Eugenio Montale 1896–1981
Italian poet, critic, journalist, essayist, translator, and short story writer.
Recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize for literature, Montale affirmed through poetry a belief in human dignity and the ultimate value of existence, but also expressed pessimism at the disparity between human spiritual aspirations and the reality of our condition. His existentially profound poetry is conveyed in deeply personal and impressionistic terms, which contrasted with the embellished, formal style that predominated in Italy in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Montale, "I wanted to free the music in words, apply them to reality, and in transcending mere depiction, capture what is essential." Because of its subjectivity, Montale's verse often verges on impenetrable, leading some critics to label him a hermetic poet.
Montale was born in Genoa in 1896 into a wealthy family. He attended school until the age of fourteen, when poor health prevented further formal education. Montale entered the army in 1917 and published his first poems that same year. Upon leaving the military after World War I, he returned to Genoa, where he co-founded a short-lived literary journal and began contributing poems, articles, and reviews to newspapers and magazines. After relocating to Florence, where he worked for the publisher Bemporad from 1927 to 1928, Montale assumed the directorship of the Gabinetto Vieusseux Library, a position he held for a decade before being forced to resign due to his anti-Fascist sympathies. In spite of this occurrence, biographers note that he avoided direct political involvement throughout his life. Montale worked primarily as a translator and as the poetry critic of La fiera letteraria during World War II. He joined the staff of a Milan daily paper, Corriere della sera in 1948. During his career with Corriere della sera, Montale functioned as a literary editor and music critic and served in the latter capacity until his death.
Montale published five major verse collections: Ossia di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), Le occasioni (The Occasions), La bufera e altro (The Storm, and Other Poems), Satura (Miscellany), and Diario del '71 e del '72. In the first, Cuttlefish Bones, the sea and rugged shore of the Ligurian coast near Genoa serve as symbols of the poet's emotional and mental states. The bleak and harsh landscape not only conveys the ethical and metaphysical anguish that was palpable in the aftermath of World War I but also represents
what Montale perceived as ungovernable forces that shape human experience. The poems register loneliness, exhaustion, and despair, and ultimately offer no resolutions to the poet's anxiety. Later volumes incorporate some of these motifs and introduce new emphases as well. The Occasions examines love and the relationship of the individual to the whole of humanity and history; The Storm, and Other Poems explores the significance of personal values and integrity, especially in the tumult of modern times. In several poetry collections Montale speaks to a symbolic female figure, sometimes identified as Clizia or Volpe, who is an idealized lover or the embodiment of goodness and strength. The poet addresses his deepest concerns for himself and humanity to these angelic beings and draws hope and inspiration from them.
Cuttlefish Bones established Montale's reputation as a fresh new voice in Italian poetry, but it was after The Storm, and Other Poems that he received considerable public recognition. His disinterest in realism and his use of external phenomena—landscape, historical events, and physical objects—as a means of revealing thoughts and states of mind has led commentators to observe the influence of the Symbolist poets in his work. Montale's focus on psychological and emotional states renders his verse subjective and sometimes inscrutable, leading to occasional accusations of intentional obscurity. Readers generally agree that the work composed later in his career is more accessible, particularly the ruminations about his deceased wife in Xenia. When comparing Montale to other poets, critics usually mention T. S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri. They observe in Cuttlefish Bones the stark, apocalyptic imagery, the bleak view of modern life, and the persistent hope that characterize Eliot's The Wasteland. Commentators perceive that Beatrice, about whom Dante wrote love poetry, served as a model for the female figures in Montale's verse; furthermore, both poets are recognized for their command of the Italian language, treatment of horror, solitude, and misery, and images of purgatory and hell.
Ossi di Seppia [Cuttlefish Bones] 1925
*La casa dei doganieri e altri poesie [The Customs House, and Other Poems] 1932
Le occasioni [The Occasions] 1939
*Finisterre [Land's End] 1943
La bufera e altro [The Storm, and Other Poems] 1956
Poems from Eugenia Montale 1959
Accordi e pastelli [Harmony and Pastels] 1962
Satura [Miscellany] 1962
Poesie: Poems 1965
Selected Poems 1965
Il coplevole [The Offender] 1966
Eugenio Montale: Selected Poems 1970
Provisional Conclusions: A Selection of the Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1970 1970
Satura: 1962-1970 1971
Diario del '71 e del '72 1973
Motetti: The Motets of Eugenio Montale 1973
Trentadue variazioni 1973
†New Poems 1976
Quaderno di quattro anni [It Depends: A Poet's Notebook] 1977
Tutte le poesie...
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SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale's Poetry: A Meeting of Dante and Brueghel," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, 1958, pp. 1-32.
[An Italian-born educator and critic, Cambon has written extensively on Montale and edited his Selected Poems (1966). Joseph Brodsky called him Montale's "most perceptive critic." In the following essay, Cambon comments on the style and worldview of Montale's early poetry.]
If there ever was a writer who found himself entirely in his first essays and never betrayed himself afterwards, it is the author of Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925), Le Occasioni (The Occasions, 1939) and Finisterre (1942). And this Conradian attitude is fully recognizable in the stoical Montale of La Bufera e Altro (The Storm and Other Things), published in Venice by Neri Pozza in 1956. Montale never wavered in his style, and thanks to this firmness of expression has been able to face his psychological, moral and metaphysical worries without disintegrating either as an artist or as a man. From this angle La Bufera can be said to continue Le Occasioni; whoever might expect a "new" Montale from the new booklet would be disappointed. His novelties are no news to us: the storm does not prevail on him, the game between him and time goes ceaselessly on, and the "bottle from the sea" hasn't come to shore yet. Montale isn't the man to bring his poetry "up...
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SOURCE: "The Particular Poetic World of Eugenio Montale," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, 1959, pp. 42-55.
[In the following essay, Simonelli holds that the foundation of Montale's poetics was established in Cuttlefish Bones and developed in later works.]
To talk about Montale's poetics is above all to talk about his Ossi di seppia (1925). His later collections of poems—Occasioni (1939), Bufera (1956)—do not modify the position assumed and lived by Montale from his very early poetic experiences: "Meriggiare pallido…" (Ossi di seppia), dated 1916. In the collections following the Ossi the poet merely continues to investigate his problem more profoundly and to develop his particular poetic language further. It is in his particular poetic language rather than in his subjects that Montale attempts modification. He adopts a more extensive and more narrative style, which remains open to exterior happenings. But in speaking of such a modification, one must proceed with caution, for even in the Ossi, created during a moment in which Italian poetry in its search for the purely essential shunned any type of narrative expedient, Montale's narrative taste is already evident; not so much in the poems themselves as in the concious construction of the collection. It is not unusual for the "opera prima" of a poet to represent a fixed point in the...
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SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale's 'Motets': The Occasions of Epiphany," in PMLA, Vol. LXXXII, No. 7, December, 1967, pp. 471-84.
[In the following excerpt, Cambon arques that thematic and formal unity links the "Motets" in The Occasions.]
The Centrality of the twenty "Mottetti" to Montale's decisive second book, Le Occasioni (1939), has been noted by such critics as Ettore Bonora and Silvio Ramat [in La poesia di Montale (1965) and Montale (1965), respectively]. Despite their probings, however, much remains to be done towards an organic understanding of this remarkable series of poems. Since this part of Montale's work relates to much else he has written before and after, I shall not attempt to isolate it from the rest of the Occasioni book, but merely to keep my focus on what is after all a kind of book within the book. A tighter unity prevails among the "Motets" than among the other poems in the volume, both because the former all turn on the constant of love for Clizia in the variations of worldly vicissitudes, and because they match this thematic constancy by a relative constancy of form.
The author himself, in his awareness of their interdependence, rearranged their sequential order to fit a dialectic of the heart rather than a strict chronological succession. The first three "Motets" (I take these details from the latest Mondadori edition, the fifth, of 1962)...
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SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale," in Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, New York University Press, 1969, 235-329.
[In the following excerpt, Cary explicates poems from Montale's "war-book," Land's End (Finisterre,).]
Dismissed from the directorship of the Gabinetto Vieusseux in 1938—the year of "Notizie dall'Amiata"—and forced to take on a heavy load of translation (chiefly from the English language, mostly Shakespeare plays) in order to survive, Montale stayed in Florence and wrote the poems to be gathered in the small war-book called Finisterre.
With its pointed epigraph taken from Agrippa D'Aubigné's "À Dieu"
Les princes n'ont point d'yeux pour voir ces grands merveilles,
Leurs mains ne servent plus qu'à nous persécuter….
Finisterre was unpublishable in the Italy of this tormented period. The manuscript was smuggled out to Switzerland where an edition of 150 copies was published in Lugano in 1943 just before the coup d'état of July 25th which marked the beginning of the end of Mussolini.
In his essay on "Eliot and Ourselves," Montale has remarked on the stilnovismo of Eliot and Pound, their common cult of Dante and their docte allusiveness that "works itself out in inlay work and the glittering game of quotations and...
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SOURCE: "The New Montale," in Books Abroad, Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 639-45.
[In the following excerpt, Cambon states that Miscellany (Satura) departs from the style of Montale's earlier poetry.]
The poet himself once intimated that his three major books of verse, Ossi di seppia (1925), Le occasioni (1939), and La bufera e altro (1956), had vaguely rehearsed a Dantesque pilgrimage finally rewarded by glimmers of paradise. If so, what place can this fourth book, Satura, take in the overall sequence? In what sense, if at all, can it go further than its predecessors and thus refocus the whole itinerary? These are no idle questions, especially with a writer like Eugenio Montale, who is chary of his word. We might have been forgiven if we had taken at face value the finality of "Provisional Conclusions" with which he chose to end his third volume in 1956; they did sound like poetical epitaphs. Then came the improbable Satura of 1962, a thin sheaf of lyrics, part new and part exhumed from remote decades, to weaken any such surmise. The scant poems were so inconspicuously printed that they looked like a mimeograph for private circulation. In fact the were not for sale; and the self-deflating tone of the leading piece, "Botta e risposta" ("Thrust and Riposte"), combined with the elusive format to suggest the idea of a literary postscript to "The Storm and Other...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Montale," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XVIII, No. 10, June 1, 1972, pp. 29-32.
[Spender was an English man of letters who rose to prominence during the 1930s as a Marxist lyric poet and as an associate of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. His poetic reputation has declined in the postwar years, while his stature as a prolific and perceptive literary critic has grown. In the following excerpt, Spender celebrates Montale's ability as a poet, finding that he unsentimentally captured the essence of life.]
Mosca (meaning "fly")—as everyone called her—was the wife of Eugenio Montale, the most famous living Italian poet and the incomparable ironic literary commentator of Corriere della Sera. She was a small, auburn-haired, rather heavily made-up lady who wore spectacles with thick lenses that magnified the gaze with which she looked out at the world. She took people in amusedly—not unkindly—but with no illusions about them. Her laugh was of the sort that used to be described as "tinkling." There was certainly something old-fashioned about her, like a watchful guest at a corner table of a boardinghouse on the sea coast. Perhaps she was called Mosca (Montale seems in his poetry to wonder why) because she seemed glinting and flickering: a firefly rather than just a fly, I would have thought.
It was she who told me...
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SOURCE: "Wit, Understatement, and Irony: Montale's Sixth Book of Poems," in Books Abroad, Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 507-10.
[An Indian-born educator, critic, and poet, Singh has translated several selections of poems by Montale and is the author of Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism (1973). Other book-length studies by Singh focus on A. C. Swinburne, Giacomo Leopardi, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. In the following excerpt, he assesses the style and tone of the poems in Diario del '71 e del '72.]
The first part of Montale's fifth book of poems, Diario del '71, appeared in a private, limited edition of 100 copies, published by Vanni Scheiwiller, Milan, 1971. To this has now been added Diario del '72 to form a new book [Diario del '71 e del '72] (The fourth book Satura came out in 1971; see Glauco Cambon, "The New Montale," in Books Abroad, 45:4). There are about 90 poems, most of them are short, some of them even epigrammatic.
There are two distinct strains running through this book: the lyric strain and the ironic-satirical strain. The two sometimes merge with each other; at other times they don't so much exclude as dominate one another. One can divide the book into two groups of poems—one where the lyric strain prevails and the other where the ironic strain does. As to the poems written in the...
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SOURCE: "Openness to Life: The Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1975 Nobel Laureate for Literature," in Books Abroad, Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 7-15.
[In the following excerpt, Craft highlights dominant subjects in Montale's poetry: contemporary values, the human condition, and the search for meaning in life.]
In October the Swedish Academy announced that the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature would be bestowed upon the poet Eugenio Montale, the fifth Italian writer to receive the honor. In 1906, the sixth anniversary of the award, Giosué Carducci (1835-1907), neoclassical poet of Italy's post-unification era, was the first Italian Nobel winner. Twenty years later the laureate was Grazia Deledda (1871-1936), author of more than twenty-five novels, most of which are set in Sardinia. Many will doubtless recognize the name of the poet and playwright who received the prize in 1934: Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), a writer known throughout the world for his philosophical plays Henry IV and Six Characters in Search of an Author. It is interesting to observe that these earlier awards did not raise the bitter feelings and controversy that attended the presentation in 1959. In that year the prize went to the poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-68), who, like Pirandello, was born in Sicily. In 1959 many felt that Eugenio Montale, this year's recipient, was somehow slighted by the Nobel committee's decision....
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SOURCE: "The Art of Montale," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIV, No. 10, June 9, 1977, pp. 35-9.
[Brodsky is a Russian poet and critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 and became an American citizen in 1977. His view of poetry as a relief from the horrors and absurdities of life and the meaningless vacuum of death has led critics to link him with the modern school of existentialism. In the following excerpt from a review of New Poems, Brodsky notes distinguishing characteristics of Montale's poetry and praises the verse written about his deceased wife.]
Ever since the Romantics, we have been accustomed to the biographies of poets whose startling careers were sometimes as short as their contributions; in this context, Montale is a kind of anachronism, and the extent of his contribution to poetry has been anachronistically great. A contemporary of Apollinaire, T. S. Eliot, Mandelstam, and Hart Crane, he belongs more than chronologically to that generation. Each of these writers wrought a qualitative change in his respective literature, as did Montale, whose task was much the hardest.
While it is usually chance that brings the English-speaking poet to read a French poet (Laforgue, say), an Italian does so out of a geographical imperative. The Alps, which are now a two-way route for all sorts of "isms," used to be a one-way route going north. For any Italian poet...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Eugenio Montale," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 411-29.
[Fraser is an American educator and critic specializing in the works of William Shakespeare. In the following essay, he argues that Montale takes an agnostic stance in his poetry by raising issues without drawing conclusions: "Montale, venturing the question, doesn't venture an answer. No answer is likely, unless an irreducible surd."]
My subject is Montale's poetry and the peculiar configuration that it makes.
Poems like Wallace Stevens's "The Ordinary Women" baffle exegesis, but when you say them over and over, they describe a configuration or form: "The lacquered loges hunddled there / Mumbled zay-zay and a-zay, a-zay." Other poems such as "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" present difficulty which is all at the exegetical level. Only read what Pound has read or let the commentators do that for you; this superficial labor accomplished, the rest is easy going. Montale's poetry lives in its own place—call it a midden—between these different kinds. It smells of ebbtide and detritus like the early poetry of T. S. Eliot, which means it is bookish poetry and smells of the lamp:
The happiness of cork abandoned to the current
that melts around tumbledown bridges.
("Boats on the Marne")
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SOURCE: A review of It Depends: A Poet's Notebook, in a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM,—Los Angeles, CA, March 11, 1981.
[Kessler is an American educator, poet, short story writer, translator, and screenwriter. In the following excerpt from the transcript of a radio broadcast, he states that Montale is more "outspoken and direct" in It Depends: A Poet's Notebook than in his previous works.]
We have still among us today the great Italian poet, Engenio Montale, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. And, perhaps it's not surprising that he continues to produce poetry that is full of interest and power, although he keeps changing its qualities and its direction. Not surprising, because of the nature of this great poet. Ever since his first book came out in 1925, Montale's most recurrent theme has been the mediation of our present lives, that is, our personal identities, by our links to the past. Of course, one has to have had a past, and Italy is the European country par excellence with a past. I suppose that there is another, and somewhat ironical, aspect to this situation of Italy in our Western Civilization's heritage: for Italy is also one of the last Western nations to have entered the Modern Age, for it was only unified as a nation during the past century, lagging long behind even Germany. As anyone who has travelled and lived in Italy knows, it is a very varied and very...
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SOURCE: "Prose Glosses: Is Poetry Still Possible?" in Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 136-54.
[An English journalist, novelist, and critic, West championed equality for women and other liberal political views. In the following excerpt, she studies Montale's prose writings for insights into his thoughts about the function of poetry.]
In his career as a journalist Montale wrote innumerable prose pieces, some of which have already been anthologized in Auto da fé and Sulla poesia, others of which have still to be gathered. He has published two collections of short prose: Farfalla di Dinard, which is made up of stories and prose pieces, and Fuori di casa, which consists of his travel pieces….
I should like to concentrate attention on a few texts that are particularly revealing of Montale's poetics and of his beliefs concerning the function and meaning of poetry. These prose pieces are not necessarily explicit or direct commentaries on individual poems or collections of poetry, although as Cesare Segre and others have shown, this is a legitimate and profitable way of using the prose [Segre, "Invito alla 'Farfalla di Dinard," in I segni e la critica, 1970]. However, these pieces do provide us with further insight into Montale's attitudes toward life and art and can be considered, therefore, as...
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SOURCE: "An Invitation to Hope: Eugenio Montale," in Grand Street, Vol. 3, No. 1, Autumn, 1983, pp. 91-111.
[An English educator and critic, Gifford has written extensively about Russian literature. In the following essay, he provides an overview of Montale's verse, noting a message of hope implicit in his works.]
The critic Sergio Solmi, long acquainted with Eugenio Montale and much appreciated by him, opens an account of his poetry with these words:
There were few things we believed in when young; but
among those few we certainly did believe in poetry.
["La poesia di Montale" (1957), in Scrittori negli anni, 1963]
He spoke for a generation that had seen two different kinds of disaster befall Italy: the defeat and demoralization of Caporetto; the triumph, and the moral degradation following upon it, of Fascism. His statement recalls the question once put to Nadezhda Mandelstam by a woman teacher in the provinces: how was it that "all those students who thirst after truth and righteousness are always so keen on poetry?" Living through the black comedy of Italian Fascism is not to be compared with what Russian intellectuals had to endure in the same years. Until the Republic of Salò, set up in 1943, the oppression in Italy had more in common with the rule of the Romanovs than with that of Stalin....
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Ricciardelli, Michael. "Montale in the U.S.A. (1936-1971)." Books Abroad 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 645-48.
Index of criticism by American commentators.
Craft, Wallace. "Eugenio Montale in Books Abroad (1947-1975)." Books Abroad 50, No. 1 (Winter 1976): 15.
Lists articles and reviews on Montale that have appeared in the periodical.
Almansi, Guido. "Earth and Water in Montale's Poetry." Forum for Modern Language Studies 2, No. 4 (October 1966): 377-85.
Discusses the interrelation of water and earth symbolism in Montale's verse.
Almansi, Guido, and Merry, Bruce. Eugenio Montale: The Private Language of Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977, 167 p.
Study divided into sections focusing on each of Montale's five major verse collections. According to the authors, "More than any other poet in the twentieth century, … Montale has become the messenger of our existential and sentimental uncertainty. Here we recognized a voice which spoke our own moral cowardice, our own aesthetic perplexity."
Baranski, Zygmunt. "Dante and Montale: The Threads of...
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