagonists, and his notes convey his sense of what he calls Montale’s “tradition-saturated” way of writing—a perfect description of the simmering broth of associations, borrowings, and echoes from the grab bag of past and present—from Dante to Petrarch, Leopardi, and Baudelaire, to name only the most obvious—that is the substratum of Montale’s style.

Arrowsmith, though not a poet, is a deep reader, and like Lowell is at his best with the long breath of Montale’s more “narrative” poems. “Bello-sguardo Times,” which evokes a storied Florentine hillside, suggests what is about to be lost in the war’s gathering storm:

Sound of roof tiles being ripped apart
by the gusting storm
that taut air that widens out, uncracking,
the slanting of the garden’s
Canada poplar, three-pointed, shaking
at every wrench—
and the sign of a life that accommodates
the marble at every step like the ivy
flinching from the solitary thrust of the bridges
I descry from this high outlook here:…
  1. 1

    Translation by the author. 

  2. 2

    See also Marco Sonzogni’s Corno inglese: An Anthology of Eugenio Montale’s Poetry in English Translation (Novi Ligure, Italy: Edizioni Joker, 2009), which includes work by over 260 translators and features seventy-two versions of “L’anguilla.” 

  3. 3

    Henry Gifford, “An Invitation to Hope,” Grand Street, Autumn 1983, p. 298, quoted in Thomas, p. 172. 

  4. 4

    Quoted in Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (Random House, 1985), p. 172. 

  5. 5

    Apart from the eleven versions in Imitations (the second part of Lowell’s version of “The Eel” is actually another, unrelated poem, “Se t’hanno assomigiliato”), three others, “Bellosguardo,” “Flux,” and “Boats on the Marne,” were published in The New York Review of Books on October 22, 1981, and are included in Lowell’s Collected Poem s (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). Francesco Rognoni reports seeing two others, “Non chiederci la parola” and “Eastbourne,” among the poet’s papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library. 

  6. 6

    Lowell to Rizzardi, quoted (in Italian) in the introduction to Robert Lowell, Poesie di Montale, edited by Rizzardi (Edizioni della Lanterna, 1960). In his essay “Robert Lowell’s Imitations of Italian Poetry” (in Robert Lowell: A Tribute, edited by Rizzardi (Nistri-Lischi Editori, 1979), Rizzardi writes that when he met Lowell in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1956, Lowell had recently been released from a clinic in Boston and had been forbidden to write poetry; “it was for this reason that he decided to translate…some of the [poems by Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, Saba, Ungaretti, and Montale] that we read together.” 

  7. 7

    Muldoon’s ludic dissection of translations of “L’anguilla” is included in The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), pp. 192–221. 

  8. 8

    Lowell’s introduction to Imitations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Rizzardi, in Robert Lowell: A Tribute (Nistri-Lischi Editore, 1979), p. 410, gives a nuanced account of the highly critical reception of Imitations in Italy, where Lowell was accused of betraying Montale’s poetry, not only for being unfaithful to its meanings but also for “the screeching and the dissonance,…the harsh reality of the images which upset, disfigured, and violated the delicate structure of Montale’s compositions.” As Rizzardi reports, “Montale himself…told me one day that in [Lowell’s] English text the images are extrapolated and brought to the surface, while in his poetry the images are intrinsic, ‘they are…’ and while searching for an example, he gently rubbed his hand on the wooden piece of furniture on which he was leaning, ‘like knots in the grain.’” 

  9. 9

    In Britain, Montale’s work was disseminated largely through the devoted if flatfooted efforts of G. Singh, a professor of Italian at Queens University, Belfast, who translated a collection of Montale’s stories, Butterfly of Dinard (London Review Press, 1970) and wrote the first critical book on Montale, Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism (Yale University Press, 1973). Singh also published translations of Montale’s later work: New Poems (New Directions, 1976) and It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook (New Directions, 1980), as well as a Selected Essays (Carcanet, 1978). 

  10. 10

    Arrowsmith’s translations of these late poetic diaries are also being issued in separate paperback editions by Norton in December as Poetic Diaries 1971 and 1972 and Poetic Notebook 1974–1977

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