“The Eel” is a lyric in free verse. It is contained in one stanza of thirty lines. The title directs the reader to the eel, whose journey is related by the poem, and raises the question of the significance of the eel, prompting the reader to ask what the poet means by centering attention upon it.
The first sixteen lines describe the journey of the eel. The eel is described leaving the cold reaches of the Baltic Sea and plunging south into Europe, eventually to reach “these shores of ours”—the Italy in which the poet is writing. The poem mentions the marshes, wetlands, and rivers of Italy even before the beginning of the eel’s journey is told, thus already focusing attention on the creature’s destination. As the eel goes upstream, her journey becomes less smooth, more of a struggle. The eel is no longer moving in elements that are natural and friendly to her. Instead, she is involved in a frenzied battle with powerful and awesome forces of nature. The eel is not a slimy, inert natural object. Her movement against nature arouses the reader’s human sympathies.
The Alps are natural barriers to any creature, or for that matter any man-made artifact such as a boat, seeking to journey by river from the north to the south of Europe. Yet the eel, by the sheer force of her lowly, earthy will, bursts her way through “stone interstices of slime” until she miraculously comes out on the other side. Her entry into the Italian landscape is described as a blaze of light. She appears, quite contrary to one’s usual expectations of what an eel is like, to be a source of revelation.
The last seventeen lines of the poem describe how the poet perceives the eel. His tone is celebratory, so much so that one wonders if it can really be an eel he is talking about. He praises the eel as “arrow of Love on earth” and several times suggests that it embodies the principle of life itself. The eel seeks life even in the midst of “drought, desolation.” She is depicted as the spark of life, which does not always flourish on earth, but needs to go through drought and desolation in order to preserve its meaning. The eel is not a part of this desolation, but is like a rainbow come to disperse its clouds. In this way, the light brought by the eel is like that of the human eye itself, “twin of that other iris shining between your lashes,” which in a similar way can draw beauty even from outwardly forlorn circumstances. Because of this similarity, the eel is not a foreign creature to humans. In fact, at the end of the poem, the reader is urged to recognize her as a sister.
Eugenio Montale wrote this poem in such a cunning way that he almost seems to be playing a trick on the reader. For most of the poem, he seems to be telling the story of the eel in a very straightforward manner. Even after the journey is ended and the more philosophical burst of praise for the eel begins, one thinks one is listening to a story from which one is far removed. In the last line of the poem, however, the poet suddenly poses a question to the reader, asking “can you deny a sister?”
It is revealed that, far from passively or impersonally describing an eel, the poet has is fact been talking to the reader all the time. The force of this address is multiplied...
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many times by the way it is suspended until the end. Montale anticipates this revelation when, by his praise of the eel in the middle of the poem, he shows that the creature has a spiritual as well as a material dimension. The full impact is delayed until the conclusion, however; because of this delay, the nature of the poem bursts upon the reader with the same surprise and intensity with which the eel bursts upon the Italian landscape.
By packing the very complex theme and story of the poem into one relatively short stanza, the poet creates a density through which the reader has to struggle, much as the eel does through the mountains. One’s appreciation of this density is heightened when one realizes that the entire poem is contained not only in one stanza but also in one long sentence, which is divided into several clauses by commas, colons, and semicolons. Its energy rolls magnificently through these obstacles, but the fact that there are obstacles is important. The comma is particularly effective in this regard. By placing a comma after nearly every action or gesture of the eel, the poet wraps up these actions and gestures in the mantle of his own language. This language, rife with vivid natural images, charges the meaning even as it impedes it. The energy and beauty represented by the eel must be delayed in order to break out so brilliantly at the end. The poem’s organization enables the ending to stun the reader metaphorically into awareness and exhilaration.
Montale’s difficulty and density of texture has led to his being labeled a “hermetic” poet, one who does not easily surrender his meanings to the reader. “The Eel,” however, shows that the prime effect of the density is to give the poem an almost overwhelming rhetorical and emotional force.