Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Little Testament” and “The Prisoner’s Dream” are complex poems about many things, all of which have multiple meanings. Montale approaches one of the major conclusions from these “judgments”—the theme of the prison world of human existence, especially in modern times—in two different ways. In “Little Testament,” the prison world is represented as the general existential condition of humanity. The theme achieves cosmic proportions, both through its allusions to contemporary social and cultural crises of values and through its predominately religious-based imagery. In “The Prisoner’s Dream,” the theme is interpreted as a more concrete, specific condition, derived from the poet’s own perception of the Cold War years. In both, the individual’s “dark night of the soul” coincides with the world’s own darkness, fanaticism, and inhumanity.

Alongside this realistic, powerfully expressed negative theme, the poet masterfully places another which is more positive but more tenuous and intangible. This theme is that of human significance, which he approaches by affirming modest, unheroic virtues such as dignity, morality, love, faith, commitment, and humanity. Montale’s poems make it clear that he believes these all-important elements are no longer operative in today’s society and are even in danger of being forgotten. The perceived fragility and impermanence of these significant values—indeed, even of civilization...

(The entire section is 480 words.)