Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

“Little Testament” and “The Prisoner’s Dream” are complex poems about many things, all of which have multiple meanings. Montale approaches one of the major conclusions from these “judgments”—the theme of the prison world of human existence, especially in modern times—in two different ways. In “Little Testament,” the prison world is represented as the general existential condition of humanity. The theme achieves cosmic proportions, both through its allusions to contemporary social and cultural crises of values and through its predominately religious-based imagery. In “The Prisoner’s Dream,” the theme is interpreted as a more concrete, specific condition, derived from the poet’s own perception of the Cold War years. In both, the individual’s “dark night of the soul” coincides with the world’s own darkness, fanaticism, and inhumanity.

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Alongside this realistic, powerfully expressed negative theme, the poet masterfully places another which is more positive but more tenuous and intangible. This theme is that of human significance, which he approaches by affirming modest, unheroic virtues such as dignity, morality, love, faith, commitment, and humanity. Montale’s poems make it clear that he believes these all-important elements are no longer operative in today’s society and are even in danger of being forgotten. The perceived fragility and impermanence of these significant values—indeed, even of civilization itself—is perhaps the essential message of “Little Testament.”

While the poet is unable to change the threatening conditions beleaguering humanity, he can still affirm essential values in the language, images, characters, and events of his poems. Because he brings these elements to life, readers have the opportunity to experience vividly their significance and so can more readily remember and understand their importance. Also, the poet can capsulize his own personal strategy for affirmation—endure, bear witness, and create poetry out of this persistence—as he apparently does in “The Prisoner’s Dream.” Like the love token, his poetry perhaps “only survives in ashes,” the pale vestiges of a vital, uncontainable reality, but it is valuable nonetheless. That is perhaps the central message of “The Prisoner’s Dream.”

Although Montale perceives all of life as “provisional” or inconclusive, he holds firm the belief that individuals must keep faith with themselves and with life. Only through decency, stoic endurance, and vigilant openness toward even the smallest signs of good can one’s own humanity be realized. Montale’s own self-realization occurs through communicating and transmitting, with his poetry, the human values he himself has received. Regardless of each’s individual emphasis, both poems affirm the poet’s own tenacious conviction that love is the refuge and shield of humanity, its only hope for enduring and transforming the prison of existence. Even though such “persistence” may only lead to “extinction,” the flame still burns, the mind remembers, and the heart recognizes love, the ultimate and most enduring “sign”; humanity, like the “dream,” “isn’t over.”

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