Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

This poem is full of compressed meaning and resonance. One expects a poem about an eel to concern the rawness and strife in nature, but the role of the eel seems far more elevated than this. The eel is on the verge of being a symbol of fertility, of the ongoing cycle of life and death. The poet is careful to prevent the reader from seeing the eel as simply a part of nature. This is emphasized as soon as the arduous portion of the eel’s journey begins, when the eel is poised against the brute reality of nature just as a human voyager would be.

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The geographical course of the eel’s voyage from north to south is no accident. The eel makes the journey from the Baltic to northern Italy that, practically, cannot be made by water in order to suggest a subterranean, intuitive route of transit that can be found underneath those of surface reality. Since Montale was writing this poem shortly after the end of World War II, it is not too far-fetched to suppose that the eel’s successful migration symbolizes the hope of resurrecting a Europe divided and devastated by war. Montale, a committed anti-Fascist, experienced the horrors of the war personally. The significance of the eel managing to tunnel through barriers thought impassable would thus have all the more appeal for him.

Yet the full meaning of the eel is only revealed after she has reached her goal. Breaching the territorial and geographical obstacles is not her only task. She also has to confront the despair that afflicts the human spirit. Once the eel is in Italy, within the poet’s sight, she becomes a highly charged emblem of an experience very close to salvation. The transformation of one of the lowliest, the least romantic, of the creatures of the earth into a beacon of redemption is all the more dramatic for its unlikelihood. This redemption seems at first to be universal in scope. As a principle of the life force itself, it can change the entire desolate landscape by illuminating it.

Though the poet wishes the reader to accept this universal significance, in the close of the poem he offers a more personal meaning. The eel has gone from the impersonal to the personal and has been identified throughout as distinctly feminine. This has been underscored by the association with the cycle of fertility and by the image of the eel, in being like a rainbow, resembling “that other iris shining between your lashes,” presumably the eye of a beloved woman. The eel, like a shining human glance, permeates the order of nature with a power that is all the more forceful because it seems to be of nature, not something primarily spiritual. Montale avoids triteness and conventionality by picking an unexpected symbol for redemption. The eel’s creatureliness also indicates that the transcendence that will save us is hidden in a source near or even under the earth. The poem finds that the natural is really supernatural; one translator of “The Eel,” William Arrowsmith, is astute when he describes it as “a cosmic love-poem.”

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