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 statement: "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, Vols. 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
[Despite his English affinity], Montale still belongs to the continental European tradition. Since the 19th century, French, Italian, German, and Spanish poetry has tolerated a much higher degree of difficulty, of "hermeticism" than has English or American poetry. To the extent that Eliot was influenced by the French Symbolists he was labeled "obscure."… Also, continental philosophy, very much at odds with the English empirical tradition, has had a continuous influence on the poetry written in those countries—and the influence is often reciprocal…. The result is that the metaphysical or dialectical concerns of a good deal of continental poetry, including Montale's, are apt to strike English readers as misplaced, forced, even unreal.
Montale was never altogether a "hermetic" poet, certainly not in his first book. The poems in Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), published in 1925, decipher fairly easily. Many of the poems are taken up with description, sometimes of interiors but more often of landscapes or seascapes. Montale develops the relationship between narrator and environment in a peculiar way: the two exist in reciprocity, a kind of spiritual symbiosis that Ruskin would have put under his rubric of the "pathetic fallacy." We no longer find this approach scandalous; in any case, Montale's landscapes are notable for their concretion, their vivid particulars. The poems in the sequence "Mediterraneo" form a series of meditations on the sea…. A second natural phenomenon that preoccupies the poet is sunlight, the noonday meridional glare, which annihilates everything except una certezza: la luce ("one certainty: light"). (pp. 257-58)
Throughout the Mediterranean sequence and indeed through many of the other poems as well runs the theme of desire for "un evento impossibile," a moment of transcendence or escape from fatality, limitation, the bondage of mortality. The poet tries to imagine some "loophole" in nature…. Moments of escape or transcendence are presented … in such poems as "Quasi una fantasia" as hypothetical, mere supposition, always in the future: they are never to be realized; or perhaps the poet knows that their sole chance for realization lies in poetry, as hypothetical, imagined experience.
On the other hand, Montale presents as actual and palpable "il male di vivere," (the evil of living), "questa tortura senza nome," (this nameless torment), the "fissità gelida" (frozen fixity) of human suffering. The Ligurian landscape, sun-beaten, rocky, desiccated, with theatrical vistas on to the sea and precipitous cliffs, seems to echo sympathetically the theme of spiritual torment. (Montale finds a verbal equivalent for that landscape, a gravelly, heavily consonanted speech….) Human love would seem to...
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be for Montale the best response to the "male di vivere." But it is seldom presented in its happiest aspect. Instead, almost all of his poems on love deal with estrangement, the sense of betrayal and loss. So true is it that the majority of Montale's poems are built around the theme of love that he could be reproached for repetitiveness; however, this one form of repetitiveness most readers are readily disposed to forgive—certainly I have no trouble doing so.
A good part of genius lies in the careful working out of detail. Ossi di seppia makes the impression it does not only because of its serious thematic concerns but also because of Montale's careful craftsmanship. (pp. 258-59)
To return to the issue of hermeticism: it's apparent … that Montale is very much a poet for the ear, probably even more so than for the eye…. [Because of his early and serious interest in music, especially opera,] his poems show a high degree of sonorous organization. I suspect that his concern for pure sound has sometimes worked against clear expression of content; but I also find that reading difficult passages aloud eases the uncomfortable feeling of not having understood. Nearly all of his poems contain passages virtuosic from the standpoint of sound alone. (p. 260)
The "Motets" appear in Montale's second volume Le occasioni, published in 1932. The tendency toward hermeticism is here at its strongest. Two factors contributed to this, one external, the other a personal, aesthetic parti pris. Montale was altogether out of sympathy with the Fascist régime. Although his poetry attempted to engage the sordid realities of the time, it could only voice an indirect protest. The danger of repression was real…. Indeed, the overall tone of frustration and bitterness in Le occasioni may be understood as an emotional emblem for Montale's attitude toward the political and social conditions in Fascist Italy.
But Montale's hermeticism in these poems has a purely aesthetic aspect as well. He had become dissatisfied with the merely expository element in poetry—he wanted essence and not accident. "Occasions" are precisely what one seldom finds in Le occasioni. Instead Montale presents emotional significance and psychic texture as almost the whole of the poem—expression rather than representation, the lamp rather than the mirror. The method is at its purest and most successful in the "Motets," twenty brief lyrics centering again on the theme of estrangement from the beloved, a figure of both human and divine stature. This approach to poetic form allows for great condensation and therefore great power; but the poems are undeniably difficult. (pp. 261-62)
Nel nostro tempo (In Our Time), a book of essays published in 1972, sums up Montale's views on recent social and literary developments at home and abroad…. Reading these prose pieces Montale wrote in the sixties and early seventies, one quickly understands that he is squarely opposed to several currents in recent history—mass and pop culture; the political developments in Italy; the aesthetics of shock and confrontation; and the new linguistic, structuralist criticism.
Not many of us would rush to disagree with him on these issues; but for the poetry the results of his disaffection with contemporary reality seem to have been bad, on the whole. In 1970 Montale published Satura (a Latin word suggesting the satiric treatment of a variety of topics). A large number of the poems are essayistic in impulse and ironic in tone. To read many of them at a sitting is fatiguing; except for the frequent display of wit and humanity, most of the poems seem un-Montalean. Fortunately none of these strictures applies to the splendid Xenia, which opens the book…. [The] sequence is a brilliant, cinematic evocation of Montale's late wife…. The poet darts from scene to distinct scene, sketching in the features of a very idiosyncratic character, all of this carried out with brevity, wit, and a sane tenderness. The poems peculiarly combine naturalistic detail, dialogue, revery, comedy, bereavement, and a meditative frame of mind akin to prayer. (pp. 265-66)
[Diario del '71 e del '72 resembles] the previous collection in being more accessible than the earlier "hermetic" work, but the tone has softened slightly; there is less bitterness than in Satura, less irony. This is all to the good for Montale's poetry; and allows us to hope for new poems having the stature of the best from Ossi di seppia, Le occasioni, La bufera e altro, and Xenia. (p. 266)
Alfred Corn, "The Anglo-Italian Relationship," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 256-69.
[Where] does Quaderno di quattro anni come exactly, in Montale's oeuvre? That inevitably raises the larger question—how is the whole course of his poetry to be seen? The invitation (temptation) to see it in its entirety has now been formally presented with the publication … of Tutte le poesie. (This volume faithfully reproduces the six individual collections in their order of appearance.) … [It would seem that Quaderno di quattro anni is one more medley of "mixed bags"]; four years' jottings after two years of diary notes. Desultory verse.
That description would quite misrepresent the new book and the two that preceded it. Today it is very clear: we have been slow on the uptake; the error was in our reading. What Montale has been giving us since La bufera e altro is not further individual, autonomous collections, but the parts, the canti, roughly, of his long free poem, his candid, rambling address to the public, his "Don Juan". By this light the individual pieces in the three newer books appear differently too; they become themselves. Rather than single compositions they read as the strophes … of a long work-in-progress. Some do, of course, stand by themselves, as individual poems: but for the most part they simply move with "action", deftly, exactly; they are not made to be notable or particularly striking. Even the exceptions ['L'onore,' 'Per un fiore reciso'] do not belie this impression. These are slender knots; the net is the thing.
The resemblance of Montale's poema to the Don Juan he has long admired is strictly in the liberties he has taken….
[In contrast to Byron's technique, the] action—and here it is nothing invented, being neither more nor less than the actual course of the poet's day or days—is unexpressed. All that we are given, this time, are the eddies and asides. These prove to be varied and continually surprising. Ephemera and life-long themes are heard equally, in quick succession—the mark of the poema as Byron rehandled it, a levelling brought about by a wisdom in detachment. In the new Montale we have, by turns, a deeper questioning of God, reflections on what he sees before him, from that window in the Via Bigli, or in "the news" (often with a local accent, the Italian situation not always converting readily into the "human"): his recalling of incidents in his own private experience, recent or distant, to his living over the true encounters of his life, so often incarnate in a woman, the one who is now twinned with the capinera, the black-cap, that uncommon warbler, or some other of his "angels". Now an eddy of one kind occurs, now of another…. In a work of this kind one is meeting with the ultimate liberty a poet can take, what Montale has now elected to confer upon himself. To the question: what, all in all, is the form of this poem? the poet is answering: I am.
If Quaderno di quattro anni as canto does not lend itself to summary, what of its tone?… Montale strikes all the more muted tones in this book; the satirical …; the ironical, statement, understatement, flat statement so cadenced as to be memorable …; the simple tone of reflection on his life, on this our time …; the all but unidentifiable tone of his pronouncements on God…. For Montale, in the eighty-first year of his age, it is God direct or nothing.
"Nothing", "all", "more", "less": these are the specially inflected terms of Montale's new language of divination. Much is new in the new book: the poet's greater sympathy for animals, say, especially birds, the other than human creatures that do win through to him in noisy, dynamic Milan …, his turning to them out of a disgust with men, the living-dead, that is not too far from Whitman's; his renewed liking for the young, the children who "fly by on bikes"…. The reader should venture out. Whatever the actual difficulties, this work of Montale's, like those already known, "conveys itself" admirably.
Sulla poesia, a rich assemblage of papers read …, [of essays, prefaces, articles, snippets,] would require, in turn, a long review of its own to do it even faint justice, but, before that, the time to assimilate it. It is over 600 pages long, and besides essays on poetry as such, includes numerous studies of individual poets…. Many are excellent—the pieces on Gozzano, Campana, Ungaretti (a most generous recognition) spring to mind; much is of special interest to the English reader (his assessments of Eliot, Pound, Emily Dickinson, Roethke, and others). But it is undoubtedly the comments on his own work, in pondered confessions ("Autocommenti") or simply interviews (the imaginary one, "Intenzioni", is here: an unsurpassable autocommento), that fascinate totally.
The whole book tells much of what the poet has learned about his craft, and even hints at times, by admiration, distrust, interest expressed, how his own art has grown—or is growing.
George Kay, "The Eddies and Asides of Montale," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3957, January 27, 1978, p. 85.
Definition is the staple of critical discourse. Eugenio Montale in his poetry frustrates definition. His music is crepuscular as it enfolds and merges dissimilar things. He is an anti-romantic poet and contemptuous of "New Sirens" and weather-worn Tritons. He is also, when estimated with the eye of hindsight, the legatee and perpetuator of the romantic tradition, remembering—but the participle fails to do justice—"the wild fire that burned in the veins of the world." So two truths are told of him. An accurate reading of his quality will seek to run the two together….
Montale, like [the] Crepuscolari or twilight poets,… repudiates the fictive order of boxwood and acanthus as fabricated by "the poets laureate," a derisive appellation…. But he repudiates impartially the disorder of his own time,… a heap of broken images disposed as by Eliot in The Waste Land—devoid of form as the adjective governs, therefore of solicitude—and "scattered in a cold repose." He is out of key with his time as he keeps his solicitude and his memory inviolate, compelling us to remember that "something happened … which is everything" (Xenia). (p. 449)
The lower case or peculiar instance is the province of poetry. Montale as he labors there is not synoptic but myopic, the deprivation and the success of his kind of temper. He discerns no order except as he can tease it from private disorder, the surf or backwash of memory. (p. 450)
Montale evidently is neither fish nor flesh, so not favored by thrill-seekers who think poetry's business is to tickle the viscera or by puritans who make poetry messianic or throw away the book. He is not a hedonist. He does not bear witness to the Pisgah-sight. His poetry is, however, political and social, as what great poetry is not. But it works by implication and negation. He does not want to be counted among the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He prefers to legislating the patient labor of taxonomy, finding the exact names of things—quoting Jiminez, "la cosa misma." This means he is unwilling or unable to afford us that heuristic component great poetry is supposed to afford. Listen, I am Lazarus come from the dead, come back to tell you all. (pp. 450-51)
[In Montale's poetry] conviction depends not on answers but uncertainties. Matter of fact is tangible, more so than in [eighteenth-century] English poets, but not amenable to extrapolating. The odor of the lemons is pervasive—remembering the most sensuous of the early poems—but cannot be severed from earth. Montale, like Dr. Williams in "The A, B and C of It," sits to the tutelage of his senses. (p. 451)
Montale embodies the problems he is treating in the problems of his style, the latter dictating importantly what problems will or can be at issue. He re-creates, we can say he imagines the etiology of the matter that concerns him and its enlarging in a present of his imagining. (p. 452)
Montale's modest ambition—of course it is immoderately ambitious—is not to resolve experience as in a trenchant couplet—Epigram's an assassin: "La Pointe assassine"—but to memorialize the turbid surface of experience, the scattering of pigs as the auto fords the river, the carillon of the church of San Gusmè, a May moon, all staining, so attesting the white radiance or meaningless flux of eternity ("Verso Siena"). To say just what is attested lies outside Montale's purview. This unwillingness to put his cards on the table does not constitute a virtue, as perhaps for Verlaine. I think it runs with Montale's temperamental bias. I see the bias as denoting and partly enabling his characteristic excellence in poetry.
To say how Montale's poetry contends against itself is to discriminate his achievement, at the same time to temper praise of the achievement. Like Eliot, he is often at his wit's end in postulating or detecting a necessary cause…. Often he puts for poetry the unreverberating fact. Read him for long and you are likely to find yourself asking: "Chi me lo fa fare?" Who got me into this? where this ugly and occulted thing in which you are involved is not vatic but twisted. So the poetry composes and inhabits a twilight world on the verge or beyond the verge of comprehending. (pp. 452-53)
From Montale's music, "quest'orrida e fedele cadenza di carioca," tragic sonorities are mostly excluded. Riding the carousel, or merry-go-round composed of hours that are pretty much the same, we hear melody that guys itself, the shuddering of tambourines over the dark pit, the stamping of the fandango, a sarabande accompanied by howling. (p. 455)
[As] Montale is convicted of the boredom and the horror, the emanation of his personal hell, he works our freedom from it. He is Dante the poet to our Virgil-pilgrim—turning it around—and like Dante he himself is forbidden access to the kingdom. He fetters in his verse the insupportable thing, so opens the world to our equable, even our delighted inspection…. In unexpected ways, in the only ways that count for poetry, Montale is heuristic; he is kinetic and not static. To say how he moves us is to venture a comment on the physics of poetry. We are transported, not from poverty to riches or even from unhappiness to its always unlikely opposite, rather to a state of mind which is characterized by vulnerability and openness. What accrues is a juster measure of life as it consists, or might be as we give ourselves to dream. This state, where the poet sows his energizing seeds, is that of the imagination, which is not intellectual but intelligent or apprehensive. What it apprehends is form. (p. 456)
Montale comes on stage like Yeats and Wordsworth in a time outworn. His dolce stil nuova is a mixed style, meant to rejuvenate language and sensibility. So literary and homely words jostle one another, making for mutual refreshment, as in the little exercise in self-deprecation, "II Pirla." Jargon, Montale calls it, "una parola gergale," Milanese for a stupid fellow, and ratifying Yeats's dictum that the poet must "think like a wise man, yet express himself like the common people." The yield of this expressing, as the hermetic poet poaches on the vernacular, is the simulacrum of everyday speech, domesticating the winged horse of poetry, "our colt," bringing it down. (p. 457)
As Montale wants ideas and options, he immerses himself in the corrosive element of his time. He does not show his back or not often above the element he lives in. The sonorities of a poet like Rilke are beyond him…. Montale is not so prescient and you listen in vain for the great canorous sound that summons to apocalypse. Like Yeats in his age, he casts a cold eye on life, on death. What is lift over, the passionate residue of a skeptical spirit—"un filo de pietà"—is more telling as the cold has had its way with the passion.
Montale denies the permanence but not the onset of passion, "On wires, on wings, in the wind … at every turning" ("Mottetti XI"). After all he is the heir of Leopardi, the quintessential romantic, celebrating the humble broom that flowers on the slopes of the volcano where everything is clinker. The flower is doomed and notwithstanding has its fragrance. Or say the fragrance is contingent. The sea breaks against the shore, hurling up a spuming cloud. Inevitably the flats reabsorb it. But for an instant the sterile vortex greens and we know ourselves among the living ("I Morti").
Such knowledge as we are able to wring from Montale is qualified by the meager source that begets it. This knowledge or music is decorous, however thin. The laconic manner, the reticence, also the hermetic strain, are the appropriate face, turned to our inspection, of a coin minted in agony. Affronted by the enormous presence of death, this poet ventures only a soundless howl, "l'ululo muto" ("Ballata Scritta in una Clinica"). The agony is real, so fulsome speech is precluded. "What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis?" Want of emphasis or hyperbole betokens genuine grief. But more than decorum is at issue. Montale's constraint is at the same time his good fortune. Want of emphasis confers the favor of grief. It is the price and reward of taciturnity.
When reading Montale we are apt to remember Dante, but not as an influence. They share a psychology, a stony face, Old Rocky Face. Ugolino, his children dead and dying, does not speak or shed a tear. His silence describes the man who has given all there is to give as he is true to himself and his occasion. Truth to the occasion is not gracious but acquired. Juliet, as she is true, bids farewell to poetry. Her deliberate want of confecting meets us like a blow. The reticence of Montale is like this. (pp. 458-59)
In the world of his imagining, dust blows and eddies over roofs and empty spaces—"spiazzi": before the church, whose portals are closed—where hooded horses sniff the ground and are otherwise immobile ("Arsenio"). It is the sign of another orbit. "You follow it." I suppose the poet is admonishing himself. As the admonition is honored, he discovers that to journey in alien places is to find the way home, that negation is affirmation, and the denial of specious beauty the resuscitating of beauty. These surprises are Montale's particular mode, not the kernel of his art but a consort of dissimilar voices. (p. 459)
Russell Fraser, "Montale's Night Music" (copyright, 1978, by Russell Fraser), in The Southern Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 449-59.
As Professor [G.] Singh argues in his excellent "Introduction" [to Selected Essays], working as a freelance journalist in much the same situation as Eliot, Montale is free of the largely academic vice of "a priori postulates of a critical credo, theory or methodology."… His criticism and literary journalism are "constantly enriched by the kind of intuitions, similitudes, references and turns of phrase which he owes to his experience as a poet", and the "validity of his criticism thus may be said to be ultimately rooted in that experience as well as in his sense of contemporaneity."… It is a refreshing criticism to encounter, and of course what Professor Singh says is not meant to imply that Montale's work lacks a definite theoretical stance. "Poetry as gift" … might be the best description of Montale's humanistic aesthetic, and it is notion of art "as the creation of forms that express individual thoughts and sentiments" … which dominates and informs Selected Essays.
The essay on Croce is central to the book for it is in his criticism of Croce's aesthetics that we find Montale's own view "of the human and universal value of art."… I'm not personally too happy with the account of modern philosophy as "the path backwards" … or with the description of the "prevalent spiritual climate."… Nevertheless, in so far as Montale can "imagine what sort of future idealistic philosophy can have",… and to the extent that his own humanism has survived, it is at least partly due to the influence of "the Crocian system of the philosophy of the spirit" … and the criticism he makes of it. It may be true that "Being a concentric poet, Dante cannot furnish models for a world which is moving progressively away from the centre and which boasts of being in a state of perpetual expansion" … and that "the Divine Comedy is and will remain the last miracle of world poetry",… but this does not prevent Montale from performing a superb piece of imaginative historical reconstruction in much the spirit of Croce's own practical criticism. But then theory and practice have always worked best in collision.
Montale's "contemporaneity" reveals itself in the passionate love he has for the age in which he lives, and although his concern is often expressed in the sharpest criticism, the quality of that concern is always constructive…. It is always an interesting experience to see one's own literature from the perspective of another language, and in the case of Montale the experience is an extremely informative pleasure. (pp. 99-100)
William Bedford, "Shorter Notices: 'Selected Essays'," in Agenda, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 99-101.
[Montale's Selected Essays] is a collection well worth having, one which lets us see this major poet's reaction not only to his Italian predecessors, but to many of the principal American and European Modernists. For an English reader there is a certain amount of culture-gap to come to terms with: to find the Auden generation being described as "modern poets of anguished boredom" seems odd and offcourse. But of their kind, and especially when they deal with Italian literature and Fascism, the essays are exemplary: though nearly all written to tight deadlines and with severe restrictions of space (Montale earns his living as a reviewer), they are sharp, simple and insightful—giornalismo at its best. (p. 61)
Blake Morrison, "Upper Grub Street: Non-Academic Critics," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LIII, No. 1, July, 1979, pp. 48-61.∗