Montale, Eugenio 1896–
The greatest living Italian poet, Montale is also a translator, journalist, and critic. Montale began his career as a poet of landscape, but under the influence of Valéry and the symbolists he broke away from the staid conventions of Italian poetry of the twenties to produce a richly symbolic verse with cryptic, unconventional lyrics. The obscurity of his poetry led critics to name him along with Ungaretti and Quasimodo as the founders of the poetic movement known as hermeticism. His love of music, as well as his poetic philosophy, is revealed in the following quote: "I wanted to free the music in words, apply them to reality, and in transcending mere depiction capture what is essential." The sea is a frequent symbol, exile and uncertainty are common themes, and despair and desolation are recurrent moods in Montale's poetry. In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975, the Academy cited his pessimistic but "indelible feeling for the value of life and the dignity of mankind." (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[The] Swedish Academy's reference to [Montale's] "deep pessimism if not negativism" and an ancient and misleading custom in the English-speaking world of linking his work to Eliot's—seems to me to miss the vein of ironic humor, often self-directed, and satirical fantastication evident in his most recent poetry (e.g., 1961–72: New Poems represents about half of it)…. (p. 341)
The materials for Montalean humor are, I think, much the same as the materials of his central myth expressed thirty years ago in the following manner:
It seemed to me I lived under a glass bell, and yet I felt myself close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread just kept me from the ultimate quid. Absolute expression would have meant the breaking of that bell, that thread, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this was an unreachable limit.
If this recalls the solipsistic nightmare of Eliot's wasteland prisoners—
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
and the accompanying gloss from F. H. Bradley to the effect that "my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside," there is nevertheless a vital distinction to be made: in Montale's world the circle is not entirely vicious, the blockade can be run, the limit may be not only reached but surpassed. In the earlier poems this rule-proving exception, this passage permitted from contingency to "something essential," this "liberty, miracle, fact that was not necessary" (as he put it in the great "Chrysalis" of 1924), is for certain others only; the poet sees himself as witness, transfixed and prevented from participation in the miracle his poetry serves. In later poems however the direction of passage is discovered to be more benevolent: centripetal that is—if we take the self as center—as well as centrifugal. Which is to say that a chosen few from Montale's life-experience—those evoked by his famous tu for instance, or the stormy angel Clizia, or more recently his companion-wife La Mosca … may return from beyond the barrier bringing those who must, like the poet, remain behind care and renewed courage to endure with decency. For Montale, who only half-mockingly styles himself a Nestorian (Nestorius was a fifty-century "heretic" who taught the fundamental humanity of Christ), believes that the other order—the one we call divine—must submit to incarnation, to metamorphosis into flesh and blood, in order to fulfill itself…. Like Hölderlin he feels that the possibility of … recognition [of "divinity incognito"] is the privilege of poets. (pp. 341-42)
[The] pre-1960 Montale is above all a dramatic poet, the poet of (the italics are his own) "this individual, in this place, in this situation," and the product is matchless: a powerful and impassioned vocal music moving through its various specific occasions of ecstasy and anguish, metrically intricate, ore rotundo. The new manner is very different.
It lies in what I shall call a distancing or de-dramatizing of the subject (as with a telescope reversed) by various stylistic means,… all of which contribute to the vein of humor lightening the latest work [New Poems]. Something of this more casual, free-floating, "prosaic" and désengagé mood may be caught in the Italian titles for the poems of this phase: Satura (miscellany, mixed-bag-including satire, gallimaufry) and, of course, Diario. I do not mean that earlier Montale lacked humor, far from it, but the vein is much more in evidence here. Perhaps it is the appropriate voice for a certain sort of old age and retirement: the poet was 72 when he wrote "Divinita in Incognito." But the ghosts of Yeats and Ungaretti are there to give me the lie….
[Both Hardy and Montale] composed sequences arising from the death of their wives, Hardy in the Veteris vestigia flammae (vestiges of the ancient flame) of 1912–13, Montale in the Xenia (guest-offerings) of 1964–67. But if the occasions are similar the differences in situation and response and therefore tonality are far more striking…. Hardy's vestiges haunt and taunt him—the original air-blue gown is gone forever or survives in mocking memory only. Whereas Montale, technically bereft and bemused, most unelegiacally hosts a persisting if elusive presence flickeringly there in the charmed clutter of what he calls La Mosca's relics … which manage to encapsulate and maintain her essential being….
One aspect of the comic touch in late Montale is precisely [his] sense of the insubstantiality in the world of the so-called living, our ongoing "human show" landing its capsules on the moon, consoling itself with Teilhard de Chardin, packing a murderous Olympics. As he notes to his guest, La Mosca,
We had studied for the hereafter
a token of recognition, a whistle;
I'm now trying to modulate it in the hope
that we're all already dead without knowing it.
Robert Lowell writes that … [Montale] "was strong in simple prose and could be made still stronger in free verse." I agree with the first point—Montale's muscular, dramatic flair plus his intelligence and sharp wit make his verse, unlike Leopardi's or Ungaretti's for example, reasonably available in a "simple prose." On the other hand free verse is surely not a "stronger" medium for any but the latest batch of poems…. (p. 344)
Joseph Cary, "Count Your Dead: They Are Alive," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 9, 1976, pp. 341-42, 344.
Although never prolific,… [Montale] built up a reputation for the tense integrity, the evocative power, and often the inner anguish of work produced at one of the most difficult times of Italian history. One can draw strength from difficulty, and Montale has always been aware of the paradox that, as he says, he 'would not want to live at any other period' and yet his inspiration to write could come only from a feeling of 'discord with surrounding reality'. Hence, no doubt, the characteristic mixture, in his first three volumes, of bleakness ('Eastbourne'), and haunting recollections ('The Customs-Officers' House') and self-questioning ('Arsenio'), and yet, also, deep current of thrusting life ('The Eel'). As he wrote in some striking lines in a later poem ('Blow and Counterblow'):
Hardly out of adolescence
I was flung for half my life
into the Augean stables.
Out of such alienation came a poetry of pent force and brooding intensity. The 30 years from Ossi di Seppia to La bufera e altro (1956) are the years of his strongest and most enduring work; but after his wife died in 1963, he began to write a series of elegies for her, and in doing so, started off another phase of poetic activity, which saw publication as Satura (1971) and Diario del '71 e del '72 (1973). It is from these two collections that [New Poems] has been made.
Satura contains the best-known of these recent poems, the elegiac sequences called 'Xenia I and II', together with other poems reminiscent of his wife, and various reflective and ironic pieces; the Diario, as its title implies, is largely a repository for occasional poems, often satirical, but again sometimes elegiac. In this latest phase, Montale writes with an easy assurance, often of everyday things. The pages have much reference to persons and places, many words and phrases from other languages—English, French, German, Latin—inserted without italics, many minute and stinging signals of the here and now and of the there and then of an actual past. In general, the tone is lighter than that of his earlier work, engaging, surprising, mocking, but now and again very touching, as it records some detail of loss or kindness or cruelty or pity.
Edwin Morgan, "Quartet of Straws," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Edwin Morgan), October 14, 1976, p. 484.
[Characteristically] throughout [Montale's] poetic career he has sought in the miscellaneous events and articles of daily life a satisfying image of his own condition. What is remarkable is less his ambition than his success in marrying the public with the private—evident more than ever in [New Poems], in which personal reminiscence and metaphysical speculation find natural metaphors in radio announcements, chiming clocks and even the moon landing. He does not identify with mass culture and its institutions or with modern technology. Indeed, he is sceptical of their worth. But the refusal to believe in them need not be a refusal to use them…. The telephone, the television and the photograph are successful in communicating, among other things, a sense of our individual isolation. In any case, he doesn't believe in himself—he speculates in 'The Ghost' whether, after all, the phantasm 'is not the lost original and I its facsimile'. In 1960, he wrote of his wartime collection, La Bufera e altra, which he thought his best. 'It vividly reflects my historical as well as my human condition' and his unhappy love affair described there becomes, as the loss of a child to Ungaretti, a part of the tragedy of the war.
The love poems in that volume anticipate in many ways the two 'Xenia' sequences in Satura, written after his wife's death and about her. Naturally, the fragmentary poems of Xenia are an occasion to remember, but they are also an occasion to make a poignant contrast between the passages of historical time and the nature of personal time—'tempo cronologico' and 'tempo psicologico' he calls them in a note to his collection of essays, Auto da Fé. What is historically over survives in the memory and many of the other poems in Satura ('Time and Times', 'Here and There', 'The End of 1968', etc) turn on the disparity between public and private time—most beautifully expressed in 'The Arno at Rovezzano'…. Montale's peculiar tone derives from his ability to live with the disparity—his poems themselves recognise they are only momentary reconciliations…. [His] scepticism provides a firm basis for poetry. 'Neither in God nor in Marx', the title of one of his essays, asserts that uncertainty is the main characteristic of the post-war crisis in Italy and uncertainty is the major theme of these latest poems. But uncertainty is not indifference—the characteristic feature of Italian inter-war poetry, according to the critic Russi. It is the possibility of facing life without illusions about meta-physical certainties—a legacy from Croce….
Unlike the T S Eliot of the Four Quartets, Montale's qualifications and reservations ('They say …') reflect an acceptance of the absurdities of the poet's position in an age where values are in the hands of the mass media, controlled by capitalist interests…. But the impossibility of a lasting synthesis is itself a reassurance that individuals suffer differently. Unlike Eliot, too, Montale's river is not a god but history, to be viewed dispassionately and not accepted, and what redeems its heartlessness is the light reflected on its surface as it turns a bend. There it becomes personal history—Montale is the historian of the moments history misses ('We Went') or does not acknowledge ('After a Flight' and 'Two Venetian Pieces').
Not surprisingly, in view of this, Montale's favourite mode of expression is through apparent paradox which reveals a new ground for hope…. The fragments that Montale succeeds in shoring up do not imply a fragmented world but only their modest role in the synthesis. Montale shares with Croce a wish to base metaphysical speculations on particular, commonly accessible experiences. Even what is repugnant has its part to play. Although Montale, the critic, acknowledges that Italian poets have been hampered by their tradition, and although he rejects D'Annunzio, the precurser of Fascism, he learned from his metrical experiments—the same catholic taste recommends Gozzano … as well as Pound and Petrarch….
Montale's tone [in the 'Xenia' poems] is suggested by quoting T S Eliot's definition of Marvell's 'wit'. The effect of such parallels is to remove the poet from the world in which he lives and to place him in a hermetically sealed and alien tradition. Anglo-Saxons persist in seeing Pound's fascist propaganda as an eccentric aberration: it was, in fact, in the context of Italian culture, not unreasonable. Not that social and cultural history are necessary to appreciate the poems, but the implication that his work is purely literary, merely a further link in the tradition, softens the impact…. Ironically, the more contemporary a poet is, the more his culture matters to us. In his notes Singh [the translator] explains the allusions and rare words but the reader would never guess that they are a central part of Montale's desire to create a common language of images. (p. 48)
Paul Carter, "Passionate Sceptic," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Paul Carter 1976; reprinted with permission), December, 1976, pp. 48-9.
Montale, despite the efforts of [translators], is still not an English poet in the way in which Homer, say, was to Keats (in Chapman's version) or Rihaku is to us (in Pound's). Montale is up for grabs. But some of [Edwin] Morgan's versions (Sarcophagi I & II; Bring Me The Sunflower; Eastbourne) manage to reenact Montale's astonishing clarity; that of 'a sunflower's open face/and rabbits dancing lightly round and round….' (p. 86)
James Greene, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1977), February-March, 1977.
Montale in these poems [New Poems] composed in his seventies—and still so firm an enemy of anything limiting the mystery of the imagination—is still forever questioning the status of imaginative truth. It is as if each poem starts from a gentle "And so what" in response to a thought or perception, and ends by handing the question over to the reader. For if Montale's work has long offered "occasions" or "epiphanies" it is the puzzle of such moments that holds him. His is the wisdom of a man witty, intelligent and reductive, in no doubt of what is false but driven by a sober obsession to seek what is true. Occasionally a set piece will allow him to relish the wit of the paradoxes which fill his mind, as in 'L'Élan Vital' where the materialist finds god only in the 'antiteleological' thunder of the universe and then has his speech silenced by the roar of a jumbo jet; or 'In The Courtyard' where public events break into the indolence of spring with news that a specialist in tumours has been elected to parliament. But in the more personal poems the paradoxes are undramatic, denied the relief of conclusiveness, teasing through their passive refusal to give emotions the security of a rational source. This is most evident in the many poems to his dead wife Mosca, including the rightly celebrated 'Xenia I & II'…. These poems are of memory, which has the capacity to make both the living poet and his dead wife equally alive. The events take place in his mind but they are created of physical properties—touch, sound, sight, taste, smell. (p. 76)
Mosca's myopia, telephone calls, a tin shoe-horn, friends, places and fragments of conversation are quietly re-traced as sources of contact. Images are allowed to become metaphors then brought to earth: literal details, such as the names of wines, Inferno and Paradiso, can be wittily elevated and reduced. The sceptical intelligence evaluates, weighs, but does so in an atmosphere of tender recollection…. (p. 77)
Desmond Graham, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 18, No. 2 (1977).
Montale is a kind of anachronism, and the extent of his contribution to poetry has been anachronistically great. A contemporary of Apollinaire, T. S. Eliot, Mandelstam, and Hart Crane, he belongs more than chronologically to that generation. Each of these writers wrought a qualitative change in his respective literature, as did Montale, whose task was much the hardest….
A stern metaphysical realist with an evident taste for extremely condensed imagery, Montale managed to create his own poetic idiom through the juxtaposition of what he called "the aulic"—the courtly—and the "prosaic"; an idiom which as well could be defined as "amaro stile nuovo" (the bitter new style), in contrast to Dante's formula which reigned in Italian poetry for more than six centuries. The most remarkable aspect of Montale's achievement is that he managed to push forward despite the grip of the dolce stile nuovo. In fact, far from trying to loosen this grip, Montale constantly refers to or paraphrases the great Florentine both in imagery and vocabulary. His allusiveness is partially responsible for the charges of obscurity that critics occasionally level against him….
The maturity that Montale displayed in his very first book—Ossi di Seppia, published in 1925—makes it more difficult to account for his development. Already here he has subverted the ubiquitous music of the Italian hendecasyllabics, assuming a deliberately monotonous intonation that is occasionally made shrill by the addition of feet or is muted by their omission—one of the many techniques he employs in order to avoid prosodic inertia. If one recalls Montale's immediate predecessors (and the flashiest figure among them is certainly D'Annunzio), it becomes clear that stylistically Montale is indebted to nobody—or to everybody he bounces up against in his verse, for polemic is one form of inheritance.
This continuity through rejection is evident in Montale's use of rhyme. Apart from its function as a kind of linguistic echo, a sort of homage to the language, a rhyme lends a sense of inevitability to the poet's statement. Advantageous as it is, the repetitive nature of a rhyme scheme (or for that matter, of any scheme) creates the danger of overstatement. To prevent this, Montale often shifts from rhymed to unrhymed verse within the same poem. His objection to overstatement is clearly an ethical as well as an aesthetic one—proving that a poem is a form of the closest possible interplay between ethics and aesthetics.
This interplay, lamentably, is precisely what tends to vanish in translation. Still, despite the loss of his "vertebrate compactness" …, Montale survives translation well. By lapsing inevitably into a different tonality, translation—because of its explanatory nature—somehow catches up with the original by clarifying those things which could be regarded by the author as self-evident and thus elude the native reader. Though much of the subtle, discrete music is lost, the American reader has an advantage in understanding the meaning, and would be less likely to repeat in English an Italian's charges of obscurity….
Perhaps the term "development" is not applicable to a poet of Montale's sensitivity, if only because it implies a linear process; poetic thinking always has a synthetic quality and employs—as Montale himself expresses it in one of his poems—a kind of "bat-radar" technique, i.e., thought operates in a 360 degree range. Also, at any given time a poet is in possession of an entire language and his preference for an archaic word is dictated by his subject matter or his nerves rather than by a preconceived stylistic program. The same is true of syntax, stanzaic design, and the like. For sixty years Montale has managed to sustain his poetry on a stylistic plateau, the altitude of which one senses even in translation.
New Poems is … Montale's sixth book to appear in English. But unlike previous editions which aspired to give a comprehensive idea of the poet's entire career, this volume contains only poems written during the last decade, coinciding thus with Montale's most recent (1971) collection—Satura. And though it would be senseless to view them as the ultimate word of the poet, still—because of their author's age and their unifying theme, the death of his wife—each conveys to some extent an air of finality. For death as a theme always produces a self-portrait. (p. 35)
The protagonist of the New Poems is preoccupied with the attempt to estimate the distance between himself and his interlocutor and then to figure out the response "she" would have made had she been present. The silence into which his speech necessarily has been directed harbors, by implication, more in the way of answers than human imagination can afford, a fact which endows Montale's "her" with undoubted superiority. In this respect Montale resembles neither T. S. Eliot nor Thomas Hardy, with whom he has been frequently compared, but rather Robert Frost of the "New Hampshire period," with his idea that woman was created out of man's rib (a nickname for heart) neither to be loved nor to be loving, nor to be judged, but to be "a judge of thee." Unlike Frost, however, Montale is dealing with a form of superiority that is a fait accompli—superiority in absentia—and this stirs in him not so much a sense of guilt as a feeling of disjunction: his persona in these poems has been exiled into "outer time."
This is, therefore, love poetry in which death plays approximately the same role as it does in La Divina Commedia or in Petrarch's sonnets to Madonna Laura: the role of a guide. But here quite a different person is moving along familiar lines; his speech has nothing to do with sacred anticipation. What Montale displays in New Poems is that tenaciousness of imagination, that urge to outflank death, which might enable a person, upon arriving and finding "Kilroy was here," to recognize his own handwriting.
But there is no morbid fascination with death, no falsetto in these poems; what the poet is talking about here is the absence which lets itself be felt in exactly the same nuances of language and feeling as those which "she" once used to manifest "her" presence—the language of intimacy. Hence the extremely private tone of the poems in their technique and in their close detail. This voice of a man speaking—often muttering—to himself is generally the most conspicuous characteristic of Montale's poetry, but this time the personal note is enforced by the fact that the poet's persona is talking about things only he and she had knowledge of—shoehorns, suitcases, the names of hotels where they used to stay, mutual acquaintances, books they had both read. Out of this sort of realia, and out of the inertia of intimate speech, emerges a private mythology which gradually acquires all the traits appropriate to any mythology, including surrealistic visions, metamorphoses, and the like. In this mythology, instead of some female-breasted sphinx, there is the image of "her," minus her glasses: this is the surrealism of subtraction, and this subtraction, affecting either subject matter or tonality, is what gives unity to this collection. (pp. 35-6)
Death is always a song of "innocence," never of experience. And from the beginning of his career Montale shows his preference for song over confession. Although less explicit than confession, a song is less repeatable; as is loss. Over the course of a lifetime psychological acquisitions become more real than real estate…. [The] poems that make up the present volume are full of references to Dante. Sometimes a reference consists of a single word, sometimes an entire poem is an echo—like No. 13 of "Xenia I" which echoes the conclusion of the twenty-first Song in the Purgatorio, the most stunning scene in the whole Cantica. But what marks Montale's poetic and human wisdom is his rather bleak, almost exhausted, falling intonation. After all, he is speaking to a woman with whom he has spent many years: he knows her well enough to realize that she would not appreciate a tragic tremolo. He knows, certainly, that he is speaking into silence; the pauses that punctuate his lines suggest the closeness of that void which is made somewhat familiar—if not inhabited—because of his belief that "she" might be there. And it is the sense of her presence that keeps him from resorting to expressionistic devices, elaborate imagery, catch-phrases, and the like. She who died would resent verbal flamboyance as well. Montale is old enough to know that the classically "great" line, however immaculate its conception, flatters the audience and is a kind of shortcut to self-deception. He is perfectly aware of where his speech is directed. (p. 36)
New Poems provides an idiom which is clearly new. It is largely Montale's own idiom, but some of it derives from the act of translation, whose limited means only increase the original austerity. The cumulative effect of this book is startling, not so much because the psyche portrayed in New Poems has no previous record in world literature, as because it makes it clear that such a mentality could not be expressed in English as its original language. The question "why" may only obscure the reason; because even in Montale's native Italian such a mentality is strange enough to earn him the reputation of an exceptional poet….
New Poems ought to be read and reread a number of times, if not for the sake of analysis, the function of which is to return a poem to its stereoscopic state—the way it existed in the poet's mind—then for the fugitive beauty of this subtle, muttering, and yet firm stoic voice, which tells us that the world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a man talking, pausing, and then talking again. When you have had such a long life, anticlimax ceases to be just another device.
The book is certainly a monologue; it couldn't be otherwise when the interlocutor is absent, as is nearly always the case in poetry. Partly, however, the idea of monologue as a principal device springs from the "poetry of absence," another name for the greatest literary movement since Symbolism—a movement which came into existence in Europe, and especially in Italy, in the Twenties and Thirties—"Hermeticism." (p. 37)
Montale has the reputation of being the most difficult poet of [the Hermetic] school and he is certainly more difficult—in the sense of being more complex—than Ungaretti or Salvatore Quasimodo. But for all the overtones, reticence, merging of associations or hints of associations in his work, its hidden references, substitutions of general statements for microscopic detail, elliptical speech, etc., it was he who wrote "la primavera Hitleriana" ("The Hitler Spring")…. [The] "hermeticist" label became glued to Montale's back, and he has, ever since, been considered an "obscure" poet. But whenever one hears of obscurity, it is time to stop and ponder one's notion of clarity, for it usually rests on what is already known or preferred, or, in the worst cases, remembered. In this sense, the more obscure, the better….
Montale seems to be the last person to disclose his inner processes of thought, let alone the "secrets of his craft." A private man, he prefers to make the public life the subject of his scrutiny, rather than the reverse. Poet in Our Time is a book concerned precisely with the results of such scrutiny, and its emphasis falls on "Our Time" rather than on "Poet."
Both the lack of chronology and the harsh lucidity of language in these pieces supply this book with an air of diagnosis or of verdict. The patient or the accused is the civilization which "believes it is walking while in fact it is being carried along by a conveyor belt," but since the poet realizes that he is himself the flesh of this civilization's flesh, neither cure nor rehabilitation is implied. Poet in Our Time is, in fact, the disheartened, slightly fastidious testament of a man who doesn't seem to have inheritors other than the "hypothetical stereophonic man of the future incapable even of thinking his own destiny."…
It is a tempting and dangerous thing to quote Montale because it easily turns into a full-time occupation. Italians have their way with the future, from Leonardo to Marinetti. Still, this temptation is due not so much to the aphoristic quality of Montale's statements or even to their prophetic quality, as to the tone of voice, which alone makes one trust what he is saying because it is so free of anxiety. There is a certain air or recurrence to it, kindred to water coming ashore or the invariable refraction of light in a lens. When one lives as long as he has, "the provisional encounters between the real and the ideal" become frequent enough for the poet both to develop a certain familiarity with the ideal and to be able to foretell the possible changes of its features. For the artist, these changes are perhaps the only sensible measurements of Time.
There is something remarkable about the almost simultaneous appearance of [Poet in Our Time and New Poems]; they seem to merge. In the end, Poet in Our Time makes the most appropriate illustration of the "outer time" inhabited by the persona of the New Poems. Again, this is a reversal of La Divina Commedia where this world was understood as "that realm." "Her" absence for Montale's persona is as palpable as "her" presence was for Dante's. The repetitive nature of existence in this after-life-now is, in its turn, kindred to Dante's circling among those "who died as men before their bodies died." Poet in Our Time supplies us with a sketch—and sketches are always somewhat more convincing than oils—of that rather overpopulated spiral landscape of such dying yet living beings.
This book doesn't sound very "Italian," although the old civilization contributes a great deal to the accomplishment of this old man of letters. The words "European" and "International" when applied to Montale also look like tired euphemisms for "universal." Montale is one writer whose mastery of language stems from his spiritual autonomy; thus, both New Poems and Poet in Our Time are what books used to be before they became mere books: chronicles of souls. (pp. 38-9)
Joseph Brodsky, "The Art of Montale," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), June 9, 1977, pp. 36-9.