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...
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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....
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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...
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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 work lacks a definite theoretical stance. "Poetry as gift" … might be the best description of Montale's humanistic aesthetic, and it is notion of art "as the creation of forms that express individual thoughts and sentiments" … which dominates and informs Selected Essays.
The essay on Croce is central to the book for it is in his criticism of Croce's aesthetics that we find Montale's own view "of the human and universal value of art."… I'm not personally too happy with the account of modern philosophy as "the path backwards" … or with the description of the "prevalent spiritual climate."… Nevertheless, in so far as Montale can "imagine what sort of future idealistic philosophy can have",… and to the...
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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. 61)
Blake Morrison, "Upper Grub Street: Non-Academic Critics," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIII, No. 1, July, 1979, pp. 48-61.∗
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