Quasimodo, Salvatore 1901–1968
An Italian poet, translator, and critic, Quasimodo imbued his poems with lyrical, musical qualities underscored with a strain of sadness and anxiety. He believed that the artist could not remain separated from society, but instead must take an ethical, political stand on the events of his time. Quasimodo received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
Salvatore Quasimodo has always worked to remove the barriers that prevent understanding between men. This preoccupation brought about a change in his poetic and critical orientations during the war. The time for engaging in "abstract modulations of one's own feelings," he insists, has come to an end. He believes that poetry must serve as a means of communication; the poet must address all men and speak out for truth and "not renounce his presence" in the world. But it would be a mistake to use his own words against him, to interpret them as a repudiation of his earlier poetry, and so to pass over the very personal and often involute poems in which he distilled his private anguish. (pp. 3-4)
While a number of the earlier poems may have seemed derivative, with echos of D'Annunzio and Pascoli and certain attitudes of despair reminiscent of Ungaretti or Montale, it was also apparent that Quasimodo had fused these elements in the alchemy of a personal style. The sensual music of his verse was not audible in any of his contemporaries, who were perhaps wary of the facile musicality of too much Italian poetry. Compared to the harsher line of Montale, for instance, the lush cadences of many of Quasimodo's earlier poems make him sound less "contemporary." To find the equal of his rich melody one must go as far back as Tasso…. But despite his musicality, Quasimodo shared with Ungaretti a sparse phrase reduced to the bare essentials of discourse, yet rich in suggestive power. Like Montale, his poems encompassed a vast and changing landscape over which moved the elemental forces of winds, tides and rivers, and he filled it with the sounds of nature and with things that stand as mute witnesses to the solitude of man. And like his contemporaries, but more than they, he discovered in this world stripped of illusion the presence of mystic signs.
A vision of a lost but still remembered blessedness pervades Quasimodo's wasteland, evoked in accents that recall Baudelaire, and more directly, the Italian Leopardi, especially where the evocation is bitter…. [Often], the poem becomes an incantation that for an instant suppresses time and dissolves all bitterness; a new power of illusion restores a moment of youth and hope once lost, lived on "Islands that I have inhabited / green upon immobile seas."
However, the obsession of a lost Eden and the crushing sense of an irremediable fall are themes older than Quasimodo, or Baudelaire. Ultimately, they are simply the themes of life and death, which, as must be, are the basic stuff of all poetry. Their affective power in Quasimodo's poems derives from their particular determination in the form of each poem. The contrasting themes are related in a changing oscillation that in some of the poems develops a structure of complex formal beauty. In its context, the words and sounds of the poem take on related values, and the contrasting themes are fused in the play of a verbal chiaroscuro. Obviously, these effects can only be observed in a close reading of some of his earlier poetry. (pp. 4-5)
"Ed è subito sera," the shortest poem of Quasimodo's first volume of verse (Acque e terre, 1930), embodies in its three lines the epigrammatic terseness that characterized much of the poetry he wrote in the Thirties.
Every man stands alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of the sun:
and suddenly it is evening….
Human life is telescoped into three successive instances: emergence, apogee, and decline. (p. 5)
The rigorous simplicity of the metaphysical geometry and its polar equilibrium along an armature of assonance and of alliterative sounds give the poem the form that makes it something more than a mere restatement of the "tragic human condition."
In some of Quasimodo's early poems, the descent in time is not a sudden extinction but a slow disintegration—a "minor curve." (p. 6)
[In "Curva minore" the] concept of becoming … includes both its positive and negative aspects in time: it is an organic maturation that is both growth and decomposition. But since only a minor curve is left, it is the aspect of deterioration that must dominate. (p. 7)
[Expressions] of hope or consolation are interwoven with the darker moods in varying patterns traced by Quasimodo's sensuously melodic...
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[Quasimodo's] voice is not only unique in contemporary European poetry but it is a voice of rarest distinction: absolutely free of rhetorical inflation, at once generous and fastidious, un "fashionable" yet representative of an entire generation. The formal perfection of his verse is matched by both solidity and urgency of matter; in other words, Quasimodo is the least vapid of poets, even as he is one of the purest by those exigent standards to which Mallarmé, Rilke, and Valéry have accustomed us, the dedicated readers and judges of lyric poetry.
Italian critics have made much of Quasimodo's changes of style, of his evolution from complete internality, or subjectivity, into a writer of verse that is public and largely available, because of his new concern with extra personal issues and relevancies. Provocative though they are, considerations of this sort tend to base themselves on psychological rather than artistic evidence. Unquestionably the late war brought on a crisis in Quasimodo's career as a poet: from 1940 onward there is less listening to the "inner voice," a marked shift from the personal to the general tragedy. Unquestionably, too, that shift of thematic attention has resulted in certain stylistic modifications, which I am the last to undervalue. But what strikes the reader most forcibly is the continuity of Quasimodo's work, not its discontinuity. I would even hesitate to speak of the later work as being richer, or more mature, or more complex, than the poems contained in Ed è subito sera. From first to last Quasimodo is an extraordinarily subtle but rather simple poet, compared with such...
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Assaying [the letters of Lettere d'amore a Maria Cumani] collectively, the first thought that comes to mind is that they are truly and exclusively love letters. For the central theme throughout is the love inspired in the poet by the dancer: its mystery, its strength and its significance in his life and his art. Over the years this obsessive concentration endures…. The preface, by Davide Lajolo, suggests that the collection provides a kind of commentary on the literary world of the period, but I doubt the validity of this affirmation…. We do hear much about Quasimodo's own work of course—what he is planning, what he is writing, what kind of reviews he gets and the like. We get a clear picture of a man who has no doubts about the importance of his art nor about his own destiny. And of a man in love. The beauty and eloquence of many passages bear witness to the sincerity of his love, and they have their own irony in a way. For Quasimodo had a horror of being "romantic," yet, as he is obliged to confess, some of his outpourings of rapture are couched in the old romantic idiom. (pp. 103-04)
Thomas G. Bergin, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.