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.
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.
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.
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.