Themes and Meanings

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At the outset of his study Eugenio Montale’s Poetry: A Dream in Reason’s Presence (1982), Glauco Cambon says that Ossi di seppia “is first and foremost a rhapsody of the four elements, Nature’s essentiality confronted by a tried consciousness that keeps wavering between utter disenchantment and glimpsed ecstasy in the reiterated endeavor to regain contact with the lost bliss of childhood.” Placed at the beginning of the collection, “The Lemon Trees” introduces the poet’s search for something that makes sense of and brings meaning to his experience in the natural world and disperses the uncertainty in his soul. The narrator descends into the stillness of the orchard in hopes of finding there, by some miracle, an answer. He finds only “an unquiet sweetness,” helpful but far from satisfying. It is only later, when the poet finds himself in the middle of the “clamorous cities,” that he experiences the miracle of the lemon trees. Through a mistake of nature—a fruitful lemon tree growing in the middle of the wintery city—his soul is nourished and “the war of the diverted passions” is momentarily suspended. The answer is not complete, and one senses that the narrator will soon find himself again firmly planted in the world, but this burst of light and understanding, which has come only after a long period of darkness, enraptures his soul and encourages him to continue his search with hope. He cherishes the miracle all the more because of its unexpected arrival.

This poem is also the first step, the first movement, in the search for life to which the reader is invited in “On the Threshold.” Like “Nature,” as described in the third stanza of “The Lemon Trees,” poetry often seems on the verge of giving up its secret, of revealing a thread whereby it can be understood, but in the end the reader is left somewhat disillusioned by the lack of a clear answer. Only in another time and place when one least expects it does a flash evoke the memory of the “song” and reveal its significance. In reference to the persona in Montale’s poem “Arsenio,” Ghan Shyam Singh, in Eugenio Montale (1973), notes that “Everything he sees around him—familiar sights and sounds as well as natural phenomena—becomes a means of self-discovery for him and represents a milestone in the exploration of reality.In such a mood of metaphysical contemplation, he finds the distinction between the real and the illusory, the near and the far, the personal and the impersonal, momentarily annulled.[His] profound and perspicuous awareness of himself as well as of the world outside him brings him in touch with the embryonic forces of life.” In “The Lemon Trees,” the lemons serve as a mediator between the poet’s past and present, and his seeing them inspires him with understanding of his present life in terms of the past. Poetry is similarly the mediator between the poet and the reader, and it serves to unite them over the distance of time and space.

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