Eugenio Montale Biography

Biography

Article abstract: Montale was the foremost Italian poet of the twentieth century and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975. With his contemporaries Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo, Montale created a modern Italian poetry of international significance: honest, poignant, serious, and wise.

Early Life

Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa, Italy, on October 12, 1896. His father owned an import firm and would take the family—Montale’s mother and his three elder brothers and one elder sister—to his native place of Monterosso on the Ligurian coast every summer. Montale returned there each summer through his first thirty years. He loved both the lonely splendor of the Italian coastline and the activity of turn-of-the-century Genoa. While he knew the local dialects and grew familiar with the typical mix of rich and poor in the city, he also became entranced by the beauty of the small coastal villages. The formative influences of these places would later color his poetry.

Montale did not attend a university. He was drawn toward a musical career as a singer, but the death of his teacher and his father’s objections dissuaded him. Montale went through his early life with no clear idea of a career. His mother died, and he was, as the youngest, the favorite son. He was called up to serve in the army for two years in 1917. He went to Parma for training and then to the front in Trentino.

After World War I, he returned to Genoa and stayed there until 1927, cofounding the Turin review Primo tempo (1922) and becoming acquainted with the writers and critics of the day. Being unemployed for most of the time, he read voraciously: Poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the “prose-poet” Maurice de Guérin, Henry James, and philosophers such as Henri Bergson and Benedetto Croce captured his attention. Montale used the libraries, held long discussions with friends, and began to send out poems, essays, and reviews to the literary and popular press. He was quick to appreciate the quality of Italo Svevo, writing an “Omaggio” (homage) in 1925 that virtually created Svevo’s Italian reputation. Montale became famous with the publication of his first book, Ossi di seppia (1925; Bones of the Cuttlefish, 1984). In 1927, he left Genoa for Florence, where he remained for some twenty years before going on to Milan and a full-time appointment as a literary editor for the newspaper Corriere della sera.

Life’s Work

Montale’s poetry draws upon the stark, rocky coastal landscapes of his youth. The poetry flourished throughout his career as a journalist and developed along with his interest in music and painting. Ossi di seppia gathered these interests and fused them in a mature, poised, stylish poetry of compact and passionate lyricism, bringing together evocations of youthful energy, the vivid landscapes of Monterosso, and the sense of an inimical world. It was a unique, unrepeatable achievement, mixing tones of longing and loneliness, isolation and love, in acknowledgment not only of the remorselessness of material existence but also of human care and hope for the safety of others. Montale is unflinching in his understanding of human vulnerability on the cosmic scale and is reminiscent of the grim, visionary Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in his tenacity and depth. Memories, suspended emotions, symbolic presences of sea and coastline—Montale shares certain tonalities with T. S. Eliot. He resolutely refuses easy consolations and brings himself to terms with a world between the wars, in which living is compared to following a wall “with bits/ of broken bottle glass on top” (“Meriggiare pallido e assorto”). Correspondingly, Montale’s versification surprises, with lines suddenly extending or contracting and with dissonant half-rhymes and old rhythmic effects. He departs from traditional prosody as he draws upon his memories of youth. Yet, the knowledge that the period of youthful innocence is over and that prosodic traditions have been broken as well lends a startling immediacy and a resilient vitality to his first book.

Upon arriving in Florence in 1927, Montale began work for the publisher Bemporad, but a year later was made director of the famous and prestigious literary and scientific library, the Gabinetto Vieusseux. He was the only candidate for the post not a member of the Fascist Party. In 1938, when Fascism had become much more powerful, his abstention from overt political life worked against him. He resigned from his post at that time rather than be coerced into joining the Party. He married, and throughout World War II, he lived in occupied Florence. He was by then writing for various important Florentine journals, and Einaudi published his second book of poems, Le occasioni (1939; the occasions). Here, Montale’s most famous poems (“Dora Markus,” “Motetti,” “La...

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