The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 627 words.)