Eugenio Montale Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Montale was the foremost Italian poet of the twentieth century and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975. With his contemporaries Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo, Montale created a modern Italian poetry of international significance: honest, poignant, serious, and wise.

Early Life

Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 12, 1896. His father owned an import firm and would take the family—Montale’s mother and his three elder brothers and one elder sister—to his native place of Monterosso on the Ligurian coast every summer. Montale returned there each summer through his first thirty years. He loved both the lonely splendor of the Italian coastline and the activity of turn-of-the-century Genoa. While he knew the local dialects and grew familiar with the typical mix of rich and poor in the city, he also became entranced by the beauty of the small coastal villages. The formative influences of these places would later color his poetry.

Montale did not attend a university. He was drawn toward a musical career as a singer, but the death of his teacher and his father’s objections dissuaded him. Montale went through his early life with no clear idea of a career. His mother died, and he was, as the youngest, the favorite son. He was called up to serve in the army for two years in 1917. He went to Parma for training and then to the front in Trentino.

After World War I, he returned to Genoa and stayed there until 1927, cofounding the Turin review Primo tempo (1922) and becoming acquainted with the writers and critics of the day. Being unemployed for most of the time, he read voraciously: Poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the “prose-poet” Maurice de Guérin, Henry James, and philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Benedetto Croce captured his attention. Montale used the libraries, held long discussions with friends, and began to send out poems, essays, and reviews to the literary and popular press. He was quick to appreciate the quality of Italo Svevo, writing an “Omaggio” (homage) in 1925 that virtually created Svevo’s Italian reputation. Montale became famous with the publication of his first book, Ossi di seppia (1925; Bones of the Cuttlefish, 1984). In 1927, he left Genoa for Florence, where he remained for some twenty years before going on to Milan and a full-time appointment as a literary editor for the newspaper Corriere della sera.

Life’s Work

Montale’s poetry draws upon the stark, rocky coastal landscapes of his youth. The poetry flourished throughout his career as a journalist and developed along with his interest in music and painting. Ossi di seppia gathered these interests and fused them in a mature, poised, stylish poetry of compact and passionate lyricism, bringing together evocations of youthful energy, the vivid landscapes of Monterosso, and the sense of an inimical world. It was a unique, unrepeatable achievement, mixing tones of longing and loneliness, isolation and love, in acknowledgment not only of the remorselessness of material existence but also of human care and hope for the safety of others. Montale is unflinching in his understanding of human vulnerability on the cosmic scale and is reminiscent of the grim, visionary Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in his tenacity and depth. Memories, suspended emotions, symbolic presences of sea and coastline—Montale shares certain tonalities with T. S. Eliot. He resolutely refuses easy consolations and brings himself to terms with a world between the wars, in which living is compared to following a wall “with bits/ of broken bottle glass on top” (“Meriggiare pallido e assorto”). Correspondingly, Montale’s versification surprises, with lines suddenly extending or contracting and with dissonant half-rhymes and old rhythmic effects. He departs from traditional prosody as he draws upon his memories of youth. Yet, the knowledge that the period of youthful innocence is over and that prosodic traditions have been broken as well lends a startling immediacy and a resilient vitality to his first book.

Upon arriving in Florence in 1927, Montale began work for the publisher Bemporad, but a year later was made director of the famous and prestigious literary and scientific library, the Gabinetto Vieusseux. He was the only candidate for the post not a member of the Fascist Party. In 1938, when Fascism had become much more powerful, his abstention from overt political life worked against him. He resigned from his post at that time rather than be coerced into joining the Party. He married, and throughout World War II, he lived in occupied Florence. He was by then writing for various important Florentine journals, and Einaudi published his second book of poems, Le occasioni (1939; the occasions). Here, Montale’s most famous poems (“Dora Markus,” “Motetti,” “La...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)

Eugenio Montale Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The youngest of five siblings, Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa on October 12, 1896, to Giuseppina Ricci and Domingo Montale, a well-to-do businessman who shared with two first cousins the ownership and management of a firm for the importation of turpentine and other chemicals. Poor health forced Montale to withdraw from school as a ninth-grader; henceforth, only his insatiable curiosity for books and the unfailing assistance of his sister Marianne—a philosophy student—were to sustain him in the pursuit of a broad culture, ranging from Italian, French, and English literature to modern philosophy. Entering the family firm or a bank, as his brothers did, was out of the question from the start for the dreamy adolescent, who, sharing with his family a great love for opera, soon began to train for baritone singing with Ernesto Sivori. This fine teacher’s death in 1916 put an end to Montale’s plans for an operatic career but not to his lifelong interest in musical theater. In 1917, Montale joined the army and soon was serving as an infantry officer on the Trentino front against the Austrians.

During the years immediately following World War I, Montale’s contributions to literary journals and the limited if solid success of Cuttlefish Bones were not enough to earn a living, and in 1927, he moved to Florence, where he found work first with Bemporad, a publishing firm, and then as curator of the Vieusseux rare books library in the employ of the...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Eugenio Montale Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975, Eugenio Montale (mohn-TAH-lay) indicated with the title of his acceptance speech, “Is Poetry Still Possible?,” that throughout his career he had experimented with other arts and literary genres—including music, fiction, essay, journalism, criticism, and translation—because he found poetry a limited means of communication and an insufficient means of earning a living. Like all metaphysical poets, Montale found language not only a vehicle of expression but also an obstacle to expressing the absolute truth. During his formative years Montale witnessed World War I and the rise of fascism in Italy, events that caused him to question the role of literature in society.

When Montale began writing, the dominant voice in Italian poetry was that of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose populism and nationalism made him disagreeable to Montale. Reacting against D’Annunzio’s use of words as a call to action during Benito Mussolini’s regime, Montale opted for poetry that expressed universal and eternal truths over poetry with immediate social import. Because of this apolitical stance Montale has been dubbed a Hermetic poet. He resisted that label, claiming that his poetry had spiritual value.

Another Italian who addressed the issue of art’s place in society was Benedetto Croce, the leading literary critic of Montale’s day. Croce, an antifascist, argued for a strict separation between literature and politics because he thought that modernist literature, especially the movement known as decadence, had promoted sensuality and irrationality at the expense of humanism and spirituality. Montale shared Croce’s antifascist views but not his belief that modernist literature had helped fascism justify its own irrational politics.

In 1915 Montale, who aspired to be an opera singer, began to study music. His voice teacher died in 1916 but not before teaching his student an appreciation for Claude Debussy, whose musical devices and effects Montale tried to imitate in his...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Eugenio Montale Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Eugenio Montale was born October 12, 1896, in Genoa, Italy, the youngest of five children born to Domenico (a merchant) and Giuseppina...

(The entire section is 476 words.)