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 for him with “another.”
In the first “Sequenza” in Xenia, Montale disposes of this suspicion when he writes:
Dicono che la mia
sia una poesia d’inappartenenza.
Ma s’era tua era di qualcuno.
(In G. Singh’s translation: They say that mine/is poetry that belongs to no one./But if it was yours, it was someone’s.)
In Xenia the “thou” has clarified and hardened, like an outline emerging from mist into clear light, into the character of Mosca. This character has certain properties, such as spectacles, halting speech, a brother who died young; also a history of hotel rooms and conversations on telephones. However, the lines quoted above continue: “era di te non più forma ma essenza” (“not your form but your essence”). Although we see Mosca everywhere in this poetry—flitting through it in her bright insect way—the quintessential is what survives: It is here that her being shares unique consciousness with the poet:
Tu sola sapevi che il moto
non è diverso dalla stasi,
che il vuoto è il pieno e il sereno
è la più diffusa delle nubi.
(You alone knew/that motion is not different from stillness,/that the void is the same as fullness,/that the clearest sky is but/the most diffused in clouds.)
This revealing poem also throws light on Montale’s method of working and approach to poetry when, continuing his dialogue with the quintessential Mosca, he contrasts her understanding of him with the attitudes of those who say that “poetry at its highest/glories the Whole in its flight, and deny/that the tortoise is swifter than the lightning” (“negano che la testuggine/sia più veloce del fulmine“). One looks at the photograph of the poet on the cover of the New Directions edition of Selected Poems* and sees that—suede-skinned, wrinkled, with bright eyes of vision contrasted with a mouth that is ironic—it is indeed the face of an angelic tortoise.
The most difficult task for the writer of an elegy is, it seems, to evoke the figure of the one mourned. In most elegies we are made perhaps to share the grief of the poet, which is generalized, but the character of the person mourned seems abstract or a stereotype, like a marble urn. Milton follows classical models in giving us in Lycidas nothing of the character of Edward King. Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems evoke poignantly the dissolution of Lucy into impersonal nature, without giving us any idea what she was like. Tennyson communicates an almost intolerable grief but makes little more of Hallam than a discreet mixture of King Arthur and Albert, Prince Consort. Only Thomas Hardy effectively puts touches into his poems about his dead first wife which make us see a real woman. We learn that she had whims such as that of packing her luggage and leaving the house, in order to go on a suddenly wished for journey, without informing anyone. Although only lightly sketched, she is a ghost whose warm breath one feels on one’s cheek. Hardy can give the reader strange Douanier Rousseau-like shocks of a naïve reality, as when he addresses her:
—yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown.
In Xenia, Mosca flits and glints from poem to poem.
I began this article with the anecdote about Dylan Thomas and Montale because reading Xenia acted on my mind like a thread pulled which led to the long-forgotten anecdote. At this distance of time, I may indeed have recalled it incorrectly. It may have been Montale or Luigi Berti and not Mosca who told it to me. The point is though that these short poems restore to Mosca the voice and look with which she might have told it. The opening of the first poem brings her back speaking:
Caro piccolo insetto
che chiamavano mosca non so perchè,
stasera quasi al buio
mentre leggevo il Deuteroisaia
sei ricomparsa accanto a me,
ma non avevi occhiali,
non potevi vedermi,
nè potevo io senza quel luccichìo
riconoscere te nella foschia.
(Dear little Mosca, / So they called you, I don’t know why, / this evening almost, in the dark, / while I was reading Deutero-Isaiah / you reappeared beside me, / but without your glasses, / so that you could not see me, / nor could I recognize you in the haze / without that glitter.)
These poems are in no way excessive or rhetorical. Montale records the bare truth: the reflexes of the senses—the nerves—from which the wife who is one flesh with him has been removed; after that the continued communication between them which is of the essence of their relationship. Beyond her presence he knows though that Mosca is changing, altering, altered:
La tua parola così stenta e impru- dente
resta la sola di cui mi appago.
Ma è mutato l’accento, altro il colore.
(Your speech so halting yet unguarded / is the only thing left / with which to content myself. / But the accent is changed and the color is different.)
There are doubts and wonderings about the plane of existence on which lovers meet in a marriage which is that of essential being:
Pietà di sè, infinita pena e angoscia
di chi adora il quaggiù e spera e dispera
di un altro…. (Chi osa dire un altro mondo?)
(Self-pity, infinite pain and anguish / his who worships what’s here below / and hopes and despairs of something else…. [And who dare say another world?])
Another book that throws light on Montale’s poetry is the collection of stories and sketches written for the Corriere della Sera, entitled The Butterfly of Dinard and, like Xenia, translated by G. Singh. In a Preface specially written for this English edition, Montale states that his aim was to write “about those silly and trivial things that are at the same time important: to project the image of a prisoner who is at the same time a free man.”
One of the most revealing of these “trivia” is a story entitled “Sul Limite.” It opens with the description of a taxi accident in which the passenger, who is the narrator, leaves the scene of the disaster, gets onto a train, and arrives at a place where he is greeted by a comrade who was killed in the war. Nicola, as this wartime comrade is called, has collected together pets that the narrator had when he was a child, with which to greet him. His pet guinea pig Mini, Nicola tells him, is being looked after by Giovanna. The narrator’s heart sinks. ” ‘Is she dead?’ I asked. ‘…She’s alive,’ he retorted sharply; ‘though you can call her dead if you like, the same as you and me….’ ”
Montale’s prose style is distinct from his poetry and well within the conventions of the French or Italian feuilleton. Nevertheless this sketch takes us to the center of his poetic world which is the twilight one—between day and night, between death’s and life’s kingdom—of Dante’s Purgatorio. It is the dusk through which men peer and see each other’s features sharply: a world of looming, effulgent minutiae, stony and human things, surrounded by a vastness in which the visible changes into the invisible, the invisible into the visible, I into thou, thou into I.
In the New Directions selection Maurice English translates “Motet XX” (from Le Occasioni) which gives very well this sense of the relation between the definite detail and the undefined vastness. I give it only in translation because the New Directions paperback, which is bilingual, is readily obtainable:
…Well, be it so. The sounding of the horn
answers the bee-swarm in the grove of oaks.
On the sea-shell which takes the evening’s gleam
a painted volcano gaily smokes.
In the lava paperweight, a coin, stuck fast,
gleams also on the table, and holds down a sheaf
of papers. Life, which had seemed so vast,
is a tinier thing than your hand- kerchief.
Montale has been compared to Eliot and it is true that like Eliot he seems a spiritual inhabitant of The Divine Comedy. However, there is this great difference: the voice of Montale speaks like that of a man finding himself situated in a circle which is that of the modern world, and from which he does not seek to escape. He defines this condition and although he would like to get beyond it (believe, for example, in an existence where he will be reunited with Mosca) truth for him consists of not believing what he does not know or experience. He exists within time, which is now.
He does not use Virgil as Dante does, or use Dante as Eliot does, to get outside the circle of the contemporary condition into eternity, even though he measures the living instant against the whole tradition. He is closer to Samuel Beckett than to Eliot or Yeats because although he is conscious of vastness outside his time and space, he uses that knowledge to define his own limited time and space. Like Beckett, he finds freedom in measuring his prison cell and his consciousness as its prisoner. He writes in “Casa sul Mare“:
Tu chiedi se cosí tutto vanisce
in questa poca nebbia di memorie;
se nell’ora che torpe o nel sospiro
del frangente si compie ogni des- tino.
Vorrei dirti che no, che ti s’appres- sa
L’ora che passerai di là dal tempo;
forse solo chi vuole s’infinita,
e questo tu potrai, chissà, non io.
Penso che per i più non sia salvezza,
ma taluno sovverta ogni disegno,
passi il varco, qual volle si ritrovi.
I give Edith Farnsworth’s version of these lines, in Provisional Conclusions, as a fair example of her work:
You ask if all must disappear
in this residual mist of recollec- tion;
if in this torpid hour or in the breath
of every breaker, all destinies must be fulfilled.
I long to tell you not, that close to you
is the hour which you will pass within a sphere
outside of time; it may be that only the one
who wants to, lives forever; you may be he;
I do not know. I think that for the most of us
there is no salvation, but who subverts each
plot, eludes each ambush
is he who finds himself.
Vorrei dirti che no: I would like to be able to reassure you and to dispel your doubts. This is the language of a man who, although he lives on a plane of intense spirituality, nevertheless cannot cheat himself by denying the evidence of argument that seems to him rational and of his senses. He cannot concentrate immortality into a moment of vision or of prayer, or thrust himself upon dogmas that give life the significance of myth come true. Montale belongs, I suppose, to the tradition of anticlerical and agnostic Italians who do not believe in God but nevertheless see heaven and hell as a metaphor for life:
Il vinattiere ti versava un poco
d’Inferno. E tu, atterrita: Devo berlo? Non basta
esserci stati dentro a lento fuoco?
(The wine-waiter poured into your glass / some Inferno. And you, all fright: Must I drink it? / Isn’t it enough to have been in it—burning slowly?)
Like Rilke, he describes faithfully the landscape of suffering, but cannot accept the official theological explanations, or go on a Dante-conducted tour through the universe. He sees the truth but not the Truth, though he, rather sadly, denies denying it. There are glimmerings, rumors, rumblings, and illuminations off-stage in his poetry. But the idea of a world of spiritual certainties is only a memory among others.
The general tenor of this poetry is of a man talking quietly aloud (his voice sometimes taking off from talk to sing the fragment of an aria), resonant to himself and to his readers who overhear him. He has the kind of sensuous intelligence that observes everything and instinctively places it within an order of the mind which does not have to be stated. He is the poet of the sea, and of rocks and plants along the shore, and of desolate places at the mouths of rivers (like that salsified landscape at the mouth of the Po which I once visited).
Sere di gridi, quando l’altalena
oscilla nella pergola d’allora
e un oscuro vapore vela appena
la fissità del mare.
(Evenings of cries, when the swing / rocks in the pergola of long ago, / and a dark vapour slightly / veils the quiet sea.)
One would be inclined to call him a great nature poet, were not the nature he describes so often denatured. In the English language the closest poetry to this is the desolate landscape of Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”
He is not, though, without humor and an affectionate playfulness, like that of one going over the old tunes of the operas which he learned when he was training to be a singer, or of the narrator surrounded by the toys of his childhood in “Sul Limite.”
Montale is, it seems, an amateur painter; and his poetic landscapes remind me of the monochromatic, highly simplified, yet marvelously “placed” landscapes of Giorgio Morandi, a painter whom, I believe, he admires. He has a melancholy which is shared by many. Italian writers and which is in some ways the consequence of having his whole sensibility forced into a minor key to avoid the great major key effects of the Italian language. All the same, in his secrecy, his closeness to the minute particulars, he can, like Blake, make passionate statements. They are likely to blast through even his quieter poems. Here are the impassioned concluding lines of The Sunflower, in Mr. English’s translation:
Bring me within your hands that flower which yearns
up to the ultimate transparent white
where all of life into its essence burns:
Bring me that flower impassioned of the light.
(Portami tu la pianta che conduce dove sorgono bionde transparenze e vapore la vita quale essenza; portami il girasole impazzito di luce.)
June 1, 1972