The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

“The Lemon Trees” is the second poem in Eugenio Montale’s collection Ossi di seppia (Bones of the Cuttlefish, 1984) and the first poem of the series entitled “Movimenti” (“Movements”). It consists of forty-nine lines in free verse, divided into four stanzas of various lengths. In addition to introducing an important image in the poem—the lemon trees themselves—the title suggests a connection with the first composition of the book. First, it recalls the orchard mentioned in the opening poem and suggests to the reader that images of nature will continue to figure as prominently in the following compositions as they did in the first (“wave of life,” “garden,” “beating of wings,” “solitary strip of land”). Furthermore, the Italian “I limoni” echoes the title of the first poem, “In limine” (“On the Threshold”), hinting that both poems together serve an introductory function in the collection.

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As in “On the Threshold,” the poet begins by addressing the reader with an imperative: “Listen.” He thus impresses on the reader the urgency of his message and invites him to consider carefully not only what he has to say but also the way he says it, that is, the language of the poem. In the opening lines, he tells the reader that he will break with the laureate poets of the past and select for his poems objects, places, and language from his personal experience, rather than those dictated by tradition. He declares his individuality in the line “I, for my part, prefer.” In the Italian, this declaration is strengthened by the use of the first-person singular pronoun in addition to the verb form. The poet then proceeds to take the reader down a path to “grassy ditches” where children hunt for eels and through cane fields to a lemon orchard. In the second stanza, he explains how “the war of the diverted passions” of his soul is miraculously calmed by the breeze in the “friendly boughs” and by the smell of the earth and the lemon trees. The orchard offers a haven to the poet and a point of contact with the elements of nature.

The poet begins the third stanza with another imperative, this time telling the reader to “see.” He reveals at this time his desire to discover in the orchard the “ultimate secret,/the thread to disentangle which might set us at last/ in the midst of a truth,” which will offer hope to him and other “dislodged Divinit[ies].” In the fourth stanza, however, his reverie is broken, and time brings him back to the present moment, in which his soul has grown bitter in the depressing winter darkness of the city. This spell is nevertheless broken one day when he chances to see, growing amid the ruin of the city, a lemon tree, whose golden fruit fills his heart with the song of sunlight.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

Montale’s strength as a poet lies in his ability to present the essence of an object or scene by paring it down to the core of its reality using a precise and exacting selection of diction, syntax, and composition. The objects in Montale’s work are generally things common to most readers, but in the poems they take on a very personal meaning for the poet. Sometimes, the image or action of a poem can be traced to a specific event in Montale’s life. Nevertheless, an understanding and appreciation of his poetry does not demand a thorough knowledge of his biography. Furthermore, Montale draws his images in such stark, graphic detail that he distances himself from the composition, allowing the individual reader to find his or her own meaning in the suggestiveness of the poem’s symbols.

Several images appear frequently in Montale’s poetry. For the most part, he takes his scenes from nature, in particular from the country and coast of Liguria, where he spent his youth. Montale often portrays nature as a harsh and brutal force, at times hostile, at times merely indifferent to humankind. In “The Lemon Trees,” however, nature is a refuge for the poet from the harshness of modern society; it is a locus amoenus or a paradisiacal garden in which he hopes to find peace. Indeed, he describes the trees as “friendly boughs,” and it is in the orchard that his impoverished soul finds its “share of riches/ and it is the scent of the lemon-trees.” The city, instead, represents the barren, hostile world, which swallows up the individual and chokes off his life.

The lemon trees themselves play an important role in the poem. The poet knows the orchard well, and just as the scent of the fruit is “inseparable from earth,” so are the memories, feelings, and thoughts associated with the lemons inseparable from his soul. When he sees the lemon tree in the courtyard at the end of the poem, he is able to transcend the decadent world in which he lives to find beauty and truth. In addition, Montale refers at the beginning of the poem to the classical poets’ laurel, which to him represents a tradition void of life and without a voice for modern society. He breaks with tradition and chooses as his symbol the more common, more modest lemon tree, which for him is real, alive, immediate, and significant.

Another important image in “The Lemon Trees” is the boy (or boys, as in the Italian) mentioned in the first stanza. As in other of Montale’s poems (“Dance of the Children” and “The End of Childhood,” for example), the child symbolizes youthful vigor and curiosity, the simplicity of a past world unfettered by the concerns of modern society, and the power of the human spirit to survive. In “The Lemon Trees,” the poet recalls his own childhood and finds in that memory the inspiration to continue down familiar paths to the orchard, where he hopes to find a way to rejuvenate his weary, adult soul.

Montale also uses the various elements of language to suggest the meaning of the poem. For example, because all the verbs in “The Lemon Trees” are in the present tense, the poem takes on a sense of immediacy. The poet’s memories of hunting for eels, of going down into the orchard, and of seeing the lemon tree in the courtyard become present experiences through the act of poeticizing. The use of the present tense thus serves to erase the boundaries between past, present, and even future, much as the sight of the lemons in the courtyard lifts the poet out of the tedious world to which time has returned him into the timelessness of revelation.

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