When Eugenio Montale received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1975, the reaction on this side of the Atlantic was overwhelmingly in the vein of “Who?” Poets, unless they have exercised considerable international influence or have been superbly translated, do not tend to gain much recognition outside their own country. This has been particularly true of Italian poetry after the age of Dante and Petrarch. English-speaking readers, at least those acquainted with Baudelaire, Rilke, and Lorca, tend to have only the vaguest notions of Leopardi or Carducci. It is not then surprising that they should view Italy’s greatest modern poet (though some would claim the title belongs to Ungaretti) as a rather obscure light on the literary horizon.
Montale is not an easy poet—to read, to translate, or to classify. In 1965, New Directions brought out a selection of his works with Italian texts facing translations by a variety of translators. Now the same publishers have given us a good choice of poems from Montale’s two most recent collections, Satura (1971) and Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (1973). This time the original poems are omitted, and the translations are all by G. Singh, Professor of Italian at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and author of a book on Montale. Although the wisdom of omitting the Italian texts in the present volume is questionable, it is certain that this book, like its predecessor, constitutes an excellent introduction to Montale’s work, one which should help the American reading public to understand why it deserves to be better known.
Many readers of Montale have approached him as a kind of Italian parallel to T. S. Eliot. Both began writing at a similar point in the histories of their respective literatures, and with similar concerns. Montale, like Eliot, reacted against the late Romantic excesses and the inflated literary language which prevailed in fin de siècle poetry. Gabriele d’ Annunzio, the sensation in Italian letters at the turn of the century, seemed to poets of Montale’s generation to have reached a deadend with his Nietzschean cult of the superman, his pagan sensuality, and his florid language. Learning (like Eliot) from the French poet Jules Laforgue to introduce irony and the vocabulary and rhythms of everyday speech into poetry, Montale nonetheless retained something of d’ Annunzio’s sensuous celebration of nature in his first book, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925). Yet the very title indicates an attention to humble, nonpoetic objects, and the poems show him to be a master at evoking things, places, and persons which objectify emotions and ideas. Montale recognized his own preoccupation with Eliot’s critical notion of the “objective correlative.” Like Eliot, too, he has stressed the importance of literary tradition in the development of individual talent, and has evoked the spiritual “wasteland” of Western culture in the early twentieth century. Unlike Eliot, however, Montale has never developed a credo, remaining instead an independent artist, searching and questioning rather than proclaiming.
Since Ossi di seppia, Montale has published only two other volumes of poetry before those under review, Le occasioni (The occasions), which includes poems from 1928-1939, and La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things), poems from 1940-1956. He has never been a politically active writer, although some of his best-known poems were inspired by his anti-Fascist commitment. He is perhaps at his best as a love poet. In both volumes, the love poems written for “Clizia,” an idealized lady who served as a kind of modern Beatrice, are among his finest.
It is with a two-part love poem entitled “Xenia,” which Singh has included in its entirety, that Satura opens. Dedicated to the poet’s wife, Drusilla Tanzi, who died in 1963, these poems portray a deep, mature affection and a simplicity of style which are quite different from those written for the exalted, distant Clizia. The Latin title means “gifts” or “votive offerings” and also recalls Goethe’s and Schiller’s satirical epigrams, Xenien. “Xenia” in New Poems is prefaced by a fine essay by F. R. Leavis. Leavis stresses Montale’s difference from Eliot in these poems in his ability to portray “a direct simplicity of personal feeling.” The style is conversational, direct, and yet contains a range of tones and material which are under the control of a master craftsman. The first poem is typical enough:
Dear little Mosca,so they called you. I don’t know why,this evening almost in the dark,while I was reading Deutero-Isaiahyou reappeared beside me,but without your glasses,so that you could not see me,nor could I recognize you in the hazewithout that glitter.
To understand the images here and others which follow, we need Professor Singh’s footnote, which informs us that Montale’s wife’s nickname, “Mosca,” means “fly” in Italian. The first two lines of the original read literally “Dear little insect, whom they called Mosca I...
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