Along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo, writers of the Hermetic school, Eugenio Montale is one of the most influential poets to shape Italian letters in the twentieth century. Although Montale also wrote literary criticism and about fifteen hundred newspaper and periodical articles, it was his first volume of poetry, Cuttlefish Bones, marked by its precision, concision, and concreteness, that gained him public recognition. In its prosody, the collection breaks from traditional Italian poetry in many ways. Most significantly, it marks a final shift from the style of Gabriele D’Annunzio. Montale abandons the linear and rhetorically flourished narrative line and works instead in a highly associative style, in an Italian really spoken, with images as the loci of meaning and abstractions arising from the images. The tone becomes direct and sometimes conversational, and fixed stanzaic patterns modulate to a mix of free verse with varied meters. Montale declared his aesthetic intent: “to rid myself of all waste” in the interest of precision.
Montalean images derive in large part from the world of nature. The imagery of Cuttlefish Bones is extremely influenced by the environs of the Cinque Terre area of the Ligurian coast, with its “enchanting arc of rocks and sky,” where he went during summers until he was thirty years old. The title refers to fragments of remains of the octopus washed ashore. Indeed, throughout the collection, the sea tosses its “bones” onto the shore and hurls the “sea-wrack starfish cork” “onto the beaches”: All of this flotsam is heaved up, “hurled aside by the torrent of life.” The section within Cuttlefish Bones with the same title abounds in recurring Ligurian images of the seacoast, the bright sun and the evocation of heat (“that land of searing sun where the air/ goes hazy with mosquitos”), the rocky shoreline, and the cuttlebones. The desolate images of rocks, of “stonebound suffering,” are every now and then juxtaposed with messages of inspiration like those of the epiphany of light in the lemon trees, of the re-creation of the winter wonderland of childhood, and of the sunflower, “crazed with light,” that can be found where “life evaporates as essence.” In contrast, “The Mediterranean” evokes the expansiveness of the sea. Montale apostrophizes: “O immensity, it was you, redeeming/ even the stones in their suffering.”
Cuttlefish Bones presages the rest of Montale’s work both aesthetically and thematically. The symbol system of the collection is established in “In limine,” wherein images of walls, which are representative of boundaries and stasis as well as of the preestablished, are contrasted by the fluidity of the water and the unconfined movement of the wind, which are shown to be emblematic of change, movement, and transformation.
Montale described himself in “The Mediterranean” as “a man intent/ on observing, in himself, and others, the furor/ of fleeting life.” He treats this theme and others typical of his times: alienation and anguish in living; isolation and enclosure emblematized by recurrent images of walls and the transgressing of those walls into boundlessness; exile from place, from childhood, from nature; the mixed virtues of being unencumbered by relationships; and the search for the authentic self.
The collection was originally received as a metaphysical statement. The face of a passerby on a crowded street, for instance, shows for a moment “an invisible suffering,” but no one notices. Facing the abyss of “nothingness at my back,/ emptiness behind me,” the speaker says:...
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