Montale, Eugenio (Vol. 7)
Montale, Eugenio 1896–
Montale, the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1975, is an Italian poet. His oeuvre transcends simple classification; and as critic as well as poet he is a significant man of letters. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
"Finisterre" is the borderland between civilization and barbarism, between slavery and liberty, between a life to be redeemed by death and a life which is the death of the soul. In other words the real subject and background of this book is what may be called the Italian apocalypse of the year 1943 and 1944. During that drama, the poet was not only a spectator, but an actor; and it is perhaps useless to point out that he played the right rôle. The psychological and historical crisis he lived through is evoked by Montale in mythical visions, in telluric and meteoric phenomena, almost in theogonic terms: yet the victims of many eruptions and earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are only simple and domestic objects, human beings or the things about them. The real protagonist of this book is not a hero but a heroine, who disappears in the darkness, under the ground, an Euridice who cannot be saved, even for an hour, by any Orpheus. (p. 100)
Renato Poggioli, in Books Abroad (copyright 1947 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1947.
No other Italian poet of our century has created so concrete a language, so continuous a stream of powerful and daring images. Montale's lines are original, austere, and possess a tense hidden melody. He has expressed the drama of a modern man who cannot mold his life but is helplessly led through days and years by external factors and circumstances. Yet Montale knows the power of dreams and illusions. He feels the profound interrelation between things and human existence: His poems are full of objects which provide the substance of human dreams, help "to exist," and therefore are the constant symbols of life. The result is a kind of dynamic despair which circulates within all the manifestations of life and has its primary origin in the invariable rhythm of time. Man becomes the prisoner of ignorance about his own destiny. Montale is pessimistic, but of a strong pessimism, without futile rebellion or querulous sentimentality. From this point of view, he can be considered the Leopardi of our century. In La bufera his sense of despair is accentuated.
The book is full of beautiful and important poems. (p. 260)
Giovanni Cecchetti, in Books Abroad (copyright 1957 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1957.
Why, outside Italy, is Montale not yet recognized for what he is, a twentieth-century master?
He is "difficult," certainly. Difficult in that he has complicated things to say, and also in the sense that most of us must read him dictionary in hand. We tend to play down the hazards of getting across the language barrier because it would be humiliating to have to confess imperfect access to a writer from an approachable country like Italy….
The Italian who set out to write poetry in the second decade of the century had perhaps no harder task than his colleagues in France or America, but it was a different task. The problem was how to lower one's voice without being trivial or shapeless, how to raise it without repeating the gestures of an incommodious rhetoric. Italian was an intractable medium. Inveterately mandarin, weighed down by the almost Chinese burden of a six-hundred-year-old literary tradition, it was not a modern language. Worse, it had become a provincial language. The last great master, Leopardi, could find everything he needed within the Graeco-Roman-Italian tradition. His speech is the Italian dialect of the high language of European poetry. His successors, Carducci, Pascoli, D'Annunzio, are all in different ways provincial, local. The task was to bring Italy back into full commerce with Europe and (it was really the same thing) to create a modern language, a modern poetic….
From the beginning [Montale] uses rhyme (and internal rhyme and assonance), regular (and irregular) stanzas, and the traditional hendecasyllabic line (subtly dislocated, as Laforgue and Eliot dislocated their traditional lines) with impressive originality and confidence.
[A] group of twenty-two short poems [constitutes] the most notable segment of his first book, Ossi di Seppia…. Pound's approximately contemporary Mauberley provides a convenient term of comparison, and the claims Eliot made for Pound's sequence—"document of an epoch … in the best sense of Arnold's worn phrase, a 'criticism of life'"—apply to Montale's. Arguably they apply better to Montale than to Pound, for where Pound does not usually look beyond the cultural maladies of the time, Montale already offers a radical critique of experience that makes one rather think (here as so often) of Eliot.
These poems cannot be summarized, nor (though they are not as difficult as his later work) can they be read quickly. At a first inspection we notice the metrical virtuosity and the curious diction, combining colloquialisms with rare poetic or dialect words. We notice the maturity of tone, the cat-like certainty of tread. And we take away some recurrent images: images of exhaustion (the oppression of midday heat), cautiously checked by hints of replenishment; fleeting intimations of grace—children dancing hand-in-hand on a dried river-bed, a remembered face that forms in a brimmed bucket …, then sinks back into the dark depths. (p. 5)
Montale's poetry offers a number of … ambiguous moments of liberation when the machine stops, a link in the chain breaks, and the solid compact reveals a chink through which to escape…. ["Arsenio," the most ambitious poem in the first book,] is in a real sense Montale's Waste Land and it is "doctrinal to its age" in the same way. And although Montale locates the action within the consciousness of a single figure or persona instead of devising an "epic" structure, the imagery is curiously similar….
Montale criticized what he called the dualism between the precipitating factor, the "occasion," and the poem itself. The poems he wanted to write would "contain their motives without revealing them or at least without blurting them out." The occasion, then, inevitably quite private, was to be completely absorbed within the resulting poem. Such an ambition is likely to produce a very concentrated poetry (in this respect Occasioni marks a decided advance on Ossi di Seppia which, particularly in the sea sequence "Mediterraneo," is sometimes relatively diffuse) but a very difficult poetry. And in fact it is at this time that the charge of obscurity begins to be increasingly leveled at Montale.
The charge can best be substantiated by the group of twenty short poems which he called Motets, mostly written during the later Thirties in Florence. Even a hasty reading reveals their singular formal mastery (they have been compared to Mallarmé's octosyllabic sonnets); even a prolonged reading is often baffled by these impenetrable little poems. The images are always sensuously lucid …, but they often point back to some "occasion" which it is impossible to reconstruct, and as a result we do not know how to relate the images to each other or to the poem as a whole. These are in no sense formal exercises: the accent is too serious, the note of suffering too marked. But they do suggest that the artificer was in some danger of overcoming the experiencing man…. Montale's poetic answer to Fascism was a contemptuous withdrawal to a private world where the braying voices from the piazza could not reach….
Probably the most important, certainly the most moving, poems in Occasioni are those in which he develops the use of the persona. Arsenio is an evidently symbolic figure through whom the poet suggests a generalizing statement about the condition of modern man. The personae in the new poems are presented more glancingly; they are also more sharply particularized and still half immersed in their private destinies….
The later poetry of Montale is full of … talismans, magical, emblematic points of vitality in a universe that has gone dead. The larger promise of salvation that was at least offered to Arsenio has now been withdrawn; Liuba and Dora and Gerti (most of Montale's personae are women) are hanging on by the skin of their teeth….
[The] group of fifteen poems published in 1943, in Switzerland, under the title Finisterre and subsequently included in his latest complete volume, La bufera e altro (1956),… are poems of terror and despair, the most haunted, the most completely private he has ever written….
Bufera seems to me the finest of Montale's three volumes, and the finest section of it must be the group of eleven poems called "Silvae," written between 1944 and 1950. I cannot think any sensitive reader, however shaky his Italian, could fail to be moved by the formal splendor of these poems, the incomparable language moving in long, beautifully controlled periods; and by the gravity and courage with which the aging poet struggles to come to terms with a lifetime's experience, with his childhood and his landscapes, with his dead and his living. (p. 6)
D. S. Carne-Ross, "A Master," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1966 NYREV, Inc.), October 20, 1966, pp. 5-8.
[Auto da fé] is the first collection of Montale's essays and articles published … during the last forty years or so. (Farfalla di Dinard, 1956, is another collection of prose-writings that are more like prose poems than discursive, reflective, and critical expression such as Auto da fé.) Its importance is threefold—autobiographical, cultural, and linguistic…. Montale's views on topics of vital interest are important not merely as being those of the greatest living poet of Italy, but also as a commentary on our Zeitgeist by one of the subtlest and most sensitive minds of the century, by one who has himself shaped and influenced that Zeitgeist—at least so far as Italy is concerned. Indeed Montale's influence in the shaping of modern Italian culture is the most important single influence after that of Croce.
These essays also represent a significant departure in the history and development of Italian prose. Montale's originality as a prose-writer is by no means inferior to his originality as a poet. The essays are a model of a new prose style, engagingly dry and matter-of-fact, concise and concrete, charged not so much with a passion for verbal elegance as for facts and truths. A parallel suggests itself between the relationship that Leopardi's Operette morali bears to his Canti, especially on the linguistic and stylistic plane, and the relationship between Montale's prose style and his poetic diction.
As to Montale's literary criticism—and only a tiny portion is to be found in this book, the rest being destined for a subsequent volume—it is not at all a criticism in the academic and professional sense of the term. He himself does not claim to be more than a journalist. But in Italy where a good many critics are also journalists, Montale is both a critic and a journalist with a difference. And the difference, for the most part, consists in this, that his overriding concern as a critic is with the essential qualities and effects of achieved art, and not with the problems—a staple occupation of a professional critic—relating to its genesis, sources, and influence, or problems relating to its historical, philosophical, and philological aspects. Another distinguishing mark of his criticism is that it is evaluative. The general tendency of Italian critics is to be descriptive and interpretive, while at bottom noncommittal, and therefore nonevaluative. With a sharp and unerring eye on what is significant and relevant in a work of art, Montale talks about it in a straightforward and unpretentious manner, without wasting his time or energy in composing elaborately rhetorical periods. One may quote Leavis and say of Montale's criticism what he says of Matthew Arnold's, that it comes "from an intelligence that, even if not trained to some kinds of rigour, had its own discipline; an intelligence that is informed by a mature and delicate sense of the humane values and can manifest itself directly as a fine sensibility." (p. 83)
G. Singh, in Books Abroad (copyright 1967 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter, 1967.
Le occasioni was ticketed as an integral manifestation of the "hermetic movement" on its first publication. This simply means that it struck its first readers as unduly difficult; it has no relation whatever to the elaborate evocative stratagems underlying a genuine hermetic product like Sentimento del tempo. For Montale at any rate the obscurity of a book like Le occasioni, when it is obscurity and not critical obtuseness, is born from either the poet's excessive confidence in his materials" (that is, what he thought was public knowledge turns out to have been private) or "an extreme concentration." In the first case the poet can supply postfacto notes, which has been Montale's practice for both Le occasioni and La bufera; in the second, it is largely a matter of adjustment: the public simply will or will not catch on, in time, to a poet's timing.
There is no doubt in my mind that most of the difficulty encountered in Le occasioni has to do with Montale's need to produce a dramatic lyric quite purged of narrative omniscience and entrepreneurism, of editorializing and comment; that is, a "total absorption of intentions in objective results." A book of occasions is a book of concentrates, intensities; as Montale himself has written, it is a short step from the intense poem to the obscure one. We are not talking of any grammatical-syntactical ellipsis here but of the nature of the poet's dramatic methods, his procedural assumptions. To be plunged, with minimal or no preparation, in medias res, which is to say, into the midst of an occasion dense with its own particular history, cross-currents, associations and emotional resonances, seems to me to be a fair description of the difficulties typically encountered in certain of the Occasioni poems. These can be relative. The sense and grasp of the whole of a given sequence (like the Mottetti) will help elucidate certain specific opacities within it. In other cases it is a question of information not really "withheld" but perhaps too carelessly assumed in the overriding interests of dramatic intensity and immediacy. Here notes can help, though Montale's, like Eliot's, are frequently either reserved or facetious. More often than not matters are left to the reader's own engaged interest and good will, his sensibility and, most of all, his common sense. (pp. 282-83)
[The] relation between the poet and his Clizia undergoes certain remarkable alterations in the course of Le occasioni and La bufera. The Mottetti simply trace the first and largely erotic phase of this affair. We can compare them in "plot" to roughly the first half of Dante's Vita nuova (that is, before the death of Beatrice) insofar as they deal with the suffering caused by the lover's separation from his beloved, his perturbation mixed with recollected images of her presence and ardent praises. They also mark the beginning of the vision vouchsafed him of her miraculous nature: increasingly she will come to represent [a] possibility of suspension of law. (pp. 288-89)
A very good case can be made for considering the Mottetti as a whole as an experience of signs, a story in which from day to day a lover seeks some signal or omen of his donna lontana. (p. 292)
An obsession with signs is of course related to that cult of talismans and amulets we [consider] characteristic of Montale…. "I only know," the poet has said in an interview, "that I have been so to say hypnotized by certain animals, objects and things. And I have had them recur many times in my verses." He has referred to such items—a certain tin horn, for example—as "concentrates of the past, assuming the function of totem for their bearers" and as we know conceives of such animism "as the spiritual position most worthy of man as well as most logical." At any rate it is a further instance of his inability to draw a clear line between the so-called external and internal spheres of experience. In poetry, I think, it is a power, a "gift" for discerning, imagining, or detecting immanence, which is a central source of his greatness.
The conclusion of the phase of experience represented by the Mottetti by no means concludes the poet's attendance on his absent lady's signs. The witness of desperate longing in the book's third and fourth sections is less personal and exclusive, far more comprehensive than in the first two. They involve a world and an era; her signs are not only clearer, to the poet at least, but have expanded in scope from the special case, the occult charm, to materials for universal apocalypse, "good" for everybody. Many Italians have recorded their sense, at the time, of the Occasioni poems as a heartening and heroic testament of moral resistance to the regime and what it stood for in the years just before the outbreak of world war. At the center of this opposition stands the fabulous presence of Clizia,… the embodied principle of fidelity to the light, of ravaged but persisting resistance to the "dark forces of Ahriman" both within and abroad, of that selfless "daily decency" which for this poet is the seed of divinity in all men's keeping. (pp. 294-95)
Aesthetically, the three volumes of his poetry offer one of the richest oeuvres of this century. Montale is always an original, even when touched by Dante, Browning or Eliot. He is an excellent raconteur, never predictable, seldom without some tonal or imagistic or conceptual novelty. He is an authentic dramatic poet, with a repertoire ranging from "practical" joke to melodrama, drawing-room sketch to tragedy. Yet, it is misleading to talk of genres; he mixes them all in the space of a stanza, blending verismo with stilnovismo, physics with metaphysics, local color with technology, to achieve his own characteristically complex tone and timbre. Such gifts, indeed, at the service of an imagination combining high seriousness with wit and considerable erudition, constitute his own authentic gesture, an heroic and enduring one that has done his country credit during the difficult period in which he chanced—or was chosen—to play his part. (p. 327)
Joseph Cary, "Eugenio Montale," in his Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1969 by New York University), New York University Press, 1969, pp. 235-329.
[Montale] 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 questions, especially with a writer like Eugenio Montale, who is chary of his word. We might have been forgiven if we had taken at face value the finality of "Provisional Conclusions" with which he chose to end his third volume in 1956; they did sound like poetical epitaphs. Then came the improbable "Satura" of 1962, a thin sheaf of lyrics, part new and part exhumed from remote decades, to weaken any such surmise. The scant poems were so inconspicuously printed that they looked like a mimeograph for private circulation. In fact they were not for sale; and the self-deflating tone of the leading piece, "Botta e risposta" (Thrust and Riposte), combined with the elusive format to suggest the idea of a literary postscript to "The Storm and Other Things"; a trifle, of the kind Montale likes to disseminate in his verse … as an insurance against pomposity. "Satura" did not align with the previous trinity, and as a consequence Montalians began to look to his prose for telling expression. For the first time Montale the prose writer outweighed Montale the poet, a natural outcome of old age and artistic maturity. What else should one expect of a poet who had attained his fulfilment?… More collections of literary essays were (and are) known to be in the works. Prose it was to be from now on, wasn't it?
But the sixties also saw something happen to Montale the man which shook him out of his growing indifference: the death (1963) of his wife Drusilla, better known as "la Mosca," the Fly,… drove Montale into poetry again—a feat quite consistent with the mercurial personality of a lady who, when she chose to, could punctuate with fitfulness her remarkable charm. From 1964 to 1967 the shy flowers of Xenia cropped up, short poems all addressed to the dead woman who gently haunted the survivor…. And so it is that Satura has appeared in January 1971, collecting the post-Bufera pieces with considerable new additions. (p. 639)
Its very publication has been the author's way of sidetracking … his critics, as the introductory piece states in a different sense. The sidetracking in "Il Tu" (The Thou …) concerns the dogmatizing attitude of a few readers apropos of one central feature of Montale's style, the use of a sometimes unspecifiable Thou to elicit self-revelation on the part of the lyrical persona. The critics, he says, repeat that this Thou is "an institution"; and while he takes the blame for sidetracking them, he rebukes them for missing the basic point that in him "the many are one even if they appear/multiplied by mirrors." What he resents is the tendency on the part of some of us to harden his existential utterances into rhetorical formulas and thereby superimpose a preconceived mold on the rediscovery each poem is intended to be. For he is a man of few, if any, certainties; and those few he can never take for granted; they seem to require endless verification in the face of a mystifying reality behind which perhaps a terrifying (or consoling) Reality yawns. (p. 640)
Obviously la Mosca fulfills in Xenia a function analogous to that of Clizia in "Motets" and in various other poems from Le Occasioni and La Bufera: to provide a focal Thou that draws the persona out, to conquer his reticence about what really matters, to embody the unseizable reality of what is personal. Distance, absence, memory are a prerequisite of such polar tension, as they were for Dante and Petrarch. In Clizia's case distance is geographic, while in la Mosca's case it is metaphysical, being provided by death. With both ladies memory engenders transfiguration. Prophecy becomes, retrospectively, one of their common attributes. Like Clizia, indeed, la Mosca now appears to be that unicum, the fully developed consciousness that challenges the world; she alone can attain the noumenal sphere and make it accessible to her lover. But because the "Thou" is no "institution," as the poet warned us, there is no confusing the two women. They are not identical; they participate in the same fund of ultimate knowledge and being. They remain sharply individualized, and this is particularly true of la Mosca. No other condition would hold in Montale's cosmos…. (p. 641)
Clizia appears as a visitor from another continent or even from outer space, and her contacts with the worshiping persona of "Motets" are always momentary; they take place as epiphanies of transfiguring memory, but their occasion in "real life" has always been tangential to the time of quotidian duration. La Mosca instead, no matter how instantaneous her post-mortem avatars, has always inhabited a continuous, domestic time. She, in fact, stands to her poetical rival as the quotidian (the authentically lived quotidian) stands to the exotic. In death, she has accordingly become one and the same thing with the Lares and Penates of the Montale household—a function hardly conceivable for Clizia.
A formal consequence of these thematic differences might be seen in the quite dissimilar treatment of rhythm and tone. Both cycles, "Motets" and Xenia, are analogous in the sense that each constitutes a self-contained series of lyrics from which no single piece should be excerpted, for even those individual poems that show a high degree of autonomy stand to lose something when removed from their context…. The structural analogy between the two cycles emphasizes by contrast their divergence of texture and meter; the musical implications of the term "Motet" are borne out by Montale's rhythmic execution in "Motets," while the gnomic import of the term "Xenia" is as clearly realized in Montale's Xenia as it was in Goethe's poems by the same title. The low-keyed tone of the "Xenion"… is typical of the whole cycle, and to quite a large extent, of all of Satura, where the high register of "Motets" and the occasional hymnic élan of La Bufera are not at home. For Satura as a whole is played out on a deliberately prosier key than any of Montale's previous verse books. In his old age he has carried out more radically than ever before the policy of a talking style (the policy that quickened Ossi di seppia forty-six years ago). It was perhaps the only new departure open to him after the singing performance of La Bufera—which brings us closer to answering the question initially raised in this paper: how is Satura integrated into the overall sequence of Montalian poetry and how can it go beyond its immediate predecessor in the series? To go any further was out of the question. Clizia was not to be out-Cliziaed; so the only way was to retrace one's steps and speak with the voice of one who had returned from her lofty regions a wiser and a sadder man. There is in fact a posthumous tone to Satura, a tone appropriate to the man who had had Clizia and la Mosca as guides to the other world hidden behind the façade of this world; and that other world is hell or paradise, as the pointed references in "Motets" (and in Xenia, with an ample dose of sidetracking humor) show. (pp. 641-42)
Montale's unworldliness lacks the mediaeval monk's comforts—the assurance of a revealed faith culminating in the approaching millennium—for his way is entirely tentative, and if God dawns in his universe through the good offices of Clizia or (in the present book) la Mosca, He is in the lower case, and is envisaged as a merciless Argus rather than as the conventional merciful Daddy. (pp. 642-43)
Montale's unworldliness … is of a special kind, the kind that prefers secrecy to open profession, because it must live in and with the world. Thus, signally in the present book, he will have to use the language of the world as a mask. Dare we call him a newfangled Jesuit? Both the hairsplitting casuistry and the pragmatic aims of Jesuits are alien to him; in fact he even takes to task one famous contemporary Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, for having given (in Montale's opinion) a gross vulgate of spiritual philosophy. At any rate, Montale's appropriation of current ideological clichés or of small talk trivialities is an exposure, a satire ("Satura," of course). Masks can expose…. (p. 643)
While the gnomic bent was implicit in much of Montale's early work, one salient trait of Satura seems by and large new: the frequency of syntactical parallelism, often reinforced by anaphora, as a structuring metric pattern…. [An] impish naughtiness … goes with much of this style in Satura. The elfish wit reaches a surreal peak in "The Black Angel," a welcome surprise from the aging Montale…. It is the reward of his dogged fight for the unpredictable. What a relief to find him still capable of vital contradictions! After the somber skepticism he voiced about language in "Incespicare" (Stumbling), where according to him we must be resigned to a "half-way speaking" since the one man who did speak out in full, once, turned out to be "incomprehensible," our poet can forget himself anew in the exhilaration of the singing word. Perhaps words can still recapture a fleeting resonance of the unique Word. And so even Satura is far from limited to the prose-like low pitch I have descried as its basic strategy. (pp. 644-45)
Glauco Cambon, "The New Montale," in Books Abroad (copyright 1971 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn, 1971, pp. 639-45.
Montale has been compared to Eliot and it is true that like Eliot he seems a spiritual inhabitant of The Divine Comedy. However, there is this great difference: the voice of Montale speaks like that of a man finding himself situated in a circle which is that of the modern world, and from which he does not seek to escape. He defines this condition and although he would like to get beyond it … truth for him consists of not believing what he does not know or experience. He exists within time, which is now.
He does not use Virgil as Dante does, or use Dante as Eliot does, to get outside the circle of the contemporary condition into eternity, even though he measures the living instant against the whole tradition. He is closer to Samuel Beckett than to Eliot or Yeats because although he is conscious of vastness outside his time and space, he uses that knowledge to define his own limited time and space. Like Beckett, he finds freedom in measuring his prison cell and his consciousness as its prisoner….
Like Rilke, he describes faithfully the landscape of suffering, but cannot accept the official theological explanations, or go on a Dante-conducted tour through the universe. He sees the truth but not the Truth, though he, rather sadly, denies denying it. There are glimmerings, rumors, rumblings, and illuminations off-stage in his poetry. But the idea of a world of spiritual certainties is only a memory among others.
The general tenor of this poetry is of a man talking quietly aloud (his voice sometimes taking off from talk to sing the fragment of an aria), resonant to himself and to his readers who overhear him. He has the kind of sensuous intelligence that observes everything and instinctively places it within an order of the mind which does not have to be stated. He is the poet of the sea, and of rocks and plants along the shore, and of desolate places at the mouths of rivers…. (pp. 29-32)
Stephen Spender, "The Poetry of Montale," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1972 NYREV, Inc.), June 1, 1972, pp. 29-32.
Montale's lyric poetry—and unlike Eliot, Montale is essentially, indeed almost exclusively, a lyric poet—is the finest blend of the three most significant influences on modern poetry: French symbolism, "Hermetism," and the Italian, or to be more precise, the Montalian version of the "objective correlative." During the early stages of his poetic career Montale was to some extent influenced by these movements. But he soon evolved an altogether different and conspicuously personal mode of expression.
In a way which is only indirectly symbolical, Montale's poetry expresses the moral and intellectual dilemmas of our times, without being overladen with any philosophy as such. And the real essence of his modernity lies in his feeling for objects, including the phenomena of nature—objects that are simultaneously charged with a personal sentiment and an impersonal symbolism. Sometimes as mute but not insentient listeners or participants in a lyric monologue or reverie, sometimes as disinterested but not indifferent spectators of the poet's inner drama, the objects in Montale's poetry are depicted as having an autonomous existence.
The person addressed as "tu" in Montale's poetry stands for a woman loved, but at the same time also for something vaster, more impersonal, and more complex, embodying, as it does, the poet's ethical or philosophical alter ego. Thus Montale is both a love poet and a philosophical poet; and even when he strikes a highly personal vein, the depth and solemnity of an impersonal and universal sentiment almost invariably comes out or is felt to be in the background. (pp. 2-3)
Montale's use of Dante's vocabulary, style, and imagery not only fitted well with his own aim of achieving the vividness, spareness, and concreteness of an antieloquent diction, but it also served to focus the radical difference between Dante's sensibility and his own. And this difference is no less felt even when Montale is trying, like Dante, to blend the physical and the transcendental, and to postulate the theme of spiritual and moral salvation in terms of love which is both human and divine. All this, however, is not a matter of mere borrowing or adaptation from Dante. For, if while deliberately using a distinctly Dantesque word or phrase, Montale succeeds in making it do something quite different, it is because his thought and sensibility, his mode of analyzing and assessing his own experience, and the nature of his explorations into reality are as profoundly different from Dante's as they are characteristically modern. In a word, whatever Montale takes from Dante becomes a challenge for him—a challenge through which to assert his own individuality. (pp. 11-12)
Montale represents as antithetical a position to Petrarch as, for example, Donne does to Spenser, or Hopkins to Tennyson, substituting prosaic ruggedness and essentiality of diction for Petrarch's elegance and smoothness. Nevertheless, in spite of the linguistic and stylistic barriers between them, what brings Montale close to Petrarch is the mode and direction that his sensibility takes while dealing with the theme of love and exploiting the psychological and emotional situations it involves. Thus while recollecting the various features, episodes, and aspects of the woman loved—a woman separated from him either by death or distance—Montale idealizes her more or less along Petrarchan lines. And this is what he means when he refers to his "Petrarchan experience" as embodied in the Finisterre poems. However, this experience is often expressed in terms of style, diction, and imagery that are characteristically un-Petrarchan or even anti-Petrarchan. (p. 12)
[It is] when Montale is dealing with "the evil of living," or with such themes as human destiny, the sense of philosophical or metaphysical determinism, and moral and historical pessimism … [that] there are closer verbal, thematic, and conceptual links between Montale and Leopardi than between Montale and any other poet after Dante. (pp. 13-14)
[Those] echoes and reminiscences [of both earlier and twentieth-century poets], far from detracting from the originality of Montale's poetry, simply attest to a critically perceptive awareness on his part of the cultural milieu in which he grew and developed as a poet. Without this awareness, which entailed his being fully alive to the poetic tradition in Italy from Dante to D'Annunzio, and without his sure and discriminating grasp of what he could profitably borrow from that tradition and what he couldn't, it is doubtful that Montale would have made the mark he did on his epoch, still less have achieved that distinction and status of a classic poet which is undoubtedly his. (p. 15)
The most conspicuous characteristic of Ossi di seppia is its strikingly uniform level of maturity—a maturity that does not depend on, and cannot therefore be explained in terms of, the stages of development one can often trace in the works and careers of other poets. In other words, insofar as the degree of maturity—moral, psychological, and artistic—is concerned, most of the poems in Ossi di seppia, Le occasioni (1993), and La bufera e altro (1956) might, in a way, have been written in the same period…. Even when there is a question of technical progress or divergency of style and tone between one volume and another or between one poem and another, the sense of a mature intelligence and sensibility, manifest above all in the language, always impresses us firmly and convincingly….
Ossi di seppia … sets a pattern wherein personal and autobiographical as well as impersonal and philosophical elements are closely interwoven. The note of personal lyricism … is almost always accompanied by a sharp awareness of the dilemmas and predicaments of his age and country…. [The] note of taciturn stoicism is indicative of the moral and political repression that was felt in Fascist Italy; and so to some extent are Montale's poetic diction and style. (p. 20)
[A] sense of historical as well as metaphysical determinism, a determinism that is evident even in the choice and collocation of words, weighs upon Montale's world as presented in Ossi di seppia. Political and metaphysical forebodings and uncertainties merge with a concern for personal identity and determine the search for a pattern or significance underlying the poet's observation of the landscape, his recollection of the past, and his "critical corrosion of existence."… The typically Montalian landscape is outlined with dynamic vividness, and [with] impressionistic details … [that] have a subtle and unobtrusive symbolism about them. The wall is a recurrent feature in the Montalian landscape, symbolizing something predetermined, static, and unchangeable, just as the wind and water symbolize change, movement, transformation, and occasionally salvation. (p. 21)
If he manages to transform what [has been called] "desperate critical material" into lyric poetry, it is not merely by virtue of his firm hold on and profound feeling for things and objects, but also by his giving an almost palpable form to "what we are not, what we do not want …, and to his stoicism in the face of a life that cannot be lived. It is this which accounts for the triple facets of Montale's lyricism: the elegiac, the idyllic, and the contemplative. And if Montale often adopts a prosaic tone in his poetry, it is the tone of a poet who is also a master of prose. In other words, he blends with a superb assurance and authority the cadences of prose and poetry, which many poets would consider too risky. (p. 22)
One unfailing source of strength in Montale's poetry is his complete mastery of the world of natural phenomena—a mastery by virtue of which he breathes life into what is lifeless, and infuses apparently prosaic or unpoetic objects with a poetic intensity. Moreover, his poetic naturalism is linked, both as a cause and a corollary, to his metaphysical insight or symbolic vision. (p. 23)
It is … those poems specifically grouped under the title Ossi di seppia that reveal Montale's art at its best. Here that continual extinction of personality which Eliot regarded as an essential prerequisite to the progress of an artist is achieved not so much by an escape from emotion as by a process of elimination and organization operating both at the conscious and the unconscious level. This makes for the kind of concentration that is both verbal and moral, the one in fact being a corollary of the other. Perceptions, impressions, and emotions are woven into a pattern of images. Montale's diction—with its "stony" ruggedness—is itself the result of that concentration…. [It] is chiefly through this concentration that Montale achieves the rich synthesis of realistic and symbolic meaning which characterizes his poetry. Immediacy or closeness (Montale's own word is adherence) to his own thought, experience, or intuition is his overriding concern in his use of the language and in his "wrestle with words." Moreover, his lifelong interest in music enabled him to achieve a perfect balance between sound and sense and architectonic unity in a given poem. This group of poems thus forms the earliest and most representative body of poetry wherein all the essential qualities and characteristics of Montale's art are impressively present—a positive and creative form of countereloquence, a delicate balance between concentration and diffusion…. They also exhibit the metallic timbre of the language and the evocative and symbolic richness of imagery, both words "that might mold our formless soul"… as well as a robust matter-of-factness of impressionistic detail in all its allusive complexity…. The intuitive depth and richness of Montale's poetry are expressed through his strikingly original images no less than through gnomic aphorisms. (pp. 29-30)
It is … characteristic of Montale's poetry that, although the various images, allusions, or affirmations merge together harmoniously within the structural and stylistic unity and complexity of a given poem, they nevertheless succeed in retaining a certain degree of personal autonomy.
That a good many of Montale's poems bear no titles has a certain significance. Of all the important twentieth-century Italian poets Montale is the one in whose case it is most difficult to proceed by explicating, through definite formulations and statements, what a particular poem is about. In other words, what comes out through the reading of the poem and what was in the poet's mind when he wrote it, seldom lend themselves to a condensed summary. And the kind of artistic, verbal, and technical maturity that each poem displays is itself either too generally diffused in the whole poem, or too concentrated in some parts to enable the poet to give it a suitable title. Hence the charge of obscurity that has sometimes been leveled against Montale. But the fact is that not only the nature of the technique—to which the alleged obscurity is largely attributed—but also the very nature of what the poet wants to convey in all its depth and complexity is such that a title, far from doing justice to the poem, might only mislead the reader.
In other words, the absence of a title is indicative not so much of the absence of thematic unity as of the structural complexity of a given poem. (p. 31)
If Montale's poetry is metaphysical, it is so not because it has recourse to abstract concepts not already implicit in the situation or occasion concretely presented, but because it subjects the moral and emotional aspects of personal experience to a closely knit artistic and technical pattern. Few modern poets in Italy have succeeded, as Montale has, in drawing their poetic inspiration and strength almost exclusively from a personal or autobiographical source, without becoming imprisoned within the bounds of subjectivism in the narrow sense of the term.
When interpreting a poem by Montale it is possible to separate the central idea, concept, or theme;… but this would be to restrict the scope of what the poem really represents in its verbal, stylistic, and conceptual unity and complexity.
Even an apparently personal poem … goes beyond the scope of purely personal lyricism in its use of objects and images which are at once realistic and symbolically evocative…. One of the poetic devices most frequently used by Montale is that of presenting an abstract thought, feeling, or emotion, not so much through the objective correlative in the Eliotian sense as through an objective transfiguration or extension. (pp. 34-5)
The Ossi di seppia group is followed by another group called Mediterraneo, consisting of nine poems which offer the most impassioned lyrical celebration of the sea that Italian poetry has ever known—not the sea in general, but the Mediterranean sea which laps the Cinque Terre and the Ligurian coast with its distinctively rocky and rugged contours…. Mediterraneo represents the most ambitious and most impassioned poetic evocation of and dialogue with the sea. It is seen as a symbol of cosmic and eternal life as well as a source and inspiration of the poet's moral and poetic thinking. It has, one might say, the same importance for Montale as Nature had for Wordsworth … or as Egdon Heath had for Thomas Hardy. It is both something to contemplate and something that helps the poet in the task of self-exploration and self-realization, both a guide and a taskmaster, a challenge and a consolation. There is no other aspect of nature that Montale seems to be so instinctively and passionately in sympathy with as the sea. The tone of lyric abandonment and fervor that characterizes his diction in these poems is evidence of his familiarity with and insight into the laws and mystery of the sea. What the suggestive world of the Mediterranean, and even more specifically of the Ligurian coast, signifies for him is sensuously wedded to the task of self-exploration and self-realization. The act of perceiving and interpreting what the sea has to offer thus goes hand in hand with the poet's analysis of his moral and psychological self and of his position vis-à-vis the sea. (pp. 47-8)
[Together] with the poems in the Ossi di seppia group, Mediterraneo represents an important stage in Montale's career as a poet and a craftsman. The lyric-cum-rhapsodic elements of Mediterraneo were not to be repeated in Montale's subsequent verse, and the youthful élan and passion that characterize it were to be kept increasingly under technical as well as moral control—if not altogether sacrificed—in the interest of a more complex and more elaborately organized pattern of symbolic and allusive detail in Le occasioni and La bufera. From the dual process of abandonment to the spell of the sea and nostalgic recollection of what it meant in the past, the poet was to retire within himself, or at least to shift his angle of vision to other aspects of nature…. Thus, if there is one group of poems in Ossi di seppia that represents "the first fine careless rapture" of Montale's creative life, it is Mediterraneo. The carelessness of the rapture, however, doesn't mean lack of artistic or technical discipline. It is in fact the outcome of a very high degree of discipline—verbal, technical, and stylistic. In his later poetry the sea was not, of course, to be altogether shelved but to serve more as a background for past recollections than as a personalized force.
In the following group of poems, Meriggi e ombre, for instance, there is more or less the same thematic and stylistic unity as in Mediterraneo, and yet the sea is distanced so as to become merely an object of recollection. In other words, it is not a principal source of poetic inspiration to be reckoned with. (pp. 57-8)
"Casa sul mare" is one of the best poems Montale ever wrote. Of all the poems in Ossi di seppia it is the one most closely linked with Montale's later poetry, while at the same time fully exploiting what Ossi di seppia stands for. The poised sublety and accomplishment of tone and rhythm, as well as the spontaneous ease and self-assurance, both technical and artistic, come out most impressively in the poet's treatment of a deeply moving, yet complex and elusive event. Both the diction and the style, however, are dictated by the inherent nature of the theme and situation and the intensely personal emotion behind them…. [What] is romantic about the poem emerges from, as in turn it leads to, the poet's mature awareness of the moral and philosophical aspects of his and his beloved's destiny and experience. (p. 70)
[After] the publication of Ossi di seppia, Montale's poetic development has to be traced increasingly in terms of autobiographical data, symbols, and allusions concerning the theme of personal love. However, for all the moral, philosophical, and symbolical aspects and undertones, and for all the rich and complex gamut of intensities and subleties through which it works, there is a certain shrinking of the range of philosophical interest, perception, and intuition—a certain loss in terms of cosmic and impersonal depth and insight in Le occasioni and in Montale's subsequent poetry in general, as compared with Ossi di seppia, which remains a unique body of lyric-cum-philosophic poetry in Italian after Leopardi's Canti. (p. 132)
Xenia and related poems [in Satura] are love poems; the others are satirical or semiphilosophical verse. In the former a lyrical and autobiographical element prevails; in the latter a critical intelligence, in the widest and most flexible sense of the term, operates within the framework of a commentary on the Zeitgeist. (p. 193)
Although love existed as a theme or a source of inspiration in most of Montale's earlier poetry, in Xenia it is expressed with a degree of frankness and familiarity that has its own peculiarly personal tone and accent…. The dual realization that what he is evoking belongs irretrievably to the past and at the same time has come to acquire a new freshness and creative potency in memory, confers a hallucinatory and poignant significance even upon the most banal and prosaic details and incidents.
In terms of technique, style, and diction the result is a strikingly unique achievement for which there is no parallel in Italian poetry. Even in English poetry the only parallel that comes to mind are the poems Hardy wrote on the death of his first wife in 1912–poems that Montale himself has described as "one of the peaks of modern poetry." However, the simplicity of tone in Xenia seldom borders on sentimentality, as it sometimes does in Hardy; there is little or no romantic aura about what is evoked; and instead of letting loose a flood of emotions and passions, Montale keeps them down to a remarkably low ebb…. The theme of love … is neither directly nor indirectly stated. In this, too, the poems differ from Hardy's. There the theme of love—whether realized or not—and the sense of regret concerning what might have been are always to the fore. In Montale, on the other hand, the feeling of deep emotional involvement rarely comes to the surface. Rather, the apparently trivial details and associations that are evoked convey a sense of something deeper which the poet has deliberately left unsaid. (pp. 194-95)
With the exceptions of Xenia, Dopo una fuga, and some related poems—necessary exceptions when one bears in mind the nature of the occasion and the inspiration behind them as well as their peculiar quality of tone and inflection—one is tempted to sum up the rest of Satura with the Miltonic words, "Calm of mind, all passion spent." For in spite of the fact that these poems make a very effective use of wit, irony, and sarcasm, and represent the harvest of the "years that bring the philosophic mind," only a few of them come off. There is something too cerebral about them; the ideas on which they are based do not organize themselves into a poetically charged pattern; and in [some of the poems] … there is nothing to suggest that the same ideas and concepts could not have been treated as cogently in the form of prose essays such as those in Auto da fé, with which they have much in common. (p. 222)
Farfalla di Dinard is … sui generis, being prose pieces that are also in a way short stories (and among the best of their kind), and at the same time a series of autobiographical vignettes, sketches, and recollections relating to Montale's childhood and to the period between the two world wars. Montale himself calls them something halfway between a short story and a petit poème en prose, so that while some of them resemble Baudelaire's prose poems, others remind us of the hallucinatory vividness and perspicuity of Kafka's realism. Regarding the quality of prose in which these pieces are written, it too has an organic link with Montale's poetry insofar as it frequently achieves crystalline neatness and intensity, sophisticated sublety of understatement, unobstrusive delicacy and pathos, and an undercurrent of semiphilosophical irony.
Farfalla di Dinard may therefore be regarded as an original contribution to the development of Italian prose, as Ossi di seppia is to that of Italian poetry. Relatively few modern Italian writers have delved into and exploited the hidden resources of the Italian language, both by enriching the vocabulary and loosening the syntax, as successfully as has Montale. (pp. 223-24)
Through an impressive combination of realism and naturalism on the one hand and symbolism on the other, Montale not only delves deep into and exploits the hitherto untapped resources of the Italian language, but also enriches the domain of poetic metaphor and imagery. The peculiar intensity of tone and timbre in his use of a word or an image results from, as it in turn leads to, the quality of crystalline concreteness and sharply marked specificity or "thisness" which characterizes his poetic diction without, nevertheless, depriving it of a delicate nuance of evocativeness and symbolism. Montale's reaction against the courtly tradition of the Italian language led him to use a ruggedly prosaic diction, underlying which there is, however, a particular depth of lyricism that Italian poetry had not known since Leopardi. (p. 276)
Montale's poetry assiduously avoids, from first to last, what is vague, generic, and abstract and not sharply pinpointed in utmost precision and concreteness. Even while expressing what is deeply rooted in his personal experience, he always succeeds in striking a cogent balance between … what is movingly and intimately subjective and what is strikingly impersonal and universal.
Moreover, Montale's originality emerges no less in the way he widens or "deprovincializes" the cultural and linguistic as well as the philosophical range of the Italian lyric, while remaining at the same time … rooted in his native tradition…. [His] interest in English literature … provides him both with a perspective and a measuring-rod for assessing the inherent worth of the Italian poetic tradition while at the same time enriching and changing it. In this respect he may be compared with T. S. Eliot, although there is a fundamental difference between the two. Eliot's poetry—and in particular his religious or philosophic poetry—indicates a frame of mind and a mode of exploring reality, as well as of interpreting one's own experience, which are on the whole extraneous to Montale. For one thing Montale's poetry seldom parades ethical, philosophical, or religious concepts for their own sake. For another, there is no nisus toward an explicitly or implicitly professed dogma at the core of his thought as there is at the core of Eliot's. In other words, Montale's poetry is rich in what Keats calls "Negative Capability"—the capability, that is, of being "in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." It was the lack of this capability that Pound had in mind when he observed that Eliot was "too weak to live with an uncertainty." Montale's "Negative Capability" gives the "criticism of life" or "critical corrosion of existence" in his poetry the vigor and sharpness, as well as the poignancy, of a personal experience. (pp. 276-77)
G. Singh, in his Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism (copyright © 1973 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1973.
"I had long been amazed by Montale," writes Robert Lowell in the Introduction to his Imitations. Strong words; and what of Montale was—and presumably is—amazing to Mr Lowell? He gives a clue later in the same sentence: "unlike most good poets … he was strong in simple prose." (p. 78)
Eugenio Montale is one of a generation of poets—known as the ermetici—who brought Italian poetry into the twentieth century after the riotous Romantic sunsets of D'Annunzio and the paler gloamings of the crepuscolari. The ermetici, then, were a sort of dawn over the battlefields—this was around 1915. For Ungaretti it was silence punctuated by briefly resonant phrases, like the first birdsongs; for Montale, a few years later, it was a chaste, a chastened melody, an aubade…. Musician that he is, Montale knows the difference between breathing and phrasing—neither sighs and tears nor fast thick pants, but the movement of a voice about its best business. And Montale went on from there to stretch the Italian language in rather the way that Milton stretched English. (pp. 78-9)
Montale is probably the modern Italian poet most translated into English. Though he has not always been well served by his translators, one has at least formed some impression of him…. [There] is something of a Special Relationship between Montale and the English-speaking world—Montale is known to have been influenced by Eliot and has written on and translated a number of English authors. (p. 80)
Montale is also a short story writer and critic of some distinction…. But most important is the poetry—four principal collections only, from 1925 to 1971, but what collections. Montale is one of the strongest poets writing anywhere today. (p. 81)
Keith Bosley, "The Eagle of Milan," in Agenda, Summer, 1974, pp. 78-81.
How many times had the European public expected Eugenio Montale to rightfully win [the Nobel Prize] after having been translated into several languages? And yet, for one reason or another, the ultimate satisfaction had been denied him. Too intellectual, too impressionistic, too obscure, too far from the common mold of humanity. Too pessimistic to be officially acclaimed. Not that Montale, a gruff 79-year-old poet, really coveted this recognition….
If one considers ["Bones of the Cuttlefish," his first volume of verse,] from a modernist point of view Montale's poetry might appear, as its very beginning, a little demode, antiquated, even traditional. Actually, it carried in itself a decisively new idiom, a music that only apparently sounded well-known. When the critics started painstakingly to pinpoint its merits, trying to define its imagery and form, they insisted on the intimate rapport between the Ligurian landscape—its sea and reefs, its cultivated terraces, its countryside and vegetable gardens and olive trees, never before poetically present with such full, hallucinatory force—and the structures of the so-called "poetry of aridity." Another Waste Land, to put it shortly.
Later on, in strong antithesis to what had been written before, a more correct evaluation emerged, stressing the fecundity of Montale's realism, the freshness of his vision, the evocative power of his metaphors not only through figures of speech and inventions, but through symbols and meanings, anticipating the freer course of the sequel to "Bones of the Cuttlefish," "The Occasions."…
In "The Storm" the style right away hits us as hard as a rock. Montale plunges into cold, speculative depths, a concise, heady summary of his time. His intellect, still imbued with pessimism, probes reality with a scalpel. No easily appeased mob is to be found here; no hymn to humanism and the like; no sentimentalism or false pity; but a negativism based on "an indelible feeling for the value of life, an austere invitation to hope," conveyed not only in words; a style with assumed implications of clarity, honesty, and maturity. God is rarely mentioned in Montale's books. The poet made no appeal to traditional Italian pieties. If anything, he debunked and satirized them, incensing pious and patriotic souls with fiery indignation….
"Satura" hints, in the polyvalent Montalean style, at concrete, colloquial diction, breaking away from alien structures, including just about everything in its compass. So the book ranges from trifles of a private order to meditative suggestions of a broader scope; the first, and last, existential themes of Western man, a Christian after all, lucidly and positively rooted to his own speaking self; a juvenile wisdom and a joyful knowledge that do not prevent the poet from finding passionate accents; the paradoxical situation of an old body and a lively, acute mind, mocking a pitiable planet. At its center the poet does not move, does not compromise, but amiably, ironically, compassionately puts the links together, demythologizes, always creating and reshaping, at times in a festive, celebrating mood, out of the rubble of destruction.
After 10 years of silence and 50 of writing, in "Satura" Montale renewed the luxuriant variety, the polyphony and the prose flow of "Bones of the Cuttlefish." Physical and metaphysical nuances and a loving dialogue with the dead live side by side with parodies and gnomic epitaphs, with irreverent and delicate resumes, that make this the best, hopefully not the last, of Montale's extraordinary books….
Nereo Condoni, "Italy Lands Nobel Prize," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), November 10, 1975, p. 89.
Within the limits of Italian literature Montale is generally thought to belong to a triumvirate of poets which includes Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo. These writers, plus a few others, are often referred to as the "hermetic" poets. The term "hermetic" was first applied to the deceptively simple, condensed poetry of Ungaretti, although since the 1930s it has been applied to any verse which literary critics find obscure or "difficult." In a broader sense, however, when critics refer to Montale as a hermetic poet they are suggesting a literary debt or relationship to the development of so-called "pure poetry" (poésie pure) in Europe. "Pure poetry" is, of course, that type of highly musical, radically imaginative poetry which evolves from Mallarmé to and beyond such poets as Valéry, Eliot and Lorca. In a strict sense Montale did not write poésie pure, although a few characteristics of such poetry may also be observed in his verse: e.g., rich musicality, private symbolism and reduced emphasis on sentimentality.
Montale's oeuvre invites comparison with various American and European writers such as Paul Valéry and Jorge Guillén, although recent critical attention has often focused on the likeness of T. S. Eliot to the Italian poet. The comparability of these poets is mainly based upon their respective modes of description. In the verse of each author nature is consistently presented kaleidoscopically as a mosaic of fragments or broken images. Both Eliot and Montale explore this fragmented world in order to fathom the mystery of human life. It must be pointed out, however, that Eliot emerges from his existential wilderness or wasteland to find resolution in the framework of Christianity. Montale's quest, on the other hand, never leads to final answers. The fundamental questions regarding life, death and human fate posed in the early poetry are deepened, repeated but not resolved in later verse.
With regard to the relationship between poetry and life, Montale is conspicuously comparable with Saint-John Perse, the French Nobel winner of 1960. Like Montale and Eliot, Perse views poetry as quest, a mode of investigating the natural world. The eclectic presentation of images gleaned from various fields of study is a striking stylistic feature in the work of both the Italian and the Frenchman. Though the spirit of Perse's work may be considered a bit more optimistic than that of Montale, in the final analysis, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. To date, Montale's writings have been likened to those of several poets in the Italian tradition (Dante, Gozzano, D'Annunzio), but few studies have been conducted to determine the poet's significance in the total context of Western literature. Hopefully this year's Nobel award will serve to stimulate comparative studies of such international scope. (p. 9)
The human condition, or, more precisely, the maladjustment (disarmonia) associated with the human condition is the subject of [Montale's] poetry. The term "maladjustment" is used in reference to man's inability to find meaning in a physical world of which he may be considered the solitary prisoner. As one critic puts it, the problem at the heart of Montale's poetry is that man feels out of harmony with the natural elements which swirl about him in an endless process of transformation. At times the phenomenal world seems to be only an infernal machine which happens to include man in its meaningless and relentless patterns of movement.
Montale has responded to the existential quandary in two ways: first, he has attempted to achieve a sense of harmony or identity with the natural world; and second, he has sought to discover a higher order of existence (metaphysical level of being) which might illuminate man's life in the immediate physical ambience. (pp. 9-10)
[It] would be incorrect to imply that the poet's work is limited to consideration of the existential dilemma. Especially in poems from the collections "The Occasions" (1939) and "The Storm and Other Things" (1956) Montale speaks passionately and convincingly of perplexing ethical and social problems in the contemporary world. Underlying the ethical dimension of Montale's poetry is the belief that various evils witnessed in the twentieth century, especially the regimentation and annihilation of men, can be overcome or at least challenged if each individual will but offer resistance and say "no" to the masters of totalitarian systems. (p. 13)
In an interview held in 1966 the poet declared that he has been able to survive through the tumultuous years of the twentieth century primarily because he has always sustained a faith in life. The poet lives, to use his own words, in "the hope that life has meaning." Though the ultimate significance of life may remain forever beyond the reach of human reason, the challenge that life presents to each individual has always been considered worthwhile. It would be wrong, then, to concur with those critics who can view Montale's work only as a literature of crisis or pessimism. On the contrary, the poet's words imply and inspire a degree of optimism, for they suggest that in spite of human tragedy life must hold meaning. (p. 14)
Remaining beyond [the] limiting spheres of the subjective and ideological, Montale demonstrates great concern for the freedom and survival of art. For many years now the poet has realized that the genuine knowledge sought by poets—that is, knowledge of universal scope and implication—can only be found at the heart of life itself, within the act of living, a gesture which Eugenio Montale has always considered the supreme act of faith…. (pp. 14-15)
Wallace Craft, "Openness to Life: The Poetry of Eugenio Montale, 1975 Nobel Laureate for Literature," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 7-15.
Eugenio Montale is by common consensus Italy's greatest living writer and, with Jorge Guillen, one of the few surviving members of the modernist movement, which changed the form and substance of poetry in our century. But it is only since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last year that the 79-year-old poet's work has begun to attract the sustained attention here it has long deserved. A modest man who shuns self-advertisement, Montale has brought out only five collections of verse in the course of his career, but each has signaled important changes in the development of his work and of contemporary Italian poetry, which he has dominated, along with Ungaretti and Quasimodo, since he started to publish.
A celebrated early Montale poem concludes, "All we can tell you today/is what we are not, what we don't want": reticence and an embracing of limits have always been important to him. The musical, formal, often obscure poems that first earned Montale a reputation were written partly at least in reaction to the large rhetorical gestures of the generation of d'Annunzio, and they were imbued with a passionate sense of moral disillusionment and alienation—verging at times on querulousness—which has remained the poet's characteristic attitude. Spiritually at odds with the bankrupt social and political environment of Italy between the wars, Montale gradually developed a private dialogue with a silent partner, the famous tu, or intimate you, who became the other major protagonist in his poetry. At first she appears as Clizia, a kind of modern Beatrice figure; later she turns into his wife Mosca, a major subject of Montale's work since her death in 1963.
Selections from Montale's recent poetry, published in Italy as "Satura" in 1971 and "Diario del '71 e del '72" in 1973, have now been issued … under the title "New Poems," translated by G. Singh. In this, the work of Montale's sixties and seventies, his tone is, if anything, more private than ever, but his intensity and rhetoric have relaxed, and as a result his poems have become, paradoxically, much more accessible. Paradox is the hallmark of the later Montale; it seems ideally suited to his calm, autumnal resignation to the inevitability of his situation. These poems are drily ironic, deeply witty anecdotal responses to the fleetingness of daily experience. Montale believes it has been "the dream of every modern poet from Browning on" to make poetry "by juxtaposing the aulic [formal] and the prosaic," and his mature style has moved increasingly close to the conversational. The reference to Browning is significant, for Montale, who has translated Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot and others, shows signs of having been deeply influenced by the tradition of "plain-style" in English poetry, and his sensibility is probably the most congenial to the English-speaking reader of any modern Romance-language poet. (pp. 6-7)
"Xenia" is probably Montale's best-known work, and it is certainly the greatest thing in "New Poems." In a series of 28 short poems, varying greatly in mood and tone, he draws a haunting and powerful portrait of his absent wife by evoking his unsettled, disparate memories of her….
Nothing else in Montale's recent work rises to quite this height, though there are other great poems, among them the magnificent "After a Flight." Typically, they recall earlier personal moments or give concrete form to historical, linguistic or religious observations. Their wit and irony—even self-irony—both relieve and enforce Montale's now less involved but no less astringent view of human life as a predicament that is rarely understood, let alone mastered. As it has always been for him, the moment of vision, the rare, serendipitous "flash" of insight, though vouchsafed to few, remains the one validating human experience. It is also the source of that small but enduring, and essentially religious, voice of dissent—the "countersong to enrich the great country of abundance which is tomorrow"—that could be said to characterize Montale's work as a whole…. (p. 7)
Jonathan Galassi, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1976.
[Montale] called his first collection of poems Ossi di Seppia (1925), comparing them to the dry cuttlefish bones to be found on the beaches of his native Liguria. If it recalled a line from the rhapsodic D'Annunzio, the title also had affinities with Eliot's "prayer of the bone on the beach" as well as Yeats' "bones upon the shore." The denudation of the humanistic spirit, soon made absolute for an Italian by the rise of fascism, was expressed in an image of both quintessential survival and ultimate reduction. The poems in style and subject expressed the condition of limitation and loss as the ultimate human state….
Unlike Eliot, he did not, as he actually grew older, alter his sense of himself as a man who must rely on his own humanity, walled in by mortality, yet stubbornly aware. Though sometimes he seemed to glimpse a passage, a varco, which might lead to some truth beyond perception, more often his illuminations were negative, of a void, as, when taking his usual morning stroll, he might turn around to discover … nothingness over [his] shoulder. He warned his readers not to expect the magic disclosure of other worlds—his syllables, dry and twisted dead briar, could only say … what we are not, what we do not want. And yet the energy of pure being in unconscious nature seemed to him enviable. He longed to emulate the sunflower in the salt-parched garden turning its face to the light all day…. He declared himself drunk with the voice of the sea, the Ancient One who first taught him that the tumult of the heart was but a moment of His and to keep His law … [as he said] to be vast and diverse and yet fixed and to thus cast out of myself all filth—as the sea casts its wastes upon the shore.
But such an identification with unconscious nature and faith in its regenerative processes seemed impossible for the perceiving, reflecting man who lived through the following decades. Society is not like the self-cleansing Mediterranean, after all. He was thrown, he says in a poem of 1961, into the Augean stables when he was hardly out of adolescence, and no Hercules diverted a pure stream to flush out the dung and decaying flesh. The image of a historical tide that is, instead, filthy and destructive remained with him out of the Mussolini years. (p. 35)
The poet has spoken of [life's accidental detail of] objects and occasions as "concentrates of the past, assuming the function of totems." His poetry from Le occasioni onward, has been full of such totems that often seem random and obscure to the uninitiated reader because they are meaningful only as part of the poet's private collection of associations. A few poems, indeed, are veritable catalogues of them—one has as its significant title the English word "Keepsake." Montale's Italian critics have occupied themselves a good deal with the identification of these references—to the poet's amusement….
In the two sequences given the title "Xenia" and first published in 1971 and now again in New Poems, the totemic element is conspicuous. Like the earlier motets to Clizia these, too, are love poems dedicated to an absent woman, this time the poet's dead wife. The poet-mourner treasures dispersed moments of recollection. He finds that even lost objects—like a shoehorn left behind in a Venice hotel—have the power to summon up past occasions. His is a world made up of fortuitously suggestive particulars though "they say that poetry at its highest glorifies the Whole in its flight, and deny that the tortoise is swifter than lightning." It is difficult to decide whether transcendentalism or nominalism emerges from his irony….
Yet the impulse that suspects the universal in the particular surges into the later occasioni and even more into the difficult, apocalyptic poems of the Bufera collection. Clizia becomes more than an absent lover, she becomes a goddess whose symbol is the sunflower into which, according to Ovid, her classical namesake was metamorphosed for love of the sun-God. She is the life-force that in some of the major poems of these collections struggles against cosmic and social annihilation….
The poems of the "Xenia" series, written when Montale was 70, are also dedicated to an absent beloved, his dead wife, Drusilla Tanzi, whose nickname—because she was small and wore heavy-lensed glasses—was "Mosca," the fly. Mosca becomes a symbolic personage who seems to suggest to him the varco he has always half-believed in, a passage of faith out of existential resignation. (p. 37)
Millicent Bell, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 17, 1976.