Eugenio Montale Montale, Eugenio - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Eugenio Montale 1896–1981

Italian poet, critic, journalist, essayist, translator, and short story writer.

Recipient of the 1975 Nobel Prize for literature, Montale affirmed through poetry a belief in human dignity and the ultimate value of existence, but also expressed pessimism at the disparity between human spiritual aspirations and the reality of our condition. His existentially profound poetry is conveyed in deeply personal and impressionistic terms, which contrasted with the embellished, formal style that predominated in Italy in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Montale, "I wanted to free the music in words, apply them to reality, and in transcending mere depiction, capture what is essential." Because of its subjectivity, Montale's verse often verges on impenetrable, leading some critics to label him a hermetic poet.

Biographical Information

Montale was born in Genoa in 1896 into a wealthy family. He attended school until the age of fourteen, when poor health prevented further formal education. Montale entered the army in 1917 and published his first poems that same year. Upon leaving the military after World War I, he returned to Genoa, where he co-founded a short-lived literary journal and began contributing poems, articles, and reviews to newspapers and magazines. After relocating to Florence, where he worked for the publisher Bemporad from 1927 to 1928, Montale assumed the directorship of the Gabinetto Vieusseux Library, a position he held for a decade before being forced to resign due to his anti-Fascist sympathies. In spite of this occurrence, biographers note that he avoided direct political involvement throughout his life. Montale worked primarily as a translator and as the poetry critic of La fiera letteraria during World War II. He joined the staff of a Milan daily paper, Corriere della sera in 1948. During his career with Corriere della sera, Montale functioned as a literary editor and music critic and served in the latter capacity until his death.

Major Works

Montale published five major verse collections: Ossia di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), Le occasioni (The Occasions), La bufera e altro (The Storm, and Other Poems), Satura (Miscellany), and Diario del '71 e del '72. In the first, Cuttlefish Bones, the sea and rugged shore of the Ligurian coast near Genoa serve as symbols of the poet's emotional and mental states. The bleak and harsh landscape not only conveys the ethical and metaphysical anguish that was palpable in the aftermath of World War I but also represents

what Montale perceived as ungovernable forces that shape human experience. The poems register loneliness, exhaustion, and despair, and ultimately offer no resolutions to the poet's anxiety. Later volumes incorporate some of these motifs and introduce new emphases as well. The Occasions examines love and the relationship of the individual to the whole of humanity and history; The Storm, and Other Poems explores the significance of personal values and integrity, especially in the tumult of modern times. In several poetry collections Montale speaks to a symbolic female figure, sometimes identified as Clizia or Volpe, who is an idealized lover or the embodiment of goodness and strength. The poet addresses his deepest concerns for himself and humanity to these angelic beings and draws hope and inspiration from them.

Critical Reception

Cuttlefish Bones established Montale's reputation as a fresh new voice in Italian poetry, but it was after The Storm, and Other Poems that he received considerable public recognition. His disinterest in realism and his use of external phenomena—landscape, historical events, and physical objects—as a means of revealing thoughts and states of mind has led commentators to observe the influence of the Symbolist poets in his work. Montale's focus on psychological and emotional states renders his verse subjective and sometimes inscrutable, leading to occasional accusations of intentional obscurity. Readers generally agree that the work composed later in his career is more accessible, particularly the ruminations about his deceased wife in Xenia. When comparing Montale to other poets, critics usually mention T. S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri. They observe in Cuttlefish Bones the stark, apocalyptic imagery, the bleak view of modern life, and the persistent hope that characterize Eliot's The Wasteland. Commentators perceive that Beatrice, about whom Dante wrote love poetry, served as a model for the female figures in Montale's verse; furthermore, both poets are recognized for their command of the Italian language, treatment of horror, solitude, and misery, and images of purgatory and hell.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Ossi di Seppia [Cuttlefish Bones] 1925

*La casa dei doganieri e altri poesie [The Customs House, and Other Poems] 1932

Le occasioni [The Occasions] 1939

*Finisterre [Land's End] 1943

Poesie 1948

Poesie 1949

La bufera e altro [The Storm, and Other Poems] 1956

Poesie 1957

Poems from Eugenia Montale 1959

Accordi e pastelli [Harmony and Pastels] 1962

Satura [Miscellany] 1962

Poesie: Poems 1965

Selected Poems 1965

Il coplevole [The Offender] 1966

*Xenia 1966

Eugenio Montale: Selected Poems 1970

Provisional Conclusions: A Selection of the Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1920-1970 1970

Satura: 1962-1970 1971

Diario del '71 e del '72 1973

Motetti: The Motets of Eugenio Montale 1973

Trentadue variazioni 1973

New Poems 1976

Quaderno di quattro anni [It Depends: A Poet's Notebook] 1977

Tutte le poesie [All the Poems] 1977

L'Opera in versi [Poetical Works] 1980

Altre versi e poesie disperse [Otherwise: Last and First Poems of Eugenio Montale] 1981

Poesie inedite. 6 vols. 1986-

*These three collections of poems also appeared in other volumes as follows: La casa dei doganieri e altri versi in Le occasioni; Finisterre in La bufera e altro; and Xenia in Satura.

†Selections from Satura: 1962-1970 and Diario del '71 e del '72.

Other Major Works

Omaggio a Italo Svevo (criticism) 1925

La storia di Billy Budd [translator; from the novella Billy Budd by Herman Melville] 1942

Strano interludio [translator; from the drama Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill] 1943

Quaderno di traduzioni [translator; from works by various authors] 1948

Amleto, principe di Danimarca [translator; from the drama Hamlet by William Shakespeare] 1949

Al dio sconsciuto [translator; from the novel To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck] 1954

La farfalla di Dinard [The Butterfly of Dinard] (short stories, prose poems, and sketches) 1956

Auto de fé: Cronache in due tempi [Act of Faith: Chronicles from Two Periods] (essays) 1966

Eugenio Montale/Italo Svevo: Lettere, con gli scritti de Montale su Svevo [Eugenio Montale/Italo Svevo: Letters, with Montale's Writings on Svevo] (letters and essays) 1966

Fuori di case [Away from Home] (travel essays) 1969

La poesia non esiste [Poetry Does Not Exist] (short fiction) 1971

Nel Nostro Tempo [Poet in Our Time] (prose) 1972

E ancora possible la poesie? [Is Poetry Still Possible?] (Nobel Prize speech) 1975

Sulla poesia [On Poetry] (essays) 1976

Selected Essays (essays) 1978

Montale comenta Montale [Montale Speaks on Montale] (interview) 1980

Prime alla Scala [Opening Nights at La Scald] (prose) 1981

Lettere a Salvatore Quasimodo [Letters to Salvatore Quasimodo] (correspondence) 1981

The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale (essays) 1982

Quaderno genovese [Genoan Diary] (diary) 1983

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale's Poetry: A Meeting of Dante and Brueghel," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, 1958, pp. 1-32.

[An Italian-born educator and critic, Cambon has written extensively on Montale and edited his Selected Poems (1966). Joseph Brodsky called him Montale's "most perceptive critic." In the following essay, Cambon comments on the style and worldview of Montale's early poetry.]

If there ever was a writer who found himself entirely in his first essays and never betrayed himself afterwards, it is the author of Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925), Le Occasioni (The Occasions, 1939) and Finisterre (1942). And this...

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Maria Sampoli Simonelli (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Particular Poetic World of Eugenio Montale," in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 10, Summer, 1959, pp. 42-55.

[In the following essay, Simonelli holds that the foundation of Montale's poetics was established in Cuttlefish Bones and developed in later works.]

To talk about Montale's poetics is above all to talk about his Ossi di seppia (1925). His later collections of poems—Occasioni (1939), Bufera (1956)—do not modify the position assumed and lived by Montale from his very early poetic experiences: "Meriggiare pallido…" (Ossi di seppia), dated 1916. In the collections following the Ossi the poet merely...

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Glauco Cambon (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale's 'Motets': The Occasions of Epiphany," in PMLA, Vol. LXXXII, No. 7, December, 1967, pp. 471-84.

[In the following excerpt, Cambon arques that thematic and formal unity links the "Motets" in The Occasions.]

The Centrality of the twenty "Mottetti" to Montale's decisive second book, Le Occasioni (1939), has been noted by such critics as Ettore Bonora and Silvio Ramat [in La poesia di Montale (1965) and Montale (1965), respectively]. Despite their probings, however, much remains to be done towards an organic understanding of this remarkable series of poems. Since this part of Montale's work relates to much else he has written...

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Joseph Cary (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eugenio Montale," in Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, New York University Press, 1969, 235-329.

[In the following excerpt, Cary explicates poems from Montale's "war-book," Land's End (Finisterre,).]

Dismissed from the directorship of the Gabinetto Vieusseux in 1938—the year of "Notizie dall'Amiata"—and forced to take on a heavy load of translation (chiefly from the English language, mostly Shakespeare plays) in order to survive, Montale stayed in Florence and wrote the poems to be gathered in the small war-book called Finisterre.

With its pointed epigraph taken from Agrippa D'Aubigné's "À Dieu"


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Glauco Cambon (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The New Montale," in Books Abroad, Vol. 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 639-45.

[In the following excerpt, Cambon states that Miscellany (Satura) departs from the style of Montale's earlier poetry.]

The poet himself once intimated that his three major books of verse, Ossi di seppia (1925), Le occasioni (1939), and La bufera e altro (1956), had vaguely rehearsed a Dantesque pilgrimage finally rewarded by glimmers of paradise. If so, what place can this fourth book, Satura, take in the overall sequence? In what sense, if at all, can it go further than its predecessors and thus refocus the whole itinerary? These are no idle...

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Stephen Spender (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Montale," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XVIII, No. 10, June 1, 1972, pp. 29-32.

[Spender was an English man of letters who rose to prominence during the 1930s as a Marxist lyric poet and as an associate of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. His poetic reputation has declined in the postwar years, while his stature as a prolific and perceptive literary critic has grown. In the following excerpt, Spender celebrates Montale's ability as a poet, finding that he unsentimentally captured the essence of life.]

Mosca (meaning "fly")—as everyone called her—was the wife of Eugenio Montale, the most famous...

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G. Singh (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wit, Understatement, and Irony: Montale's Sixth Book of Poems," in Books Abroad, Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 507-10.

[An Indian-born educator, critic, and poet, Singh has translated several selections of poems by Montale and is the author of Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism (1973). Other book-length studies by Singh focus on A. C. Swinburne, Giacomo Leopardi, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. In the following excerpt, he assesses the style and tone of the poems in Diario del '71 e del '72.]

The first part of Montale's fifth book of poems, Diario del '71, appeared in a private, limited edition of 100 copies,...

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Wallace Craft (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Openness to Life: The Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1975 Nobel Laureate for Literature," in Books Abroad, Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 7-15.

[In the following excerpt, Craft highlights dominant subjects in Montale's poetry: contemporary values, the human condition, and the search for meaning in life.]

In October the Swedish Academy announced that the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature would be bestowed upon the poet Eugenio Montale, the fifth Italian writer to receive the honor. In 1906, the sixth anniversary of the award, Giosué Carducci (1835-1907), neoclassical poet of Italy's post-unification era, was the first Italian Nobel winner. Twenty years later the...

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Joseph Brodsky (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Montale," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXIV, No. 10, June 9, 1977, pp. 35-9.

[Brodsky is a Russian poet and critic who emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 and became an American citizen in 1977. His view of poetry as a relief from the horrors and absurdities of life and the meaningless vacuum of death has led critics to link him with the modern school of existentialism. In the following excerpt from a review of New Poems, Brodsky notes distinguishing characteristics of Montale's poetry and praises the verse written about his deceased wife.]

Ever since the Romantics, we have been accustomed to the biographies of poets whose...

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Russell Fraser (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Eugenio Montale," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 411-29.

[Fraser is an American educator and critic specializing in the works of William Shakespeare. In the following essay, he argues that Montale takes an agnostic stance in his poetry by raising issues without drawing conclusions: "Montale, venturing the question, doesn't venture an answer. No answer is likely, unless an irreducible surd."]

My subject is Montale's poetry and the peculiar configuration that it makes.

Poems like Wallace Stevens's "The Ordinary Women" baffle exegesis, but when you say them over and over, they describe a configuration...

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Jascha Kessler (broadcast date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of It Depends: A Poet's Notebook, in a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM,—Los Angeles, CA, March 11, 1981.

[Kessler is an American educator, poet, short story writer, translator, and screenwriter. In the following excerpt from the transcript of a radio broadcast, he states that Montale is more "outspoken and direct" in It Depends: A Poet's Notebook than in his previous works.]

We have still among us today the great Italian poet, Engenio Montale, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. And, perhaps it's not surprising that he continues to produce poetry that is full of interest and power, although he keeps changing its qualities and its...

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Rebecca J. West (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prose Glosses: Is Poetry Still Possible?" in Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 136-54.

[An English journalist, novelist, and critic, West championed equality for women and other liberal political views. In the following excerpt, she studies Montale's prose writings for insights into his thoughts about the function of poetry.]

In his career as a journalist Montale wrote innumerable prose pieces, some of which have already been anthologized in Auto da fé and Sulla poesia, others of which have still to be gathered. He has published two collections of short prose: Farfalla di Dinard,...

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Henry Gifford (lecture date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Invitation to Hope: Eugenio Montale," in Grand Street, Vol. 3, No. 1, Autumn, 1983, pp. 91-111.

[An English educator and critic, Gifford has written extensively about Russian literature. In the following essay, he provides an overview of Montale's verse, noting a message of hope implicit in his works.]

The critic Sergio Solmi, long acquainted with Eugenio Montale and much appreciated by him, opens an account of his poetry with these words:

There were few things we believed in when young; but
among those few we certainly did believe in poetry.
["La poesia di Montale" (1957), in Scrittori negli...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Ricciardelli, Michael. "Montale in the U.S.A. (1936-1971)." Books Abroad 45, No. 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 645-48.

Index of criticism by American commentators.

Craft, Wallace. "Eugenio Montale in Books Abroad (1947-1975)." Books Abroad 50, No. 1 (Winter 1976): 15.

Lists articles and reviews on Montale that have appeared in the periodical.


Almansi, Guido. "Earth and Water in Montale's Poetry." Forum for Modern Language Studies 2, No. 4 (October 1966): 377-85.


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