Quasimodo, Salvatore (20 August 1901 – 14 June 1968)

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Salvatore Quasimodo (20 August 1901 – 14 June 1968)

Stelio Cro
King College

1959 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech

Quasimodo: Banquet Speech

Quasimodo: Nobel Lecture, 11 December 1959




This entry has been revised by Cro from his Quasimodo entry in DLB 114: Twentieth-Century Italian Poets, First Series.

BOOKS: Acque e terre (Florence: Solaria, 1930);

Oboe sommerso (Genoa: Circoli, 1932);

Odore di eucalyptus ed altri versi (Florence: Antico Fattore, 1933);

Erato e Apòllion (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1936);

Poesie (Milan: Primi Piani, 1938);

Ed è subito sera (Milan: Mondadori, 1942);

Con il piede straniero sopra il cuore (Milan: Costume, 1946);

Giorno dopo giorno (Milan: Mondadori, 1947);

La vita non è sogno (Milan: Mondadori, 1949);

Billy Budd [libretto based on the story by Herman Melville] (Milan: Suvini Zerboni, 1949);

Il falso e vero verde (Milan: Schwarz, 1954); enlarged as Il falso e vero verde; Con un discorso sulla poesia (Milan: Mondadori, 1956);

La terra impareggiabile (Milan: Mondadori, 1958; enlarged, 1962);

Poesie scelte, edited by Roberto Sanesi (Parma, Italy: Guanda, 1959);

Petrarca e il sentimento della solitudine (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro/Scheiwiller, 1959);

Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1960; enlarged, 1962; enlarged and edited by Gilberto Finzi, 1984); translated by Jack Bevan as Complete Poems (London: Anvil, 1983; New York: Schocken, 1984);

Il poeta e il politico e altri saggi (Milan: Schwartz, 1960); translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Sergio Pacifici as The Poet and the Politician, and Other Essays (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964);

Orfeo Anno Domini MCMXL VII (Milan: Curci, 1960);

Scritti sul teatro (Milan: Mondadori, 1961);

Nuove poesie (Verona: Riva, 1963);

L’amore di Galatea (Palermo: Teatro Massimo, 1964);

Anita Ekberg, edited by Sennuccio Benelli (Milan: Lerici, 1965);

Dare e avere (Milan: Mondadori, 1966); translated by Edith Farnsworth as To Give and to Have, and Other Poems (Chicago: Regnery, 1969); translated by Bevan as Debt and Credit (London: Anvil, 1972);

Salvatore Quasimodo: Premio JVbbel per la letteratura 1959 (Milan: Fabbri, 1968);

Un anno (Genoa: Immordino, 1968);

Le opere, edited by Guido di Pino (Turin: Unione Tipografica, 1968);

Birolli, X. Bueno, Cantatore, De Chirico, Elsa D’Albisola, Fabbri Manzù, Marino C., Mastroianni, Migneco, Rossello, Rossi, Sassu, Sotilis, Usellini, Tamburi visti (Milan: Trentadue, 1969);

Poesie e discorsi sulla poesia, edited by Finzi (Milan: Mondadori, 1971; revised and enlarged, 1973; revised and enlarged, 2000);

A colpo omidda e altri scritti, edited by Finzi (Milan: Mondadori, 1977);

Bacia la soglia della tua casa (Siracusa, Sicily: Schittino, 1981);

A Sibilla, edited by Giancarlo Vigorelli (Milan: Rizzoli, 1983);

Tra Quasimodo e Vittorini, edited by Rosa Quasimodo (Acireale, Italy: Lunarionuovo, 1984);

Il poeta a teatro (Milan: Spirali, 1984);

Le Medaglie di Francesco Messina (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1986).

Editions in English: Selected Writings, translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Farrar, Straus &Cudahy, 1960);

Poems, translated by G. H. McWilliam and others (Dublin: Italian Institute of Culture, 1963);

Selected Poems, translated by Jack Bevan (Harmonds-worth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965).

OTHER: Lirici minori del XIII e XIV secolo, edited by Quasimodo and Luciano Anceschi (Milan: Conchiglia, 1941);

Lirica d’amore italiana, edited by Quasimodo (Milan: Schwartz, 1957; republished, 2 volumes, Milan: Garzanti, 1974);

Poesia italiana del dopoguerra, edited by Quasimodo (Milan: Schwartz, 1958);

Milano in inchiostro di china, edited, with an introduction, by Quasimodo (Milan: Scheiwiller/Amilcare Pizzi, 1963);

Opera grafica di Aligi Sassu incisa dal 1929 al 1962, edited, with an introduction, by Quasimodo (Milan: Luigi De Tullio, 1963);

Mastroianni–Il ritratto, edited, with an introduction, by Quasimodo (Biella, Italy: Rosso, 1964);

L’opera completa di Michelangelo pittore, edited, with an introduction, by Quasimodo (Milan: Rizzoli, 1966);

Hesiod, Le opere e i giorni, introduction by Quasimodo (Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 1966);

Gli inediti di Migneco, edited, with an introduction, by Quasimodo (Milan: SEDA, 1967);

Boris Lovet-Iorski: The language of Time, introduction by Quasimodo (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Art School, 1967);

Giorgio De Chirico, includes an essay by Quasimodo (Naples: Marotta, 1968).

TRANSLATIONS: Lirici greci (Milan: Corrente, 1940); Virgil, Il fiore delle Georgiche (Milan: Gentile, 1942); Il Vangelo secondo Giovanni (Milan: Gentile, 1945); Catullus, Veronensis Carmina (Milan: Uomo, 1945); Homer, Dall’Odissea (Milan: Rosa e Ballo, 1945); John Ruskin, La Bibbia di Amiens (Milan: Bompiani, 1946);

Sophocles, Edipo re (Milan: Bompiani, 1946);

William Shakespeare, Romeo e Giulietta (Milan: Mondadori, 1948);

Aeschylus, Le Coefore (Milan: Bompiani, 1949);

Il Vangelo secondo Giovanni (Milan: Gentile, 1950);

Shakespeare, Macbeth (Turin: Einaudi, 1952);

Shakespeare, Riccardo III (Milan: Piccolo Teatro, 1952);

Pablo Neruda, Poesie (Turin: Einaudi, 1953);

Sophocles, Elettra (Milan: Mondadori, 1954);

Catullus, Canti (Milan: Mondadori, 1955);

Shakespeare, La tempesta (Turin: Einaudi, 1956);

Fiore dell’antologia Palatina, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Bologna; Guanda, 1957);

Molière, Tartufo (Milan: Bompiani, 1958);

E. E. Cummings, Poesie scelte (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro/Scheiwiller, 1958);

Shakespeare, Otello (Milan: Mondadori, 1958);

Ovid, Dalle Metamorfosi, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro/Scheiwiller, 1959);

Euripides, Ecuba (Urbino, Italy: Argalia, 1962);

Conrad Aiken, Mutevoli pensieri (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro/Scheiwiller, 1963);

Shakespeare, Antonio e Cleopatra (Milan: Mondadori, 1966);

Euripides, Eracle (Milan: Mondadori, 1966);

Tudor Arghezi, Poesie, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Milan: Mondadori, 1966);

Pericle Patocchi, Chemin de Croix (Lugano, Switzerland: Topi, 1967);

Y. Leconte, Il gioco degli astragali, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Milan: Moneta, 1968);

Dall’Antologia Palatina, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Milan: Mondadori, 1968);

Homer, Iliade–Episodi scelti, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Milan: Mondadori, 1968);

Leonidas, Leonida di Taranto, edited and translated by Quasimodo (Manduria, Italy: Lacaita, 1968);

Paul Eluard, Dormer à voir (Milan: Mondadori, 1970).

Born on 20 August 1901 in Modica, near Syracuse, Sicily, to Gaetano Quasimodo, a station master, and his wife, Clotilde Ragusa, Salvatore Quasimodo, the 1959 Nobel Prize winner for literature, attended elementary school in Gela, in the Messina region; vocational school in Palermo; and finally, in 1919, engineering school at the Politecnico in Rome. He abandoned his studies because of financial pressures. In order to support Bice Donetti, with whom he began to live in 1922 and whom he married in 1925, he worked at several jobs: as a technical designer for a builder; as a store clerk; as a maintenance technician for a large department store in the capital; and with the Italian army engineering corps. As an army worker he was transferred to Reggio Calabria, where in 1928 he decided to compose verses, an activity that increasingly occupied his attention. Quasimodo moved to Florence in 1929, at his brother-in-law Elio Vittorini’s invitation, and there, the following year, he published three poems in the journal Solaria, and, in the same year, his first book of verses, Acque e terre (Waters and Lands). This book signaled the appearance on the Italian poetic scene of a young, yet mature, hermetic poet. The influence of Giuseppe Ungaretti is evident from the first fragment of this collection: “Ed è subito sera” (And Suddenly It’s Evening)–which became the title poem of a book in 1942:

Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera

(Each one stands alone in the centre of the earth
pierced by a ray of sun:
and suddenly it is evening)

This first book also defines the first period of Quasimodo’s poetry, which was heavily influenced by hermeticism, a movement recognized in Italian poetry since 1925, date of publication of Poeti d’oggi, the first anthology of Italian hermetic poets prepared by Giovanni Papini and Pietro Pancrazi. Quasimodo’s first phase also includes Oboe sommerso (Sunken Oboe, 1932), Erato e Apòllion (1936) and Poesie (1938). Hermeticism became the most important Italian poetic school between the two world wars and includes, besides Quasimodo, the works of Ungaretti and Eugenio Mon-tale. Its poetic process is based on analogy and associative images, and it conveys pessimistic meditations on the human condition. Yet, despite an aversion to illusions, the hermetic poet typically believes in poetic beauty. Therefore, critics have seen in Quasimodo a tension between a world of despair, anguish, and solitude, and a mythical paradise lost, the golden island of his childhood, which he enshrined in Greek mythology and ancient traditions, in a setting among the sea and rocks of the Sicilian landscape. “Vento a Tindari” (Wind at Tindari) perhaps best expresses this tension:

Tindari, mite ti so
fra larghi colli pensile sull’acque
dell’isole dolci del dio,
oggi m’assali
e ti chini in cuore.

(Tindari, I know how pleasant
you hang on the water between the wide hills
of the sweet islands of the god,
today you assail me
and lean into my heart.)

The fear of alienation from his native land compels Quasimodo to conjure up archetypes of the Sicilian landscape:

Salgo vertici aerei precipizi,
assorto al vento dei pini,
e la brigata che lieve m’accompagna
s’allontana nell’aria,
onda di suoni e amore,
e tu mi prendi
da cui male mi trassi
e paure d’ombre e di silenzi,
rifugi di dolcezze un tempo assidue
e morte d’anima

(I climb up vertical aerial peaks,
caught in the wind of the pines,
while my lighthearted company
moves further away in the air,
like a wave of sound and love,
and you take me
you whom I left unwillingly
and fears of shadows and of silences,
shelters of sweetnesses once assiduous
and death of the soul)

The elegance and clarity of this composition owes much to a twofold influence: the Greek poetess Sappho and Giacomo Leopardi, who deeply influenced Quasimodo, especially during the hermetic period.

His second book, Oboe sommerso, is the one that best represents Quasimodo’s hermeticism. His ideal island becomes the archetype of a metamorphosed poetland, in which even human organs are identified with plants or with the mysterious biological process of nature, with a psychological counterpoint of archaic memories. A good example is “Nell’antica luce delle maree” (In the Ancient Light of the Tides):

Città d’isola
sommersa nel mio cuore,
ecco discendo nell’antica luce
delle maree, presso sepolcri
in riva d’acque
che una letizia scioglie
d’alberi sognati.

E i tuoi morti sento
nei gelosi battiti
di vene vegetali
fatti men fondi:

un respirare assorto di narici.

(Island city
submerged in my heart,
now I descend in the ancient light
of the tides, near the graves
on the edge of waters
loosed by a joy
of dreamed trees.

And I feel your dead
in the jealous pulsations
of plant-like veins
which are not so deep:

and an intense breathing of nostrils.)

An example of what critics have defined as Quasimodo’s parola-mito (word-myth) is “Parola,” in which the poet conjures an ideal landscape as if nature itself had become animated as a splendid woman ready to embrace him and yet, at the last moment, elusive and unconquerable:

Tu ridi che per sillabe mi scarno
e curvo cieli e colli, azzurra siepe
a me d’intorno, e stormir d’olmi
e voci d’acque trepide;
che giovinezza inganno
con nuvole e colori
che la luce sprofonda.

Ti so. In te tutta smarrita
alza bellezza i seni,
s’incava ai lombi e in soave moto
s’allarga per il pube timoroso,
e ridiscende in armonia di forme
ai piedi belli con dieci conchiglie.

Ma se ti prendo, ecco:
parola tu pure mi sei e tristezza.

(You laugh because I waste away for syllables
and bend sky and hills, blue hedge
around me, and helms’ blowing noise
and voice of quivering waters;
because I deceive youth
with clouds and colors
that the light submerges.

I know you. Wandering beauty
lifts your breasts,
squeezes your hips and with a gentle motion
opens up your timid pubis,
and lowers in harmony forms
down to your feet and ten shells.

But if I take you, there:
you too are words to me, and sadness.)

The intimate religious dimension of Quasimodo’s hermeticism is present in “Curva minore” (Lesser Curve), in which recurrent words such as vento (wind), erba (grass), ombra (shade), and sera (evening) acquire a haunting connotation, placed as they are in a descending order from a dynamic allegory (“E fammi vento”) to a gradually subdued reality. The poem reveals a pantheistic lyricism:

Pèrdimi, Signore, ché non oda
gli anni sommersi taciti spogliarmi,
sí che cangi la pena in moto aperto:
curva minore
del vivere m’avanza.

E fammi vento che naviga felice,
o seme d’orzo o lebbra
che sé esprima in pieno divenire.
E sia facile amarti
in erba che accima alia luce,
in piaga che buca la carne.

(Confuse me, Lord, do not let me hear
the quiet secret years emptying me,
so that I can change sorrow for open motion:
a lesser curve
of life is what is left for me.

And make me wind that I may sail happily,
or seed of barley or leprosy
which may express itself in full becoming.
Let it be easy loving you
in the leaf of grass absorbing light,
in the flesh-decaying sore.)

Much of Quasimodo’s literary achievement rests on his masterful translations of the ancient Greek poets in Lirici greci (Greek Lyric Poets, 1940), which quickly became the focus of a long-debated literary question concerning the role of the translator. Not only did the book reveal Quasimodo’s originality as a translator, but many would consider this translation his finest work, because of the modern flavor he elicited from texts thousands of years old. Also, he revealed a broader register and a more universal spectrum of tonalities than the usual hermetic style of his own previous collections. A case in point is this fragment from Sappho:

Tramontata è la luna
e le Pleiadi a mezzo della notte;
anche giovinezza già dilegua,
e ora nel mio letto resto sola.
Scuote l’anima mia Eros,
come vento sul monte
che irrompe entro le querce;
e scioglie le membra e le agita,
dolce amaro indomabile serpente.
Ma a me non ape, non miele;
e soffro e desidero.

(The moon has waned
and the Pleiades are gone in the middle of the night;
even youth is waning,
and now I am alone in my bed.
Eros shakes my soul,
like wind on the mountain
sweeping through the oak-trees;
and it unties and agitates my limbs,
sweet bitter indomitable snake.
But for me no bee, no honey;
and I suffer and want.)

In a note appended to his translations from Greek lyrics, Quasimodo asserted: “queste mie traduzioni non sono rapportate a probabili schemi metrici d’origine, ma tentano l’approssimazione più specifica d’un testo: quella poetica” (these translations of mine are not linked to possible metrical schemes in the original, but attempt the most specific textual approximation: a poetic one).

Quasimodo tried to re-create the original feelings. This unusual manner of approach, therefore, has deeper implications for the development of Quasimodo’s poetic style than if he had confined himself to the humbler work of a translator. By concentrating more on catching the spirit rather than the letter of the originals he did, in fact, succeed in enlarging vicariously his own experience, especially during those rare moments when he fully identified himself with the inner feelings of others. Cases of such identification, for instance, are to be found in his translations from Sappho and Alcaeus, because the poetry of both left a definite mark on his own work. Other examples of stylistic gains come from the syntactical or rhetorical patterns inherited from classical texts, notably classical Latin originals. In all probability he learned through the mediation of these influences that he learned, at least partially, to shake off his hermetic straitjacket and base his themes and melodies on deeper lyrical patterns.

After the hedonistic ideal and the fin de siècle aes-theticism of the decadent and crepuscular movements, the new school called hermeticism searched for a new form of expression. The direction seemed to point to “pure poetry,” or “poetics of the word,” even if the style and language of poetry seemed to have acquired new meaning, because of the unusual analogies and associations. From the vantage point of chronological perspective in relation to that poetic school, one can say that whereas Ungaretti could qualify as a baroque hermetic, and Montale as an essential hermetic, Quasimodo, the last of the hermetic poets, seems to have been a classical hermetic. Some critics, such as Guillermo de Torre and Angelo Romanó, have stated that, up to a certain point, Quasimodo continues the French Parnassian school of poetry because of his intimate nostalgia for an ideal, lost land. In the case of Quasimodo this fabulous, mythical land is the land of the orange blossoms, Sicily. The Mediterranean Quasimodo, lost in an ultramodern city, submerged in comfort and technological gadgetry–an alienating universe from the simple world of his childhood–felt intimately related to that past land of his dreams. This attitude can be seen–and for some critics this would mean a limitation of his poetry–in the repetitions of certain key words that became commonplace in his first books, such as deserti (deserts), paradiso (paradise), stelle (stars), notte (night), vento (wind), and mare (sea). According to this interpretation, Quasimodo expressed his nostalgia for a lost paradise with a series of commonplaces.

On the other hand, this approach could indicate the limitations of criticism solely concerned with style.

That is why it is so important to identify the poetic moment that supercedes the nostalgic longing and actually testifies to a poetic redemption of that Mediterranean paradise of ancient times. With Quasimodo, Italian poetry has regained the vigor of the Mediterranean world of the Magna Graecia, which still survives in southern Italy, with her sea, her rocks, and her cities, and mirrors the intimate soul of the poet, its interpreter. That is why it is paramount to assign the proper place to Quasimodo’s translations of ancient Greek poets. His translations are, in one sense, interpretations, succeeding in bringing back the ancient text and giving it a present-day tonality and flavor, in words and phrases chosen to preserve the original vigor of connotations and analogies.

After Romanticism, literary criticism became concerned with the dimension of time, from a linguistic point of view. According to this linguistic dimension, the critic can place a given poetic text in its precise historical and cultural context. This quality of modern literary criticism has been applied to the lyrical creative process, which in its turn has acquired a critical dimension of its own, so that the poetic text can and does bring forth the essential character of a cultural phenomenon, chosen as his lyrical target by the poet. In the case of an ancient text, this method worked splendidly for Quasimodo, since his translations aspire to be actually updated versions of the original work: the translator has sought to give new life and relevancy to these works for the benefit of his contemporary reader.

This quality of updating ancient texts, so evident in his translations, was a decisive dimension of his evolution as an original poet. Quasimodo succeeded, perhaps better than anyone else, in expressing for a twentieth-century audience the telluric presence of the Mediterranean world and achieving through that expression a universal dimension achieved through the use of archetypes and myths. What readers still admire today in the work of the Sicilian poet is that feeling of a newly discovered landscape of the world in its primeval vigor, without intermediate reflections, so that one has the impression that the only man alive is Ulysses and the only trip that counts is his journey to the ideal Ithaca.

Modern Italian literature has frequently dealt with the myth of Ulysses, because in it one can mirror the alienation of modern man, who has abandoned his native land for a Utopian dream but has found himself in the midst of wars and violence, of the denial of permanent values of civilized man, in the shadow of hatred and tyranny. The myth is still the same, but the man has changed. This man is still looking for his own roots, but instead he finds himself trapped by a way of life that he has neither chosen nor can change. For Giovanni Pascoli, Ulysses is the man beloved by the goddess, Calypso, who departs for his last destination in order to see again, at the end of his life, the place of an unknown happiness. For Umberto Saba, Ulysses is a traveler who has not kept a place for the only woman who loved him. For Quasimodo, Ulysses is the symbol of Mediterranean man, whom he conceives as a dimension of every man and, at the same time, as an impossible archetype, gradually and inexorably transformed by the advancing technological society.

Quasimodo’s new humanism has been linked to his Marxist sympathies. But one can discount a direct relationship between his outspoken political views and his innermost lyrical vocation. From this point of view, Quasimodo’s poetry is better described in terms of a cycle rather than stages, a cycle that begins with the “pure poetry” of Acque e terre and culminates with the humanistic poetry of Giorno dopo giorno (1947, Day after Day). The link between the two is the philosophical search for the essence of the Mediterranean man. For Quasimodo the linguistic search of hermeticism was enriched by the philosophical search in his humanistic poetry. Linguistics and philosophy go hand in hand, so the linguistic sign carries a philosophical content. The lesson of Giambattista Vico had been that all language is metaphorical. Behind each word there is an original attitude. For instance, Homer’s language amounts to an inventory of a civilization. When linguistics discovers an ontological message in a word, it converges into philosophy. The principle of the search for the deeper meaning of a word is a fundamental method of any translator. Quasimodo is best defined as a poet-translator, as we can see in one of his most popular poems, “Vento a Tindari,” the last stanza of which reveals how the translator has enriched his own poetry:

Tindari serena torna;
soave amico mi desta
che mi sporga nel cielo da una rupe
e io fingo timore a chi non sa
che vento profondo m’ha cercato.

(Serene Tindari come back,
a sweet friend wakes me up
so that I can bend over from a rock in the sky
and I pretend fear to whoever ignores
what deep wind sought me out.)

Quasimodo believed that Homer’s voice preceded Greece. It was Homer who had “formed” Greek civilization. This belief was held, before Quasimodo, by Gian Vincenzo Gravina and Vico. This is one reason why in a sense the experience of World War II found Quasimodo ready to address the “new” mission of poetry, that of rifare l’uomo (remaking of man).

In 1938 Quasimodo left his engineering job with the army because Arnoldo Mondadori hired him as drama editor for the weekly Tempo. Then, in 1941, he moved to Milan to become professor of Italian literature at Conservatory Giuseppe Verdi. In Milan he met several writers, artists, critics, musicians, and intellectuals, such as Arturo Martini, Giuseppe Cantatore, Aligi Sassu, Leonardo Sinisgalli, Luigi Rognoni, Arturo Tofanelli, Edoardo Persico, and Mario Novaro. In the afternoon they met at the Caffè Biffi; in the evening the animated conversations continued at the Caffe Savini. This was also the time of Quasimodo’s meeting Maria Cumani, a dancer who, after the death of Bice Donetti in 1946, became his second wife and mother of their only son, Alessandro. His relationship with Cumani has been preserved in the collection of love letters Quasimodo wrote to her between 1936 and 1959, the year of their legal separation: Lettere d’amore a Maria Cumani (1973).

The war brought about a profound change of style and motives, alluded to in various collections of Quasimodo’s poetry and essays, such as Giorno dopo giorno, La vita non è sogno (1949, Life is Not a Dream), Il falso e vero verde (1954, The False and True Green) and La terra impareggiabile (1958, The Incomparable Earth). On the war Quasimodo wrote in “Discorso sulla poesia” (published with Il falso e vero verde in 1956) that “la guerra muta la vita morale d’un popolo” (war changes the moral life of a nation). He felt that hermeticism was finished by 1945 and defined this movement as “l’estremo antro fiorentino di fonemi metrici” (the extreme Florentine pastoral cave of metrical phonemes). If one follows Quasimodo’s own account of the changes in his poetry brought about by the war, one realizes that he saw correspondence between the events leading up to the war and the end of hermeticism: “La guerra ha sorpreso un linguaggio poetico che maturava una partecipazione con gli oggetti della terra per raggiun-gere l’universale. Le allegorie si erano dissolte nella solitu-dine della ditta tura.” (War had surprised poetic language [and] that matured a participation with the objects of the earth in order to reach universality. The allegories had vanished in the solitude of the dictatorship).

It is possible that Quasimodo wanted to see it that way, because it provided him with a new ideological identity, since his contribution to the anti-Fascist movement was much less decisive than that of other Italian writers and intellectuals of his own generation, such as Giacomo Matteotti, Ignazio Silone, and Benedetto Croce. The truth was probably much more complex than that. Once Italy lost the world war and the country plunged into a state of virtual civil war, with the North controlled by the Germans and the South by the Allied forces, all the sympathies of the Italian people went out to those who had resisted fascism even at the height of its power. In the postwar era hardly anyone in Italy argued the right of the Communists to be the moral voice of the nation. One of the most fascinating chapters in Italian history ensued. Anxious to regain respectability, the northern capitalistic bourgeoisie, which had profited and prospered during the Fascist regime but had also supported the war effort, began to support the leftist intelligentsia, knowing how literary prizes, academic posts, and prestigious positions would be coveted by the intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians, and poets who would become aware that an ideological realignment was necessary for most of them, who had lacked the courage and the vision of Matteotti, Silone, or Croce. Communist propaganda made the most of this change, encouraging it and supporting it with a visible campaign in its publications and its cultural policies, especially within the influential movie industry, which was soon totally dominated by the Left. The postwar years were decisive in the restructuring and reorganization of the cultural institutions and academies of Italy, including the universities. Totally subservient to the regime prior to the war, afterward they became the battlefield for what was known in later years as the lottizzazione, the parceling of exclusive influence to a given party, with the three leading parties (Christian Democrat, Communist, and Socialist) receiving the lion’s share. Clearly, in such an environment no artist would ever succeed if left to his own devices. Without the support of an influential leftist group, no verses would be effective. Thus Quasimodo’s repeated forays as a speaker and a writer made him appear more “engaged” than he really was. Ultimately, Marxist critics claimed Quasimodo as one of their own, while justifying the moral committment already implied in the considerations of the Swedish Academy when it decided to award him the Nobel Prize in 1959.

Quasimodo’s humanism is none other than a label conceived for the broader consumption of a society romantically in love with the Left but solidly anchored to material possessions, aware of its sins and willing to reward the severe poet who, from the height of his underdeveloped, and therefore innocent, island, can freely dispense his musical warnings of doom. The compositions of Giorno dopo giorno represent this new humanism, understood as the interpretation of a nation, its moral voice. A case in point is the opening poem of the book, “Alle fronde dei salici” (On the Willow Boughs):

E come potevamo noi cantare
con il piede straniero sopra il cuore,
fra i morti abbandonati nelle piazze
sull’erba dura di ghiaccio, al lamento
d’agnello dei fanciulli, all’urlo nero
della madre che andava incontro al figlio
crocifisso sul palo del telegrafo?
Alle fronde dei salici, per voto,
anche le nostre cetre erano appese,
oscillavano lievi al triste vento.

(And how could we sing
with the foreigner’s foot upon our hearts,
among the dead abandoned in the squares
on the frozen grass, amid the lamb-like
bleating of the children, amid the black howling
of the mother rushing up to her son
crucified on the telegraph pole?
As an offering, on the willow boughs
our lyres, too, were hung,
quivering slightly in the sad wind.)

There is a sophisticated double level of connotations, both pointing out the renunciation of hermeticism. The first level is a denunciation of the brutality of war in general, and, in particular, the civil war that devastated northern Italy after the armistice of 8 September 1943 between Italy and the Allied nations. The poet also is an anguished witness of the carnage and destruction of war, and his usual style is no longer justified; his hermeticism, like the lyre offered by the poet to assuage the sorrow of his countrymen, is buffeted by the sad winds of war. To this first connotative level, one can add a second, which becomes the melodic structure of the new style, hinged on the hendecasyllabic tonality of the whole poem, which is at the same time a classical retreat and a reassuring foray into the consoling harmony of the highest tradition of solemn Italian poetry, demanding a role in the somber, almost funereal landscape of the apocalyptic vision of Quasimodo:

Giorno dopo giorno: parole maledette e il sangue
e l’oro. Vi riconosco, miei simili, o mostri
della terra. Al vostro morso è caduta la pietà,
e la croce gentile ci ha lasciati.
E più non posso tornare nel mio eliso.

(Day after day: unbearable words and the blood
and the gold. I acknowledge our common origin, monsters
of the earth. Piety has died torn to pieces by you,
and the gentle cross has abandoned us.
Nor can I ever go back to my Elysium.)

The success of Giorno dopo giorno depends on Quasimodo’s ability to strike just the right note between admonition and regret, in order to capture the sympathy of the reader. The biblical tone confers on the poems the extra ethical authority required, after the empty rhetoric of fascism, to spread a message of solidarity equally pleasing to the Left and to progressive Catholics. In fact, the essential style of the book was something of a novelty, although illustrious models could be found, especially in Dante, Girolamo Savonarola, and Leopardi. It was Quasimodo’s ability to revive the best tradition of Italian poetry and combine it with the ever-present classical allusions in dealing with the topic of the war that made the book an instant success, in Italy and abroad. None of the subsequent books would achieve the same popularity.

La vita non è sogno represents a reconciliation between his Sicilian roots and the adopted Lombard environment, as in “Lamento per il Sud” (Lament for the South):

La luna rossa, il vento, il tuo colore
di donna del Nord, la distesa di neve …
Il mio cuore e ormai su queste praterie,
in queste acque annuvolate dalle nebbie.
Ho dimenticato il mare, la grave
conchiglia soffiata dai pastori siciliani,
le cantilene dei carri lungo le strade
dove il carrubo trema nel fumo delle stoppie,
ho dimenticato il passo degli aironi e delle gru
nell’aria dei verdi altipiani
per le terre e i fiumi della Lombardia.
Ma l’uomo grida dovunque la sorte d’una patria.
Più nessuno mi porterà nel Sud.

(The red moon, the wind, your coloring
of woman of the North, the wilderness of snow &
My heart is now in these plains,
in these waters clouded by mists.
I have forgotten the sea, the heavy
shell blown by Sicilian shepherds,
the singsong of the carts along the roads
where the carob tree quivers in the smoke of the stubble,
I have forgotten the flight of the herons and the storks
in the air of the green plateaus
for the lands and rivers of Lombardy.
But man cries everywhere for his country’s destiny.
No one will ever take me South again.)

The solemn enumeration recalls the nostalgic verses of Acque e terre, but there is an almost narrative tonality, which allows for a resigned solution to the conflict that dominated his early poetry. The aftermath of the war still demands the poet’s attention. He still has a message of redemption, and his priest is Orpheus, the new archetype, capable of shaking man from the depths of his moral depression:

E tu sporco di guerra, Orfeo
come il tuo cavallo, senza la sferza,
alza il capo, non trema più la terra;
urla d’amore, vinci, se vuoi, il mondo.

(And you, Orpheus, filthy with war,
like your horse, without the whip,
raise your head, the earth no longer shakes;
shout your love, if you want, you can conquer the world.)

At this point Quasimodo, having lost the initial enthusiasm of Giorno dopo giorno, relapses into conventional phraseology and poetic schemes, so that one can perceive an alternating mood, from an outright propagandistic effort to a pristine neohermeticism, as represented in two different compositions, “II mio paese e l’ltalia” (My Country is Italy) and “Quasi un madrigale” (Almost a Madrigal):

Là Buchenwald, la mite selva di faggi,
i suoi forni maledetti; là Stalingrado
e Minsk sugli acquitrini e la neve putrefatta.

(There Buchenwald, the gentle wood of beeches,
its cursed ovens; there Stalingrad
and Minsk on the swamps and the putrified snow.)

In contrast with this superficial demagoguery, there is the example of neohermeticism:

II girasole piega a occidente
e già precipita il giorno nel suo
occhio in rovina e l’aria dell’estate
s’addensa e già curva le foglie e il fumo
dei cantieri. S’allontana con scorrere
secco di nubi e stridere di fulmini
quest’ultimo gioco del cielo.

(The sunflower turns to the west
while the day already plunges into his
decaying eye and the summer wind
builds up and already is bending the leaves and the smoke
of the builder’s yard. It vanishes with a dry
rushing of clouds and bursting of thunders
this last play of the sky.)

The last books show a poet in search of his social Utopia. Alienation and the nuclear threat are dominant themes in his last poems, such as “In questa citta” (In This City) and “Ancora dall’inferno” (Still from Hell):

In questa città c’è pure la macchina
che stritola i sogni: con un gettone
vivo, un piccolo disco di dolore
sei subito di là, su questa terra,
ignoto in mezzo ad ombre deliranti
su alghe di fosforo funghi di fumo;
una giostra di mostri
che gira su conchiglie
che si spezzano putride sonando.

(In this city there is even the machine
that grinds the dreams: with a token,
a quick, a small disk of sorrow
you are there in no time, on this earth,
unknown amid delirious shadows
upon phosphorous seaweeds and mushrooms of smoke:
a merry-go-round of monsters
turning around shells
which crack putrefied with a sound.)

The city is like a Dantesque hell, an alienating environment for everyone who happens to be trapped inside:

Non ci direte una notte gridando
dai megafoni, una notte
di zagare, di nascite, d’amori
appena cominciati, che l’idrogeno
in nome del diritto brucia
la terra. Gli animali i boschi fondono
nell’Arca della distruzione, il fuoco
è un vischio sui crani dei cavalli,
negli occhi umani. Poi a noi morti
voi morti direte nuove tavole
della legge. Nell’antico linguaggio
altri segni, profili di pugnali.
Balbetterà qualcuno sulle scorie,
inventerà tutto ancora
o nulla nella sorte uniforme,
il mormorio delle correnti, il crepitare
della luce. Non la speranza
direte voi morti alia nostra morte
negli imbuti di fanghiglia bollente,
qui nell’inferno. (From “Ancora dall’inferno”)

(You will not announce screaming one night
through the bullhorns, one night
of orange-blossoms, of births, of loves
just begun, that the hydrogen
in the name of the law scorches
the earth. The animals and the woods melt
in the ark of destruction, the fire
is a snare on the horses’ skulls,
in human eyes. Then to us dead
you dead will tell us new codes
of the law. In the ancient language
new signs, outlines of daggers.
Someone will babble on the remains,
will again invent everything
or nothing in the identical destiny,
the whispering of streams, the crackling
of the light. Of hope
you dead will not speak to our death
in the funnels of boiling mud,
here in hell.)

This poem expresses mankind’s longing for peace, the horror of the impending nuclear holocaust forever looming on the horizon since the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the obscure forces of history incessantly at work, with the poet imagining a distant day when civilization will start again from scratch in order to repeat the same mistakes. This is a pessimistic viewpoint, one which contrasts with the more civic call to moral regeneration and social commitment of compositions such as “Varvàra Alexandrovna” and “Solo che amore ti colpisca” (Only if Love Should Pierce You), collected in Dare e avere (1966; translated as To Give and to Have, 1969). In the first poem, composed during an illness in the Soviet Union in memory of a nurse who took care of him, Quasimodo identifies in her and her solidarity a new spirit of mankind:

sei la Russia, non un paesaggio di neve
riflesso in uno specchio d’ospedale
sei una moltitudine di mani che cercano altre mani.

(you are Russia, not a snowy landscape
reflected in a hospital mirror
you are a crowd of hands searching for other hands.)

In the second poem the poet identifies love as the new religion, capable of tying every person to the essence of humankind: “ricorda che puoi essere l’essere dell’essere // solo che amore ti colpisca bene alle vis-cere” (remember that you can be the being of the being // if only love should pierce you deep inside).

In one of the last compositions of La terra impareggiabile, “Una risposta” (An Answer), Quasimodo flashes the magic name of Ulysses. Ulysses appears amid the mystical desire of the poet to reach out to God:

Se arde alia mente l’ancora d’Ulisse…
Se in riva al mare di Aci, qui fra barche
con l’occhio nero a prua contro la mala
sorte, io potessi dal nulla dell’aria
qui dal nulla che stride di colpo e uncina
come la fiocina del pesce-spada,
dal nulla delle mani che si mutano
come Aci, viva formare dal nulla
una formica e spingerla nel cono
di sabbia del suo labirinto o un virus
che dia continua giovinezza al mio
più fedele nemico,
forse allora sarei simile a Dio–
nell’uguale fermezza della vita
e della morte non contrarie:
onda qui e lava, larve
della luce di questa già futura
chiara mattina d’inverno–risposta
a una domanda di natura e angoscia
che folgora su un numero miliare,
il primo della strada torrida
che s’incunea nell’al di là.

(If Ulysses’ anchor is fire to the mind …
If by Aci’s sea, here amid boats
with the black eye at the bow against bad
luck, I could from the empty air
here from nothing suddenly screaming and hooking
like the harpoon of the sword-fish,
from nothing of hands changing
like Aci, make alive from nothing
an ant and push it on the cone
of sand of its labyrinth or a virus
that brings unending youth to my
most dedicated enemy,
perhaps then I would be like God–
in the firm sameness of life
and death not opposing each other:
wave here and lava, larvae
of the light of this already future
clear winter morning–answer
to a question of nature and anguish
which bolts a milestone,
the first on the torrid road
which penetrates in the world beyond.)

Always the poet-translator, Quasimodo succeeded in blending all the most diverse materials of his poetic style. The neohermetic technique is alive in this poem, except for a religious tonality, and the classical hero is placed at the beginning with the verb arde signifying a Dantean allusion to the fire that surrounds Ulysses in Canto XXVI of the Inferno. We have here the three lyrical ingredients of Quasimodo’s poetry: hermeticism, classicism, and biblical mysticism. Furthermore, the hendecasyllabic structure that predominates throughout this composition reinforces the traditional technique of the allusion, which finds a corresponding “allegoric” mode with an authority such as Dante, giving to the word àncora of the first verse a referential meaning, confirmed by arde and the fact that Quasimodo’s text is itself “anchored” on firm hermetic tradition.

After being awarded the Nobel Prize, Quasimodo achieved international recognition and received several invitations to speak and to read his works. In 1961 he traveled to Germany, Hungary, Romania, Spain, Mexico, Norway, and Bulgaria. In Spain he was met with great enthusiasm, especially in Barcelona, by leading Catalan writers such as José María Castellet, Carlos Barral, and Juan Goytisolo. In January 1963 at the Freie Universitat in West Berlin, Quasimodo gave two lectures: one on the Italian theater and another on contemporary Italian poetry. This was his second visit to West Berlin. In 1960 at the Kongress Halle he had given a reading of his verses. In the spring of 1963 he was invited by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura to London and Dublin. In London he visited Chiswick to pay homage to Ugo Foscolo’s memorial in the church cemetery at Turnham Green. He also was invited to go to Oxford and Cambridge for a lecture at the University Arms Hotel. In the summer of 1963 he returned to Norway. Then in November of the same year he went on an extensive tour of Yugoslavia. In January 1964 he went to Paris, accompanied by his secretary, Annamaria Angioletti–who later published a somewhat sensational account of her personal relationship with the poet, E fu subito sera (1969)–and Pericle Patocchi, a Swiss writer and Quasimodo’s French translator. The Nobel Prize winner was introduced to the Parisian intellectual elite at the prestigious Istituto Italiano di Cultura by Andre Chamson of the French Academy. This period of travel, according to Angioletti, coincided with Quasimodo’s deepest distrust of the media.

Louis Aragon once attributed the resentment of the French media, especially the Parisian press, when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Quasimodo, to ignorance (“Hommage à S. Qj,” Lettres Françaises, 5-11 November 1959). In Italy, objections were due more to political reasons than to literary rivalries. Although his critics appeared to regret his departure from hermeticism, in fact they opposed his political choices. Nevertheless, in the years following the Nobel Prize his name became familiar to millions of Italians. However, following a period of great popularity, which steadily increased abroad, Quasimodo’s fame in Italy seemed to diminish. The poet believed, perhaps with some reason, that the old political opposition had succeeded, at least temporarily, in banning his name from the Italian media.

In June 1965 Quasimodo was invited to read at the Spoleto “Festival dei Due Mondi.” In January 1966 he was in Grenoble, France, to do another reading of his verses. He took an extended tour of Switzerland in January 1969. In June of the same year he took his last trip outside Italy, when he was invited by Oxford University to receive an honorary doctorate. In February 1968 he was invited to a ceremony at the Capitolium in Rome for the celebration of Ungaretti’s eightieth birthday. During the banquet Ungaretti exclaimed to Quasimodo, in the presence of leading Italian writers and artists, such as Eugenio Montale, Alberto Moravia, Giacomo Manzù, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Libero Bigiaretti, Alfonso Gatto, Libero De Libero, and Piero Piccioni: “Manigoldo, lo sai che ti voglio bene” (Scoundrel, you know I like you). On 14June 1968, while presiding over the jury for a poetry prize in Amalfi, Quasimodo was taken ill with a brain hemorrhage and died shortly afterward.

It would be difficult to compare Salvatore Quasimodo with any other Italian poet, except the last three great nineteenth-century poets, Giosué Carducci, Giovanni Pascoli, and Gabriele D’Annun-zio. Probably no other Italian poet in the first decades of the twentieth century exercised such a deep and lasting influence as Quasimodo has. However, his lyrical contribution after the war seems to pale when compared to his success as a prewar hermetic poet and translator. After the war his political stance was a detriment to his artistic achievement whenever he committed himself too strongly to prevailing fashions and descended to a documentary kind of poetry. Overall, his name and poetry are to be considered at the very center of the latest developments of Italian poetry, making him the decisive experience for the newest generations of Italian poets.


Le lettere d’amore, edited by Guido Le Noci (Milan: Apol linaire, 1969);

Lettere d’amore a Maria Cumani (1936-1959), edited by David Lajolo (Milan: Mondadori, 1973);

Salvatore Quasimodo–G. La Pira: Carteggio, edited by Alessandro Quasimodo (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesced’Oro, 1980);

Lettere d’amore (1936-1959), edited by Alessandro Quasimodo (Milan: Spirali, 1985);

Carteggio, 1929-1966 (Milan: All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro, 1988).


Gilberto Finzi, “Domande a Quasimodo,” L’Europa Letteraria, 30-32 (1964): 21-26;

Ferdinando Camon, “Salvatore Quasimodo,” in his Il mestiere di poeta (Milan: Garzanti, 1982), pp. 15–21.


Luciano Anceschi, Introduction to Quasimodo’s Lirid gred (Milan: Mondadori, 1951), pp. 7-22;

Anceschi, Introduction and “Per la poesia di Quasimodo,” in Lirici Nuovi, edited by Anceschi (Milan: Mursia, 1964), pp. 3-13, 214-225;

Giorgio Baroni, “Tempo: Subito Sera,” Italianistica-Movecento letterario, XXXI, 2-3 (May-December 2002): 29–34;

Mirko Bevilacqua, ed., La critica e Quasimodo (Bologna: Cappelli, 1976);

Carlo Bo, Preface to Quasimodo’s Giorno dopo giorno, in Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1960), pp. 199–226;

Rosalma Salina Borello, ed., Per conoscere Quasimodo (Milan: Mondadori, 1973);

Glauco Cambon, “A Deep Wind: Quasimodo’s Tindari,” Italian Quarterly, 3 (Fall 1959): 16-41;

Stelio Cro, “El sentimiento telúrico del Mediterràneo en Salvatore Quasimodo,” La Nadón (15 June 1969): 2;

Gilberto Finzi, Introduction to Quasimodo’s, Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1984), pp. 5-18;

Finzi, Invito alia lettura di Salvatore Quasimodo (Milan: Mursia, 1983);

Marcello Gigante, L’ultimo Quasimodo e la poesia greca (Naples: Guida, 1970);

Gianni Grana, ed., “Salvatore Quasimodo,” in his Move-cento: I contemporanei, volume 9 (Milan: Marzorati, 1979), pp. 8103-8147;

F. J. Jones, “Osservazioni sulla simbologia di Quasimodo,” Cenobio, 3 (May-June 1961): 254-274;

Jones, “The Poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo,” Italian Studies, 16 (1961): 60-77;

Jones, “Quasimodo and the Collapse of Hermeticism,” in his “The Modern Italian Lyric (Cardiff: The University of Wales Press, 1986), pp. 512-561;

Oreste Macri, La poesia di Quasimodo (Palermo: Sellerio, 1986);

Gaetano Munafo, Quasimodo, poeta del nostro tempo (Florence: Le Monnier, 1973);

Gioacchino Paparelli, Da Ariosto a Quasimodo (Naples: Societa Editrice Napoletana, 1978);

Paparelli, “Humanitas e poesia di Quasimodo,” Lettera-ture moderne (1961): 719-748;

Paparelli, “Poesia e poetica di Quasimodo,” Il Baretti, 9-10 (1961): 134-139;

Pietro Pelosi, Presenza e metamorfosi del mito di Orfeo in Salvatore Quasimodo (Naples: Delfino, 1978);

Bortolo Pento, Lettura di Quasimodo (Milan: Marzorati, 1966);

Elena Salibra, Salvatore Quasimodo (Rome: Dell’Ateneo, 1985);

Gaetano Salveti, Salvatore Quasimodo con otto indediti del poeta (Padua, Italy: Sestante, 1964);

Roberto Sanesi, “La poesia di Quasimodo,” Inventario, 16 (1961): 107-124;

Sergio Solmi, Preface to Quasimodo’s Ed è subito sera, in Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1960), pp. 15-30;

Mario Stefanile, Quasimodo (Padua, Italy: Cedam, 1943);

Orazio Tanelli, “Quasimodo e la sua terra,” Follia di New York, 92 (March-April 1985): 37;

Natale Tedesco, Quasimodo (Palermo: Flaccovio, 1959);

Michele Tondo, Salvatore Quasimodo (Milan: Mursia, 1970);

Tondo, “Salvatore Quasimodo,” Letteratura italiana con-temporanea, volume 2, edited by Gaetano Mariani and Mario Petrucciani (Rome: Lucarini, 1980), pp.241-257;

Giuseppe Zagarrio, Quasimodo (Florence: Nuova Italia, 1969)