Montale, Eugenio (Vol. 18)
Montale, Eugenio 1896–
The greatest living Italian poet, Montale is also a translator, journalist, and critic. Montale began his career as a poet of landscape, but under the influence of Valéry and the symbolists he broke away from the staid conventions of Italian poetry of the twenties to produce a richly symbolic verse with cryptic, unconventional lyrics. The obscurity of his poetry led critics to name him along with Ungaretti and Quasimodo as the founders of the poetic movement known as hermeticism. His love of music, as well as his poetic philosophy, is revealed in the following statement: "I wanted to free the music in words, apply them to reality, and in transcending mere depiction capture what is essential." The sea is a frequent symbol, exile and uncertainty are common themes, and despair and desolation are recurrent moods in Montale's poetry. In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, the Academy cited his pessimistic but "indelible feeling for the value of life and the dignity of mankind." (See also CLC, Vols. 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[Despite his English affinity], Montale still belongs to the continental European tradition. Since the 19th century, French, Italian, German, and Spanish poetry has tolerated a much higher degree of difficulty, of "hermeticism" than has English or American poetry. To the extent that Eliot was influenced by the French Symbolists he was labeled "obscure."… Also, continental philosophy, very much at odds with the English empirical tradition, has had a continuous influence on the poetry written in those countries—and the influence is often reciprocal…. The result is that the metaphysical or dialectical concerns of a good deal of continental poetry, including Montale's, are apt to strike English readers as misplaced, forced, even unreal.
Montale was never altogether a "hermetic" poet, certainly not in his first book. The poems in Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), published in 1925, decipher fairly easily. Many of the poems are taken up with description, sometimes of interiors but more often of landscapes or seascapes. Montale develops the relationship between narrator and environment in a peculiar way: the two exist in reciprocity, a kind of spiritual symbiosis that Ruskin would have put under his rubric of the "pathetic fallacy." We no longer find this approach scandalous; in any case, Montale's landscapes are notable for their concretion, their vivid particulars. The poems in the sequence "Mediterraneo" form a series of meditations on the sea…. A second natural phenomenon that preoccupies the poet is sunlight, the noonday meridional glare, which annihilates everything except una certezza: la luce ("one certainty: light"). (pp. 257-58)
Throughout the Mediterranean sequence and indeed through many of the other poems as well runs the theme of desire for "un evento impossibile," a moment of transcendence or escape from fatality, limitation, the bondage of mortality. The poet tries to imagine some "loophole" in nature…. Moments of escape or transcendence are presented … in such poems as "Quasi una fantasia" as hypothetical, mere supposition, always in the future: they are never to be realized; or perhaps the poet knows that their sole chance for realization lies in poetry, as hypothetical, imagined experience.
On the other hand, Montale presents as actual and palpable "il male di vivere," (the evil of living), "questa tortura senza nome," (this nameless torment), the "fissità gelida" (frozen fixity) of human suffering. The Ligurian landscape, sun-beaten, rocky, desiccated, with theatrical vistas on to the sea and precipitous cliffs, seems to echo sympathetically the theme of spiritual torment. (Montale finds a verbal equivalent for that landscape, a gravelly, heavily consonanted speech….) Human love would seem to be for Montale the best response to the "male di vivere." But it is seldom...
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[Where] does Quaderno di quattro anni come exactly, in Montale's oeuvre? That inevitably raises the larger question—how is the whole course of his poetry to be seen? The invitation (temptation) to see it in its entirety has now been formally presented with the publication … of Tutte le poesie. (This volume faithfully reproduces the six individual collections in their order of appearance.) … [It would seem that Quaderno di quattro anni is one more medley of "mixed bags"]; four years' jottings after two years of diary notes. Desultory verse.
That description would quite misrepresent the new book and the two that preceded it. Today it is very clear: we have been slow on the uptake; the error was in our reading. What Montale has been giving us since La bufera e altro is not further individual, autonomous collections, but the parts, the canti, roughly, of his long free poem, his candid, rambling address to the public, his "Don Juan". By this light the individual pieces in the three newer books appear differently too; they become themselves. Rather than single compositions they read as the strophes … of a long work-in-progress. Some do, of course, stand by themselves, as individual poems: but for the most part they simply move with "action", deftly, exactly; they are not made to be notable or particularly striking. Even the exceptions ['L'onore,' 'Per un fiore reciso'] do not belie this impression. These are slender knots; the net is the thing.
The resemblance of Montale's poema to the Don Juan he has long admired is strictly in the liberties he has taken….
[In contrast to Byron's technique, the] action—and here it is nothing invented, being neither more nor less than the actual course of the poet's day or days—is unexpressed. All that we are given, this time, are the eddies and asides. These prove to be varied and continually surprising. Ephemera and life-long themes are heard equally, in quick succession—the mark of the poema as Byron...
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Definition is the staple of critical discourse. Eugenio Montale in his poetry frustrates definition. His music is crepuscular as it enfolds and merges dissimilar things. He is an anti-romantic poet and contemptuous of "New Sirens" and weather-worn Tritons. He is also, when estimated with the eye of hindsight, the legatee and perpetuator of the romantic tradition, remembering—but the participle fails to do justice—"the wild fire that burned in the veins of the world." So two truths are told of him. An accurate reading of his quality will seek to run the two together….
Montale, like [the] Crepuscolari or twilight poets,… repudiates the fictive order of boxwood and acanthus as fabricated by "the poets laureate," a derisive appellation…. But he repudiates impartially the disorder of his own time,… a heap of broken images disposed as by Eliot in The Waste Land—devoid of form as the adjective governs, therefore of solicitude—and "scattered in a cold repose." He is out of key with his time as he keeps his solicitude and his memory inviolate, compelling us to remember that "something happened … which is everything" (Xenia). (p. 449)
The lower case or peculiar instance is the province of poetry. Montale as he labors there is not synoptic but myopic, the deprivation and the success of his kind of temper. He discerns no order except as he can tease it from private disorder, the surf or backwash of memory. (p. 450)
Montale evidently is neither fish nor flesh, so not favored by thrill-seekers who think poetry's business is to tickle the viscera or by puritans who make poetry messianic or throw away the book. He is not a hedonist. He does not bear witness to the Pisgah-sight. His poetry is, however, political and social, as what great poetry is not. But it works by implication and negation. He does not want to be counted among the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He prefers to legislating the patient labor of taxonomy, finding the exact names of things—quoting Jiminez, "la cosa misma." This means he is unwilling or unable to afford us that heuristic component great poetry is supposed to afford. Listen, I am Lazarus come from the dead, come back to tell you all. (pp. 450-51)
[In Montale's poetry] conviction depends not on answers but uncertainties. Matter of fact is tangible, more so than in [eighteenth-century] English poets, but not amenable to extrapolating. The odor of the lemons is pervasive—remembering the most sensuous of the early poems—but cannot be severed from earth. Montale, like Dr. Williams in "The A, B and C of It," sits to the tutelage of his senses. (p. 451)
Montale embodies the problems he is treating in the problems of his style, the latter dictating importantly what problems will or can be at issue. He re-creates, we can say he imagines the etiology of the matter that concerns him and its enlarging in a present of his imagining. (p. 452)
Montale's modest ambition—of course it is immoderately ambitious—is not to resolve experience as in a trenchant couplet—Epigram's an assassin: "La Pointe assassine"—but to memorialize the turbid surface of experience, the scattering of pigs as the auto fords the river, the carillon of the church of San Gusmè, a May moon, all staining, so attesting the white radiance or meaningless flux of eternity ("Verso Siena"). To say just what is attested lies outside Montale's purview. This unwillingness to put his cards on the table does not constitute a virtue, as perhaps for Verlaine. I think it runs with Montale's temperamental bias. I see the bias as denoting and partly enabling his characteristic excellence in poetry.
To say how Montale's poetry contends against itself is to discriminate his achievement, at the same time to temper praise of the achievement. Like Eliot, he is often at his...
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As Professor [G.] Singh argues in his excellent "Introduction" [to Selected Essays], working as a freelance journalist in much the same situation as Eliot, Montale is free of the largely academic vice of "a priori postulates of a critical credo, theory or methodology."… His criticism and literary journalism are "constantly enriched by the kind of intuitions, similitudes, references and turns of phrase which he owes to his experience as a poet", and the "validity of his criticism thus may be said to be ultimately rooted in that experience as well as in his sense of contemporaneity."… It is a refreshing criticism to encounter, and of course what Professor Singh says is not meant to imply that Montale's...
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[Montale's Selected Essays] is a collection well worth having, one which lets us see this major poet's reaction not only to his Italian predecessors, but to many of the principal American and European Modernists. For an English reader there is a certain amount of culture-gap to come to terms with: to find the Auden generation being described as "modern poets of anguished boredom" seems odd and offcourse. But of their kind, and especially when they deal with Italian literature and Fascism, the essays are exemplary: though nearly all written to tight deadlines and with severe restrictions of space (Montale earns his living as a reviewer), they are sharp, simple and insightful—giornalismo at its best. (p....
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