(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Emerging from the welter of experiments and iconoclasms that had marked the decade before World War I, Eugenio Montale’s intense lyrics set the tone for the interwar period in Italian poetry. Giuseppe Ungaretti’s verse, jotted down in the Carso trenches and first published in 1916, had already pointed the way to a new poetics of elliptical imagery, inward essentialness, modern diction, and deconstructed meter which had distilled Futurist exuberance into noiseless immediacy. Montale’s first collection, Cuttlefish Bones, discovered the untapped possibilities of a venerable tradition, which, purged of academic sclerosis and vatic posturing or bombast, could best articulate the dilemmas, the self-criticism, and the yearning for authentic values that variously haunted so many of the war’s survivors. The starkness of style of this first book sharpened into thinly veiled prophetic denunciation with Montale’s next collection, The Occasions, which registered the gathering of a new storm. In his third collection, The Storm and Other Poems, Montale responded to World War II and its aftermath in an unfashionable vein of visionary lyricism. His books of the 1970’s, from Satura on, approach the threshold of prosiness, in keeping with the prevalently satirical and gnomic bent of his later years. The Nobel laureate of 1975 became the poetic conscience of the generation that had groped for truth in the dark times between two world wars; he showed that the best way for a writer to be modern was not to discard a tradition which went all the way back to Dante but instead (in Ezra Pound’s words) to “make it new.”

Cuttlefish Bones

Cuttlefish Bones displays simultaneously the alert richness of youth and maturity’s searching control. Scrupulous attention to the formal resources of the word, far from foundering into aesthetic complacency, bespeaks an ingrained commitment to cognitive values, and since there can be no final certainty about these values, the persona wavering between sudden contemplative rapture and unappeased doubt transcends the merely autobiographical level to become as memorable a spokesman for the modern human condition as T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock or Ezra Pound’s Mauberley. It was no accident that the author of Cuttlefish Bones should eventually become a friend of Pound (politics apart) and try his hand at translating one short section of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) as well as three of Eliot’s “Ariel Poems,” while Eliot, for his part, published “Arsenio,” chronologically the last poem of Cuttlefish Bones, in a 1928 issue of The Criterion. “Arsenio,” the most lucidly despondent and subtly modulated monologue in Cuttlefish Bones (the poem first appeared in the collection’s third edition), was translated by Mario Praz, and it was Praz who, two decades later, identified certain formal and thematic affinities between Eugenio Montale’s and Eliot’s poetry.

The affinities are there, if one but thinks of the wastelandish component in Montale’s style and worldview, but they should not overshadow the differences and, above all, Montale’s independence from the Eliotic paradigm. Montale’s poetics of dryness, which found an early embodiment in “Meriggiare pallido e assorto” (“The Wall”), stems from the Dantesque leanings first recognized by Glauco Cambon in 1956 and openly confirmed by the poet himself many years later.

In “The Wall,” written several years before the publication of The Waste Land (1922), Montale’s characteristic tone is already evident:

. . . e andando nel sole che abbaglia
sentire con triste meraviglia
comè tutta la vita e il suo travaglio
in questo seguitare una muraglia
che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia.

(. . . and walking on under the blinding sun

to feel with sad amazement
how all of life’s painful endeavor is
in this perpetual going along a wall
that carries on its top sharp bottle shards.)

The familiar sight of such walls protecting gardens and orchards in the northern Italian upland countryside has elicited an unmistakable emblem of the burdensome human condition which the stoic Montalian persona repeatedly faces. The emblem, whether in the same form or in the guise of cognate imagery, pervades Montale’s poetry. In one of Cuttlefish Bones’s most cryptic and tensest lyrics, “Crisalide” (“Chrysalis”), it reaches its symbolic acme: “e noi andremo innanzi senza smuovere/ un sasso solo della gran muraglia” (“and we shall go right on without dislodging/ even a single stone of the huge wall”). Perhaps, the poem continues, we humans shall never meet on our way “la libertà, il miracolo,/ il fatto che non era necessario!” (“freedom, miracle,/ the fact that was not shackled by necessity!”).

That cry of the heart and of the whole mind against the seeming barrier that reality opposes to man’s need for knowledge and deliverance voices the central concern of the Montalean persona and propels his utterance beyond whatever seductions the lavish landscape of sensuous experience may offer. “The mind investigates, harmonizes, disjoins,” as Montale writes in “I limoni” (“The Lemon Trees”), the first poem of Cuttlefish Bones after the epigraph lyric; it is a question of finding “a mistake of Nature,/ the dead point of the world, the loose chain-ring,/ the thread to be unravelled” which will finally “place us in the midst of a truth.” Remarkably, and understandably, the search for truth can take place only as an attempt to disrupt the opaque compactness of existence. The revolt against closure, the distrust of intellectual systems that claim to explain everything, marks Montale’s imagery and thought from beginning to end and accounts for his interest in Émile Boutroux’s contingentist thought, which openly challenged the still prevalent determinist philosophies of science.

Montale is a thinking poet, a “poet on the edge” in Rebecca West’s apt words; he cannot take phenomenal reality for granted but must forever question it. Denial is his concomitant gesture. With Arthur...

(The entire section is 2582 words.)