Montale, Eugenio (12 October 1896 - 12 September 1981)
Eugenio Montale (12 October 1896 - 12 September 1981)
University of Chicago
This entry was revised from West’s Montale entry in DLB 114: Twentieth-Century Italian Poets, First Series.
BOOKS: Ossi di seppia (Turin: Gobetti, 1925; enlarged edition, Turin: Fratelli Ribet, 1928); translated by Antonino Mazza as The Bones of Cuttlefish (Oakville, Ont. & New York: Mosaic, 1983);
La casa dei doganieri e altri versi (Florence: Vallecchi, 1932); translated by Jeremy Reed in The Coastguards House / La casa dei doganieri: Selected Poems[bilingual edition] (Newcastle upon Tyne: Blood-axe Books, 1990);
Le occasioni (Turin: Einaudi, 1939; enlarged, 1940); translated by William Arrowsmith as The Occasions (New York & London: Norton, 1987);
Finisterre (Lugano, Switzerland: Collana di Lugano, 1943) ;
La bufera e altro (Venice: Neri Pozza, 1956); translated by Charles Wright as The Storm and Other Poems (Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1978); translated by Arrowsmith as The Storm and Other Things (New York & London: Norton, 1985);
Farfalla di Dinard (Venice: Neri Pozza, 1956); translated by G. Singh as The Butterfly of Dinard (London: London Magazine, 1970; Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971);
Satura (Verona: Bodoni, 1962); enlarged as Satura: 1962-1970 (Milan: Mondadori, 1971); partially translated by Singh in New Poems: A Selection from “Satura” and “Diario del ’71 e del ’72” (New York: New Directions, 1976);
Accordi e pastelli (Milan: Strenna per Gli Amici: Schei willer, 1962);
Celebrazione di Italo Svevo (Trieste: Circolo della Cultura delle Arti, 1963);
Xenia (San Severino Marche, Italy: Bellabarba, 1966); translated by Kate Hughes in Xenia and Motets[bilingual edition] (London: Agenda Editions, 1977);
Auto da fé (Milan: Saggiatore, 1966);
Il colpevole (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1966);
Letter Italo Svevo (Bari, Italy: De Donato, 1966);
Fuori di casa (Milan & Naples: Ricciardi, 1969);
Diario del ’71 (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1971); enlarged as Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (Milan: Mondadori, 1973); partially translated by Singh in New Poems: A Selection from “Satura” and “Diario del ’71 e del ’72 “;
La poesia non esiste (Milan: All Insegna del Pesce d’Oro/ Scheiwiller,1971) ;
Seconda maniera di Marmeladov (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1971);
Il poeta: Diario (Verona: Bodoni, 1972);
Nel nostro tempo (Milan: Rizzoli, 1972); translated by Alastair Hamilton as Poet in Our Time (London: Boyars, 1976; New York: Urizen, 1976);
Mottetti, with a translation by Lawrence Kart (San Francisco: Grabhorn Hoyem, 1973; London: Agenda, 1977; Milan: Adelphi, 1988);
Trentadue variazioni (Milan: Lucini, 1973);
E ancora possibile la poesia? (Stockholm & Rome: Italica, 1975);
Otto poesie (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1975);
Sulla poesia, edited by Giorgio Zampa (Milan: Mondadori, 1976);
Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1977; enlarged, 1984);
Quaderno di quattro anni (Milan: Mondadori, 1977) ; translated by Singh as It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook (New York: New Directions, 1980);
Montale premio Nobel, by Montale, Giovanni Arpino, and others (Bologna: Boni, 1977);
L’Opera in versi, edited by Rosanna Bettarini and Gianfranco Contini (Turin: Einaudi, 1980 [i.e., 1981]);
Prime alla Scala, edited by Gianfranca Lavezzi (Milan: Mondadori, 1981);
Quaderno genovese, edited by Laura Barile (Milan: Mondadori, 1983);
Il bulldog di legno: Intervista di Giuliano Dego a Eugenio Montale (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1985);
Poesie inedite,12 volumes, continuing (Lugano, Switzerland & New York: Fondazione Schlesinger, 1986-1996);
Diario postumo: Prima parte, 30 poesie, edited by Annalisa Cima (Milan: Mondadori, 1991);
Ventidue prose elvetiche, edited by Fabio Soldini (Milan: Libri Scheiwiller, 1994);
Prose e racconti, edited by Marco Forti and Luisa Previtera (Milan: Mondadori, 1995);
Diario postumo: 66 poesie e altre, edited by Cima (Milan: Mondadori, 1996);
Il secondo mestiere: Arte, musica, società, edited by Giorgio Zampa (Milan: Mondadori, 1996);
Il secondo mestiere: Prose, 1920-1979,2 volumes, edited by Zampa (Milan: Mondadori, 1996);
Ritorna tra gli amici, edited by Cima and Carlo Angelino (Genoa: Il melangolo, 2004).
Editions in English: Poems, translated by Edwin Morgan (Reading, U.K.: University of Reading, 1959);
Poesie/Poems, translated by George Kay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964); abridged as Selected Poems (Harmondsworth, U.K. & Baltimore: Penguin, 1969);
Selected Poems, translated by Ben Belitt and others (New York: New Directions, 1966);
Provisional Conclusions: A Selection, translated by Edith Farnsworth (Chicago: Regnery, 1970);
Selected Essays, translated by G. Singh (Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1978);
The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays, translated and edited by Jonathan Galassi (New York: Ecco, 1982);
Otherwise: Last and First Poems, translated by Galassi (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1984);
Mottetti: Poems of love: The Motets if Eugenio Montale, translated by Dana Gioia (St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1990);
Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927, translated by William Arrowsmith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992);
Collected Poems, 1920-1954, translated by Galassi (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998; revised, 2000);
Posthumous Diary / Diario postumo, translated by Galassi (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2001);
Selected Poems, translated by Galassi, Charles Wright, and David Young, edited by Young (Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 2004).
TRANSLATIONS: John Steinbeck, La battaflia (Milan: Bompiani, 1940);
Narratori spagnoli, edited by Carlo Bo (Milan: Bompiani, 1941);
Teatro elisabettiano, edited by Alfredo Obertello (Milan: Bompiani, 1941);
Dorothy Parker, Il mio mondo è qui (Milan: Bompiani, 1941);
Teatro spagnolo, edited by Elio Vittorini (Milan: Bompiani, 1941);
Americana, edited by Vittorini (Milan: Bompiani, 1942);
Herman Melville, La storia di Billy Budd (Milan: Bompiani, 1942);
Eugene O’Neill, Strano interludio (Rome: Teatro dell Università, 1943);
Poeti antichi e moderni tradotti dai lirici nuovi, edited by Luciano Anceschi and Domenico Porzio (Milan: Balcone, 1945) ;
Steinbeck, Al dio sconosciuto (Milan: Mondadori, 1946);
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Il volto di pietra (Milan: Bompiani, 1947) ;
Quaderno di traduzioni (Milan: Meridiana, 1948);
William Shakespeare, Amleto, principe di Danimarca (Milan: Cederna, 1949);
Shakespeare, Teatro, edited by Mario Praz (Florence: Sansoni, 1949);
Miguel de Cervantes, Il cordovana (Milan: Suvini-Zerboni, 1949);
Omar De Carlo, Proserpina e lo straniero (Milan: Ricordi, 1952);
Iconografia italiana di Ezra Pound, edited by Vanni Scheiwiller (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1956);
Angus Wilson, La cicuta e dopo (Milan: Garzanti, 1956);
Teatro francese del Grande Secolo, edited by Giovanni Macchia (Turin: ERI, 1960);
Manuel de Falla, Atlantida (Milan: Ricordi, 1961);
William Henry Hudson, La vita della foresta, edited by Maria Antonietta Grignani (Turin: Einaudi, 1987).
Eugenio Montale, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975, is regarded as one of the dominant voices of modernism, not only within the context of Italian letters but also internationally. His poetry, from the first publications in the 1920s to his complete works (L’Opera in versi) that appeared in 1981, is a touchstone for all those who seek to understand the potential and achievement of twentieth-century verse. He is one of the strongest voices of Italian poetry; however, his work is characterized by understatement, existential and philosophical diffidence, and a quiet dedication to his craft rather than a declaration of the hegemony of art or an assertion of unassailable truths.
The power of Montale’s verse lies, somewhat paradoxically, in its continual declaration of the powerlessness of either art or the human race ever to know itself fully. He believed, nonetheless, in the necessity of seeking knowledge, as well as the importance of the ethical dimension in both art and life, a dimension called simply “decenza quotidiana” (daily decency) in “Visits a Fadin” (Visits to Fadin), a prose poem in La bufera e altro (1956; translated as The Storm and Other Poems, 1978). A strict separation between the immanent and the transcendent was unacceptable to Montale. Instead, he emphasized their inevitable oneness, as well as the equally inevitable contradictions that result.
Montale completely absorbed the Italian lyric tradition, from Dante to Petrarch to Giacomo Leopardi and including Montale’s immediate precursors: the crepuscolari (twilight poets) and futurists. His poetry further reveals the extraordinary importance of certain antimodels, especially Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benedetto Croce, whose art and philosophy, respectively, dominated Montale’s formative years. Although, like T. S. Eliot–to whom his work has often been compared–Montale can be seen ultimately as a philosophical poet, he himself refused this label, insisting that he sought not to promote ideas but rather to seek knowledge, however partial, of individual as well as collective truths about the human condition. He was, then, a metaphysical poet, whose art probes and questions both personal and collective historical experience as well as the eternal questions of the meaning of existence, the role of love, and the place of humankind.
Montale was always reticent about the details of his personal life. He was born on 12 October 1896 in Genoa to Domenico Montale (a manufacturer of marine products) and Giuseppina Ricci Montale. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Genoa and in the Cinque Terre, a rugged coastal area south of the city, where his family had a summer residence. That Ligurian coast, with its then unspoiled beauty, and the Mediterranean Sea spreading out beneath the rocky cliffs figure prominently in his first collection of poetry, Ossi di seppia (1925; translated as The Bones of Cuttlefish,1983). Writing many years later of the spiritual essence of landscape, he noted in the prose poem “Dov’era il tennis” (Where The Tennis Court Was; in La bufera e altro) that each individual has “il suo paesaggio, immutabile” (his own immutable landscape), which is always internalized: “é curioso the l’ordine fisico sia cosi lento a filtrare in not e poi cosi impossibile a scancellarsi” (it is curious how the physical order is so slow in filtering into us and then so impossible to erase). From the beginning of his career Montale endowed the physical with a metaphysical dimension. The sea and shores of the region of Liguria became emblematic of an abstract rather than concrete reality. His goal is never merely to describe but rather to seek out the correlations between landscapes and certain emotions and states of mind. For example, in the suite of poems titled “Mediterraneo,” in Ossi di seppia, the sea is portrayed as a “father” whose natural power and limitless mutability are in contrast to the “son’s” self-conscious entrapment in words and in the predestined, inevitable boundaries of human space and time.
In 1915 Montale decided to dedicate himself to the study of bel canto (a style of operatic singing), but his musical career was cut short by the death of his maestro, Ernesto Sivori, in 1916. In a fictionalized autobiographical story, “Nella chiave di ‘fa” (In the Key of “F”), in the collection of prose pieces Farfalla di Dinard (1956; translated as The Butterfly of Dinard, 1970), Montale recounts his experience with Sivori. The young aspirant was especially impressed by his teacher’s insistence that a successful singer needs, even more than a good voice, a certain “fire,” which Montale was never sure he possessed. Upon the death of Sivori, he wrote that “l’incanto, se non il canto” (the magic, if not song itself) was finished for him. Nonetheless, music remained of paramount importance to Montale, permeating both his art and life. Some of his first poems were in fact attempts at imitating the music of Claude Debussy, and Montale’s love for and knowledge of opera were legendary. When in the 1950s he was hired as music critic for the Milanese newspaper Corriere d’Informazione, he assiduously attended opening nights at La Scala, scarcely missing a performance. His reviews of those performances as well as other pieces dedicated to musical subjects are collected in Prime alla Scala (1981, Opening Nights at La Scala), a source of information for those interested in better understanding the role played by music in Montale’s daily life.
Beyond his personal attachment to music, which led him to entertain close friends by giving occasional private concerts in his rich baritone, and beyond his professional commitment as a critic, music, within Montale’s poetry, is not only incidental or thematic but functions as a constitutive element of his poetics and subsequent verse. In his “Intenzioni (Intervista immaginaria)” (Intentions [Imaginary Interview]), first published in 1946 and included in Sulla poesia (1976, On Poetry), the poet describes the importance of his early musical training, which through experience rather than intuition led him to see the “fondamentale unit à delle varie arti” (fundamental unity of the diverse arts). He further writes that he came to understand that “esiste un problema d’impostazione anche fuori del canto, in ogni opera umana” (there exists a problem of pitch even outside of singing, in every human enterprise) and that, when he wrote the poems that formed his first book, he obeyed “un bisogno di espressione musicale” (a need for musical expression), engaging in a search that was “istintiva, non programmatica” (instinctual and unprogrammatic). The “voice” he sought was neither mellifluous nor melodic; rather, he wished to act upon “l’eloquenza della nostra vecchia lingua aulica” (the eloquence of our old noble language) by “torcere it callo” (twisting its neck), even “a rischio di una contraeloquenza” (at the risk of a counter-eloquence). Many years later, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, E ancora possibile la poesia? (1975, Is Poetry Still Possible?), Montale again emphasized what for him is the indissoluble tie between music and poetry:
Se considero la poesia come un oggetto ritengo ch’essa sia nata dalla necessity di aggiungere un suono vocale (parola) al martellamento delle prime musiche tribali. Solo molto piu tardi parola e musica poterono scriversi in qualche modo e differenziarsi. Appare la poesia scritta, ma la comune parentela con la musica si fa sentire.
(If I consider poetry as an object I think that it was born from the necessity of joining a vocal sound [the word] to the beat of the first tribal music. Only much later could word and music be written in some way and thus be differentiated. Written poetry appears, but its common parentage with music is still felt.)
The sonorities of poetry—its aural potentialities—Were for Montale the salient characteristic of an art that is also profoundly allied to the other arts. He also insisted throughout his career on the importance of prose to poetic invention, writing in “Intenzioni” that “natural mente il grande semenzaio d’ogni trovata poetica é nel campo della prosa” (naturally the great seedbed of every poetic intention is in the field of prose), an assertion that might first appear to counter his emphasis on the constitutive role of music in poetic creation and elaboration. However, the “musical, instinctual, and unprogrammatic” origins of Montale’s verse, and the resultant tonalities, remain a major source of its power.
After the early training in bel canto, Montale began to experiment in verse with futurist and symbolist models. The first poem described by him as “tout entier à sa proie attache,” a poem that hit its mark beyond imitation or exercise, was the 1916 composition “Meriggiare” (To Noon), later included in his first collection. In it one sees many of the thematic and formal components that inform much of his subsequent poetry. The observing presence, “pallido e assorto” (pale and intent), is depersonalized through the consistent use of infinitives (”to listen”; “to observe”; “to feel”), which creates a static, suspended, meditative space from which a kind of detached consciousness registers the details of the natural world around it. That world is harsh and dry under the noonday sun, filled with the chattering of blackbirds, the rustling of snakes, the endless circling of red ants, and the tremulous creaking of cicadas. From near the scorching garden wall, the observer can make out the far-off undulations of the sea. The indifference and pitilessness of nature—a Leopardian theme carried over into much of Montale’s early verse—are magisterially re-created in the first three stanzas. In the fourth and final stanza, the observer’s emotional reaction is recorded: “sentire con triste meraviglia / com’è tutta lavita e it suo travaglio / in questo seguitare una muraglia / the ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia” (to feel with sad amazement / how all of life and its anguish is / in this following along a wall / that is edged with sharp glass shards).
The movement from the physical world to the spiritual and mental interiority of the speaker became a mainstay of Montale’s early verse. The garden wall (”muro d’orto”) announces two lexical leitmotifs: the garden, most often called “orto” (vegetable garden) rather than the more lush decorative “giardino” of tradition; and the wall. Both motifs in later poems become emblems of enclosure, imprisonment, and predestination. In contrast, the sea is a liberating presence representing constant change, potency, and existential freedom. “Meriggiare” was an accomplished debut for the twenty-year-old poet. His thematic and stylistic pitch was further developed and enriched, but not drastically departed from, through all the poems included in the collection Ossi di seppia.
In 1917 war intervened, and from 1917 to 1919 Montale served as a soldier, mostly in the Trentino region and in and around Genoa. Unlike his contemporary Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose early poetry was heavily conditioned by his wartime experiences, Montale did not incorporate many direct personal or collective references to those difficult times into his subsequent poetry. There is no doubt, however, that the war was a watershed for all Italian intellectuals and artists, for some of whom the destruction of the old order was cause for rejoicing, and for others a cause for increased disorientation and somber reflection on what the future might bring. Already assailed by a sense of perennial maladjustment—a metaphysical rather than simply personal or social condition—Montale did not rush headlong and joyfully into the unknown future but instead kept his distance from the many “isms” of the avant-garde, who proclaimed sure victory for newness and modernity.
After the war Montale returned to his family home and continued to frequent the literary circles of Genoa and Turin, where he had already begun to develop friendships. He was an autodidact (he never studied for a university degree), immersing himself in readings of philosophy, Italian classics, and an eclectic selection of foreign writers. In 1922 he met the antifascist intellectual Piero Gobetti, who was one of the most important influences on the diffident young poet and who published Ossi di seppia in 1925. Gobetti’s open anti-D’Annunzianism as well as his informed interest in the increasingly potent intellectual hegemony of Crocean idealism fed strongly into Montale’s own development.
As Jared Becker argued, much of Montale’s overall production can be seen as a fundamental and continuous coming to terms with these two powerful presences in twentieth-century Italian culture: D’Annunzio’s vitalism, his Nietzschean will to power and embrace of the concept of the “superman,” and his political activism were all profoundly antithetical to Montale, while Crocean idealism, which emphasized the separation of art from practical activity and privileged the aesthetic over the political or social, appealed to Montale’s basic disbelief in the ability of humankind to counter the inexorable and humanly indifferent forces that condition experience. Many years later Montale acknowledged the necessity for any poet of his generation of “passing through” D’Annunzio, just as he distanced himself from many aspects of Crocean thought. Nonetheless, these two figures loomed large in his early formation.
The publication of Ossi di seppia established Montale as a poet worthy of serious critical attention. The attention given Montale by renowned and respected critics such as Gianfranco Contini, Alfredo Gargiulo, and, later, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo and Glauco Cambon, among many others in Italy and elsewhere, has not abated. The first collection was not universally acclaimed, but for the most part, contemporary critics praised it as an event of lasting importance that presented an authentically new voice. The young poet’s muted yet powerful “counter-eloquence” and what Gargiulo, in his introduction to the expanded second edition (1928), called a “corrosione critica dell’esistenza” (scathing critical corrosion of existence) met with widespread approval, especially at that moment in Italian culture, when fascist bombast proliferated and the spiritual malaise of many was being smothered by declarations of certainty, prosperity, and optimism.
Montale once wrote in a letter to his friend P. Gadda Conti (subsequently published in the journal Letteratura in 1966) that his essential poetic motifs (and motives: both meanings are contained in the original motivi) were three: “paesaggio” (landscape); “amore” (love); and “evasione” (escape). All three are prominently present in Ossi di seppia. The harsh terrain of the Ligurian coast and the Mediterranean below; the Proustian “intermittences of the heart” created by beloveds, whom Montale called “fantasmi the frequentano, le varie poesie” (ghosts who frequent the various poems); and the constant search for an escape from “la catena ferrea della necessita” (the iron chain of necessity), what he also called “il miracolo laico” (the lay miracle)—all these inform the poems of Ossi di seppia. There is a compelling directness to the poetic voice, which often speaks in the imperative to an unnamed interlocutor, the “tu,” or intimate “you,” that soon becomes a salient characteristic of Montale’s poetry. Many opening lines call out with strong immediacy: “Ascoltami” (Listen to me); “Non chiederci la parola” (Don’t ask of us the word); “Portami il girasole” (Bring me the sun-flower); “Arremba su la strinata proda” (Board the cardboard ships).
After the success of his first published collection of verse, Montale wished to escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of Genoa. He had become better known among critics and writers not only with the appearance of Ossi di seppia but also with his “Omaggio a Italo Svevo” (Homage to Italo Svevo), which was published in the journal L’Esame in 1925 and aroused wide-spread interest in the hitherto ignored Triestine. Finally, in 1927, Montale was offered a position as a copywriter for Bemporad Casa Editrice in Florence, where he lived and worked for more than a decade. In 1929 he became director of the Vieusseux Research Library, a distinguished institution that drew many critics and writers. The poet’s Florentine years were filled with journalistic and other literary activities. He often wrote for Solaria, a prominent literary journal, and frequented two cafés—the Giubbe Rosse and the Antico Fattore— that functioned as meeting places for primarily antifascist artists, writers, and intellectuals. In 1931 the Antico Fattore established a literary prize to be awarded by the nonwriters of the group; Montale won it for his “La casa dei doganieri” (The Customs House), subsequently published in the small collection La casa dei doganieri e altri versi (1932, The Customs House and Other Verses). In “Intenzioni” Montale wrote of his years in Florence:
Fino a trent’anni non avevo conosciuto quasi nessuno, ora vedevo anche troppa gente, ma la mia solitudine non era minore di quella del tempo degli Ossi di seppia. Cercai di vivere a Firenze col distacco di uno straniero, di un Browning; ma non avevo fatto i conti coi lanzi della podesteria feudale da cui dipendevo.
(Until I was thirty I had scarcely known anyone; now I actually saw too many people, but my solitude was not less than that of the period of Ossi di seppia. I tried to live in Florence with the detachment of a foreigner, of a Browning; but I had not taken into account the “mercenaries” of the feudal regime on which I depended.)
The poet is certainly referring to his experience with the fascist government that relieved him of his post as director of the Vieusseux in 1938 because he was not a party member. A fictionalized version of this episode is recounted in Il co peoole (The Guilty One), a story in Farfalla di Dinard that was separately published in 1966.
In spite of his solitary existence, Montale had two encounters during his Florentine period that were of lasting importance in both his life and art. Drusilla Tanzi, then the wife of the art critic Matteo Marangoni, became Montale’s lifelong companion and, shortly before her death in 1963, his wife; and Irma Brandeis, an American Dante scholar, became his “Beatrice,” the source of inspiration for his poetic beloved, called Clizia. When Brandeis returned permanently to America, at least in part because of the highly inhospitable environment in Europe for Jews, Montale contemplated following her there and made some attempts to secure a teaching post at Smith College and the University of Chicago, but he abandoned these plans and remained in Italy for the rest of his life. These women–and many others-appear frequently in his verse as persistent “ghosts” or tenacious symbols of strength. Tanzi, known in life as “Mosca,” or “fly,” because of her enormous bespectacled eyes, is commemorated in the series of poems called Xenia, included in Satura (1962, Miscellany) and separately published in 1966, while Clizia is already present, although unnamed, in some of the love poems of Le occasioni (1939; translated as The Occasions,1987) and emerges as a named presence in La bufera e altro, where she is literally an angel of transcendental power and clear-sightedness. Some of Montale’s latest poems, written on the eve of his death, are addressed to her. These women, immortalized in Montale’s poetry, served him well: Tanzi materially supported and encouraged the professionally unsettled poet, and Brandeis was one of the first to translate and speak of his work in America (in the Quarterly Review of Literature, 1962).
The second major collection of Montale’s poetry, Le occasioni, includes the poems of the 1952 volume and many new poems. As in the case of Ossi di seppia, where the title is indicative of the marine ambience informing the verse as well as of its honed-down, unrhetorical, plain, and “bleached” language, the second title is “pregnante di intelligenza autocritica” (pregnant with autocritical intelligence), according to Contini. In Italian, “occasions” signify not just occurrences or casual events but also rare moments of illumination and epiphany, literally “opportunities” that the poet then re-creates in brief lyrical flashes. The poems of this period (1928-1940) are generally thought of as Montale’s most hermetic, both in terms of their extreme thematic privacy and their formal compression. Not all contemporary critics were pleased with what Guido Almansi and Bruce Merry called (in the title of their study) the “private language of poetry,” which took precedence in this phase of Montale’s career. The poet himself insisted that he never embraced hermeticism as a program or a school, that he never willfully sought obscurity. Rather, in “Intenzioni,” he states that he continued his unprogrammatic “lotta per scavare un’altra dimensione nel nostro pesante linguaggio polisillabico, the mi pareva rifiutarsi a un’esperienza come la mia” (battle to dig out another dimension from our heavy polysyllabic language, which seemed to me to refuse an experience like mine). Nonetheless, Montale was accused of obscurantism by more than one critic, and he has continued to be rather inaccurately labeled a member of the hermetic school, along with Ungaretti, Salvatore Quasimodo, and others for whom this tag is more appropriate.
The central series of the collection–Mottetti (Motets, translated and separately published in 1973)–is made up of twenty short love poems written to and of a beloved woman who is now absent from the speaker’s life. Montale explained years later that in fact there were several diverse sources of inspiration for the various lyrics, but that nonetheless the section has the unity of a “romanzetto autobiografico” (autobiographical novelette). The importance of Dante and of “stilnovism” (the sweet new style) is evident; in “Intenzioni” Montale writes of “la Selvaggia o la Mandetta o la Delia (la chiami come vuole) dei Mottetti” (the Selvaggia or the Mandetta or the Delia [call her what you will] of the Mottetti), thus alluding, with the first two names, to the emblematic names of the beloved ladies of Cino da Pistoia and Guido Cavalcanti, both typically included with Dante as poets of the stilnovistic school. In a note to the poem “Iride” (Iris), in La bufera e altro, Montale identifies the lady of the Mottetti with Clizia, a name he explicitly connects to a Dantesque source in his epigraph to “La primavera hitleriana” (Hitler Spring), another poem in La bufera e altro. The epigraph–“Né quella ch’a veder 1o sol sigira” (Nor she who turns to see the sun)–is a line attributed, although with some doubt, to a poem by Dante in which Clizia is the mythic lady enamored of Apollo and transformed by the sun god into a sunflower. The importance of the literary rather than actual identity of the beloved is underscored by Montale in his essay on Dante (included in Sulla poesia) when he writes of the feminine presences in Dante’s work as stylistic adventures. Similarly, the many women of Montale’s poetry, from Clizia to the later Volpe (Vixen) and Annetta-Arietta, all live their authentic lives as poetry, no matter what the actual autobiographical details may be.
After his dismissal from the Vieusseux, Montale lived on translations and journalistic writing, and he continued to write poetry. During the dark years of World War II he led a relatively quiet, if troubled, existence in Florence, for although he was not an active participant in the armed struggle against Fascism, he was by no means indifferent to the events affecting not only Italy but the whole world. A short story titled La poesia non esiste (Poetry Does Not Exist), later included in Farfalla di Dinard and separately published in 1971, was originally published in the Milanese newspaper Corriere della Sera in 1946. Set in the winter of 1944, it recounts an evening in the home of the autobiographical first-person narrator, who has opened his doors to those Italians being sought by the Germans for their partisan activities. The setting serves as a frame to the dialogue that ensues between the host and a young German soldier; the immediate contingencies of a threatening reality are strongly evoked while the conversation speaks of more literary and abstract concerns–the life of poetry–ostensibly remote from and yet deeply related to the political and social upheavals of the war. The German, whose unannounced arrival throws the household into a crisis of fear, turns out to have come for the sole purpose of bringing the host some poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, promised several years back in the course of their brief correspondence but never delivered until this most inopportune moment. As they settle in over a glass of wine–the host sweating all the while for fear that his hidden guests will be discovered–the German begins to expostulate on Western literary culture, finally reaching the summary conclusion that “poetry does not exist.” Upon the soldier’s departure, the narrator goes into a darkened room where the partisans have been hiding to give them the all-clear signal. One of them asks what the German had to say, and the narrator answers, “dice the la poesia non esiste” (he says that poetry does not exist). The response is an “ah,” accompanied by the snores of another partisan, who is sleeping “in un lettuccio strettissimo” (in a very narrow old bed).
This little story reveals Montale’s belief in the importance of daily decency. There are no grand gestures, no clearly defined heroes or villains. The narrator is neither a hero nor a coward but rather a man capable of seeing the limitations of both life and art, action and contemplation. The self-portrait that emerges from this story, told with a light touch and no small dose of irony, as is true of most of Montale’s prose, is consonant with the poet’s self-description as expressed in “Intenzioni”: “Ho vissuto il mio tempo col minimum di vigliaccheria ch’era consentito alle mie deboli forze, ma c’é chi ha fatto di più, molto di più, anche se non ha pubblicato libri” (I have lived my time with the minimum of cowardice that was allowed to my weak powers, but there are those who did more, much more, even if they did not publish books). Montale was severely criticized for his lack of engagement and his presumed “ivory-towerism” both during the war and after, yet it is clear that such sweeping judgment is not only too easy but ultimately highly unfair. His contribution to culture, although never explicitly or strongly political in nature, was nonetheless far from detached from the deeper ethical and metaphysical questions that ideally condition political action; and his quiet commitment to certain principles of fairness, justice, and decency cannot be dismissed as incidental or inferior to more ostentatious shows of social and political concern for the destiny of humankind.
In 1943 Montale published a short collection of verse titled Finisterre (Land’s End), smuggled out of Italy by Contini and printed in Switzerland. The volume was unpublishable in Italy, prefaced as it was by an epigraph from Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné that made clear the poet’s appraisal of the crumbling Fascist regime: “Les princes n’ont point d’yeux pour voir ces grands merveilles; leur mains ne servent plus qu’à nous persé cuter” (The princes have no eyes with which to see these great marvels; their hands now serve only to persecute us). Montale was active as a translator during this period, and some of his versions of the works of such poets as Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and William Shakespeare are available in Quaderno di traduzioni (Translation Notebook), published in 1948. A translation of William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions (1904) done by Montale in the mid 1940s and retrieved by him from the 1966 Florentine flood but never published, Was acquired along with other autograph materials of the poet by the University of Pavia and finally printed in 1987, edited by Maria Antonietta Grignani.
During the mid 1940s Montale was approaching fifty years of age and was still without a fixed post or means of earning a stable living. As a hobby he took up painting; he used wine, coffee grounds, toothpaste, and cigarette ashes to blend his colors, averse as always to more “noble” raw materials. (This dislike for expensive tools extended to his writing as well; rather than use good paper, he would write many of his poems on bus tickets and candy wrappers, only to find that they disappeared into the garbage.) Two of his whimsical watercolors serve as covers to his prose collections Farfalla di Dinard and Fuori di casa (1969, Away From Home), the latter a series of travel sketches recounting his meetings with certain well-known personages and his impressions of foreign lands. But, as amusing as painting was, Montale needed a job; finally, in 1946, he was hired by Corriere della Sera as a part-time theater critic.
Montale’s Milanese period, which lasted until the end of his life, began in 1948 when he was taken on as a full-time contributor to the Corriere della Sera. According to a well-known anecdote, the poet happened to be in the chief editor’s office one day when notice of Mahatma Gandhi’s death was received. The editor needed a cover story immediately, and Montale complied, supposedly sitting down then and there and pounding out a piece so pleasing to the boss that he was hired on the spot. He wrote many of the prose pieces now included in Farfalla di Dinard as stories for the terza pagina, or cultural page, of the newspaper; he also did most of his traveling during this period on various assignments for the paper, including his ninety-hour sole visit to the United States (to New York City), recounted in Fuori di casa. His association with the news paper continued actively well into the 1960s. In 1955 he became the music critic, and for the next twelve years he is reputed never to have missed an opening night at La Scala. On official documents Montale listed his occupation as “giornalista” (journalist), and although he often denigrated that trade, calling it a “lucha por los garbanzos” (a grind for grub), he, in fact, spoke equally often of the importance of constant, disciplined writing to the development of his poetry, as well as the conditioning effect of prose creation on his lyric output.
In 1956 Montale published his third major collection of verse, La bufera e altro, which includes the earlier Finisterre as its opening section. La bufera e altro includes some of the most powerful and accomplished poems of Montale’s entire production, from the title poem to “Gli orecchini” (The Earrings), to the “Silvae” series at the center of the collection and the two openly autobiographical poems, “Piccolo testamento” (Little Testament) and “II sogno del prigioniero” (The Prisoner’s Dream), that form the final section, “Conclusioni provvisorie” (Provisional Conclusions). Clizia is squarely at the heart of the volume; she is, in the poet’s own words in “Intenzioni,” more than a woman, transformed now into an “angelo” (angel) or a “procellaria” (stormy petrel), a messenger of hope and strength from beyond the strife of the war-torn world below. She is good incarnated, and Montale emphasizes the importance of her materialized and concrete being that is best recognized by “l’uomo the meglio conosce le affinite the legano Dio alle creature incarnate, non già lo sciocco spiritualista o it rigido e astratto monofisita” (those who know best the affinities that tie God to incarnate beings, not by the silly spiritualist or the rigid and abstract Monophysite). One of the poems of the “Silvae” series, “Iride,” is pointed to by the poet himself as “terribilmente in chiave” (terribly essential) to an understanding of Clizia’s salvific role as one who “sconta per tutti” (expiates for everyone). Montale writes that the poem was translated from a dream and is one of the few that might legitimately be called “obscure,” given its oneiric origins. The beloved Clizia, called Iride in this poem, returns to earth in order to carry on her work, which is a form of divine work; she is so radically transformed as to be herself no longer: “Ma se ritorni non sei tu, é mutata / la tua storia terrena” (But if you return you are not you, your earthly history is transformed). In the midst of the terrible “bufera,” or storm of war and its aftermath, Clizia provides a rare vision of strength, moral direction, and hope.
La bufera e altro is by no means restricted to poems of and to Clizia, however. There is the earthy feminine figure called Volpe, sung about in the series of “Madrigali privati” (Private Madrigals) immediately following the “Silvae”; there are also poems to the poet’s mother, father, and other beloved dead who haunt him more and more assiduously. The thematic variety is matched by stylistic virtuosity as Montale experiments with the sonnet form, the madrigal, and the prose poem, which points up the deep connection between prose and poetry that emerges more vividly in his collections that follow. From the relative obscurity of Finisterre to the fairly open autobiographical thrust of the final “Conclusioni provvisorie,” this collection embodies an intense and rich period of Montale’s creative life. If the public had nothing but the poems of La bufera e altro, readers would still be able to count Montale as one of the great poets of this century.
The decades after the publication of La bufera e altro were filled with public recognition of Montale’s work. In 1961 he was awarded honorary degrees from the Universities of Rome, Milan, and Cambridge; in 1967 he was named Senator for Life (an honorific membership in the Italian Senate); and in 1975 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet, as the 1960s progressed (and following his wife’s death in 1963), he became less and less involved in the social and literary circles of Milanese society in which he had formerly moved.
Italian culture and society both had been radically transformed in the postwar years, and poets were following new directions and seeking forms of expression totally unrelated to Montale’s generation. The so-called neo-avant-garde sought to sweep away ancient and more recent tradition alike, and Montale was in danger of becoming a sort of living relic. The surprise was enormous, therefore, when he published a hefty collection of new verse in 1971 under the title of Satura: 1962-1970 (partially translated in New Poems, 1976), and surprise modulated into something like astonishment when this work was followed by others, including Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (Diary of ’71 and ’72) in 1973 and Quaderno di quattro anni (Notebook of Four Years) in 1977 (translated as It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook, 1980). Thus began the “second season” of Montale. Nor, as it turns out, was it the end of the poet’s productivity: the critical edition of his complete works (L’Opera in versi), edited by Contini and Rosanna Bettarini and published by Einaudi in 1980, includes another entirely new collection, “Altri versi” (Other Verses); and many poems, left in the care of Annalisa Cima, herself a poet and the close friend and inspiration of Montale in his final years, were published in small, elegant editions of six poems each (in the series Poesie inedite[Unedited Poems], 1986-1996), at the poet’s express wish. The “unprolific” poet whose production seemed destined to consist of three collections was a writer of great productivity in his old age; more significantly, the Montale of the post-La bufera e altro years is “new,” and the later poetry held surprises for those who thought they knew Montale’s range and pitch.
Returning to the musical analogy with which he sought to explain the beginnings of his career in poetry, Montale stated in a 1973 interview with Cima that he wished to “suonare il pianoforte in un’altra maniera, più discreta, pi silenziosa” (play the piano in another manner, more discreet, more silent). He further commented that “i primitre libri sono scritti in frac, gli altri in pigiama, o diciamo in abito da passeggio” (the first three books are written in tails [a tuxedo], the others in pajamas, or let’s say in afternoon clothes) and “sono cambiati l’accento, la voce, l’intonazione” (the accent, voice, and intonation are changed). The voice is indeed changed, singing in a lower and much less lyrical register. The post-La bufera e altro poems are more prosaic, both in theme and style, and more allied to everyday speech and current events. Yet, Montale retains themes, motifs, and characters from his earlier verse. The result is a layering effect as the “high” period is incorporated into the new “low” period. Many of the late poems are satirical and epigrammatic, ironic self-portraits, or comic and even sardonic commentaries on contemporary society. The people who were part of the poet’s daily existence-Mosca Tanzi; his faithful housekeeper, Gina; old friends such as the editor Bobi Bazlen; and various unnamed members of the intimate domestic circle-all populate the poems, as real presences in his life, but there are also “ghosts” whose absence through death has paradoxically intensified their visitations, which occurred often during Montale’s sleepless nights. Another beloved, Annetta-Arletta, whose presence had been submerged and barely hinted at in earlier poems, emerges as one of the most tenacious of Montale’s ghosts. The titles of these late collections are indicative of their eclectic and occasional nature: Satura, which according to Montale himself means “miscellany”; Diario (Diary); and Quaderno (Notebook).
Yet, the books are far from casually thrown together; the poet assiduously noted the date of composition of each poem. They are ordered not chronologically but by a self-conscious structuring principle: the poems are intended to be read in relation to each other, in order that thematic and stylistic echoes reverberate. Montale commented in a 1971 radio interview that “sarebbe un errore leggere una sola poesia e cercare di anatomizzarla, perché c’è sempre un richiamo da un suono all’altro, non solo, ma anche da una poesia all’altra” (it would be a mistake to read one poem only and to seek to dissect it, because there is always a crossreference from one sound to another, not only internally, but also from one poem to another). The ostensible “artlessness” of casual verse is belied by a careful reading of these artfully constructed volumes.
There are thematic centers to which Montale returns time and again in these late poems. Among the most evident are poetry in general and his own past poetry in particular; the meaning of individual, social, and transcendental experience; and the relation between art and politics or between aesthetics and ideology. True to his early conviction that artistic and political spheres should remain separate (a conviction partly conditioned by Crocean thought), and true to his refusal to privilege the poet’s role (a refusal strongly conditioned by his early anti-D’Annunzianism), Montale adamantly continues to favor the eccentric (in its etymological sense of that which is not “in the center”) and the unknowable qualities of human experience. Love matters not because it is a source of ultimate clarity or escape from the vicissitudes of individual solitude, but because it is one of the ways by which we recognize most strongly the uniqueness and mystery of ourselves and others. Poetry matters because, as Montale commented in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it is “una entità di cuis is a assai poco” (an entity about which we know quite little). Its tenacious survival through the social, cultural, and spiritual upheavals of human history, its “resistenza,” or obdurate endurance, is, for Montale, its ultimate meaning and worth. Perhaps beyond particular meanings of a thematic or ideological nature, then, his own last outpouring of poetry should be read as the old poet’s own “endurance” in art.
Eugenio Montale died on 12 September 1981, exactly a month before his eighty-fifth birthday. His long life was relatively uneventful on the surface, but his poetry is deeply reflective of the eventfulness and complexity of his inner life where he absorbed the trials, the lessons, and the continuing search for answers that characterize human experience. His is undeniably a modern voice, attuned to the times in which he lived and wrote, but it is also a voice with a timeless pitch, expressing the transcendent music of poetry. Unable to offer concrete solutions to existential and spiritual dilemmas, Montale’s poetry nonetheless retains an abiding power in its formal beauty, its incisive and intelligent consciousness and conscience, and its commitment to the importance of the individual and to that which is unrepeatable in life and in art.
Lettere a Salvatore Quasimodo, edited by Sebastiano Grasso (Milan: Bompiani, 1981),
Il carteggio Einaudi-Montale per “Le occasioni,” (1938-39), edited by Carla Sacchi (Turin: Einaudi, 1988);
Lettere e minute: 1932-1938, by Montale and Sandro Penna, edited by Roberto Deidier (Milan: Archinto, 1995),
Lettere e poesie a Bianca e Francesco Messina 1923-1925, edited by Laura Barile (Milan: Libri Scheiwiller, 1995);
Dear Lucy: Cinque lettere di Eugenio Montale, edited by Giuseppe Marcenaro (Alpignano: Tallone editore tipografo, 1996);
Eusebio e Trabucco: Carteggio di Eugenio Montale e Gianfranco Contini, edited by Dante Isella (Milan: Adelphi, 1997);
Giorni di libeccio: Lettere ad Angelo Barile 1920-1957, edited by Domenico Astengo and Giampiero Costa (Milan: Archinto, 2002);
Le sono grato: Lettere di Eugenio Montale e Angelo Marchese, edited by Stefano Verdino (Genoa: San Marco dei Giustiniani, 2002);
Caro maestro e amico: Carteggio con Valéry Larbaud: 1926-1937, edited by Marco Sonzogni (Milan: Archinto, 2003);
Lettere a Clizia, edited by Rosanna Bettarini, Gloria Manghetti, and Franco Zabagli (Milan: Mondadori, 2006).
Annalisa Cima, Incontro Montale (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1973);
Cima, “Le reazioni di Montale,” in Eugenio Montale: Profilo di un autore, edited by Cima and Cesare Segre (Milan: Rizzoli, 1977), pp. 192–201;
Enzo Biagi, Dicono di lei (Milan: Rizzoli, 1978),
Lorenzo Greco, ed., Montale commenta Montale (Parma: Pratiche, 1980);
Achille Millo, Conversazioni con Montale e Pasolini (Rome: Edizioni dell’Oleandro, 1996);
L’arte di leggere: Una conversazione suizzera, edited by Claudio Origoni and Maria Grazia Rabiolo (Novara: Interlinea, 1998).
Rosanna Pettinelli and Amedeo Quondam Giovanni Maria, “Bibliografia montaliana (1925-1966),” Rassegna della letteratura italiana,70 (May-Decemben 1966): 377–391;
Laura Barile, Bibliografia montaliana (Milan: Mondadori, 1977).
Giulio Nascimbeni, Montale (Milan: Longanesi, 1969); revised and enlarged as Montale: Biografia di un poeta (Milan: Longanesi, 1986),
Franco Contorbia, ed., Eugenio Montale: Immagini di una vita (Milan: Librex, 1985).
Guido Almansi and Bruce Merry, Eugenio Montale: The Private Language of Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977);
Giusi Baldissone, ed., Le muse di Montale: Galleria di occasioni femminili nella poesia montaliana (Novara: Interlinea, 1996);
Jared Becker, Eugenio Montale (Boston: twayne, 1986);
Gian Paolo Biasin, Il vento di Debussy: La poesia di Montale nella cultura del Novecento (Bologna: Mulino, 1985);
Clodagh J. Brook, The Expression of the Inexpressible in Eugenio Montale ’s Poetry: Metaphor,. Negation, and Silence (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);
Glauco Cambon, Eugenio Montale ’s Poetry: A Dream in Reason’s Presence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982);
Umberto Carpi, Montale dopo il fascismo: Dalla ‘Bufera” a “Satura” (Padua, Italy: Liviana, 1971);
Joseph Cary, Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale (New York: New York University Press/London: University of London Press, 1969);
Gianfranco Contini, Una lunga fedeltà: Scritti su Eugenio Montale (Turin: Einaudi, 1974);
Maria Corti, “Montale negli Stati Uniti,” Autografo,12 (1987): 11–27;
Angelo Fabrizi, Montale e Proust (Florence: Polistampa, 1999);
Marco Forti, Eugenio Montale: La poesia, la prosa di fantasia e d’inuenzione (Milan: Mursia, 1973-1974);
Forti, ed., Per conoscere Montale (Milan: Mondadori, 1976);
Maria Antonietta Grignani, Prologhi ed epiloghi: Sulla poesia di Eugenio Montale, con una prosa inedita (Ravenna, Italy: Longo, 1987);
Claire Huffman, Montale and the Occasions of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983);
Angelo Jacomuzzi, La poesia di Montale: Dagli “Ossi” ai “Diari” (Turin: Einaudi, 1978);
Romano Luperini, Montale o l’identità negata (Naples: Liguori, 1984);
Luperini, Storia di Montale (Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1986);
Giuseppe Marcenaro and Piero Boragina, eds., Una dolcezza inquieta: L’universo poetico di Eugenio Montale (Milan: Electa, 1996);
Angelo Marchese, Amico dell invisibile: La personalità e la poesia di Eugenio Montale (Turin: Società editrice internazionale, 1996);
Pequod, special Montale issue, 2 (Winter 1977);
Quarterly Review of Literature, special Montale issue, 11, no. 4 (1962);
Maria Cristina Santini, La Farfalla di Dinard e la memoria montaliana (La Spezia: Agorà, 1999);
Giuseppe Savoca, Concordanza del “Diario postumo” di Eugenio Montale: Facsimile dei manoscritti, testo, concordanza (Florence: Olschki, 1997);
Savoca, Concordanza di tutte le poesie di Eugenio Montale (Florence: Olschki, 1987);
Paola Sica, Modernist Forms of Rejuvenation: Eugenio Montale and T S. Eliot (Florence: Olschki, 2003);
Harry Thomas, ed., Montale in English (New York: Handsel Books, 2004);
Rebecca west, Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Autografi di Montale, edited by Maria Corti and Maria Antonietta Grignani (Turin: Einaudi, 1976), is a catalogue of the manuscript holdings in the Fondo di Autori Contemporanei at the University of Pavia; the collection includes poems and letters.