The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

“Provisional Conclusions” actually comprises two poems: “Piccolo testamento” (“Little Testament”) consists of six sentences forming thirty undivided lines of free verse, while “Il sogno del prigioniero” (“The Prisoner’s Dream”) has thirty-four free-verse lines divided into four stanzas of various lengths. Each title plays upon alternate meanings of “conclusion”: “Little Testament” alludes to death, the final end, and “The Prisoner’s Dream” carries the political connotation of termination or liquidation. Both are written in the first person, for they present the poet’s “temporary judgment or conclusions” about contemporary life.

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“Little Testament” opens at night as the poet contemplates his own kindled thoughts. No ardent blaze ignited by political or religious reflection (“factory or churchred or black” signify communism and Catholicism), the fragile “mother-of-pearl” iridescence springs from recollections of love. As if present, the poet tells his beloved to conserve the “powder” of these memories for the time when “every other light’s gone out” and “dark Lucifer” swoops down on the “wild,” “hellish” world to make the apocalyptic pronouncement, “It’s time.”

Hardly diminishing this frightening vision, the poet says his modest gift is “no inheritance, no goodluck charm/ to stand against the hurricanes.” Yet to counteract the gloom, he goes on to reassure his beloved that “the sign was right” and will be recognized, just as each individual will recognize the truth behind his or her own thoughts and actions. Only by knowing oneself and acting according to that knowledge may the “faint glow” of good slowly catch fire and blaze again in the world.

The second poem apparently presents the same narrator imprisoned in the dark, infernal times foreseen in “Little Testament.” Poignantly illustrating the persistent “faint glow” of love and humanity, “The Prisoner’s Dream” opens with an introduction to an unnatural world where “you can’t tell dawn from night.”

Opening with the prisoner’s longing for freedom (“starlings over the watch-towers/my only wings”), the second stanza then presents rapid, significant details of existence in the squalid cell. This dismal reality is escapable only through sleep and dreams of the beloved.

Abruptly disrupting even this meager comfort, stanza 3 curtly opens: “The purge never ends, no reasons given.” The brutal, absurdist reality of ideologies and regimes, reigned over by “gods of plague,” replaces the meanness of confined existence. Only by recanting, confessing, or “breaking down and selling out the others” may one be saved and “get the spoon/ instead of being dished up.”

In the final stanza, this brutal reality merges with the liberating dream-vision. Lying on “this piercing mattress,” the prisoner imaginatively fuses with a “soaring moth” and “shimmering kimonos of light,” conjuring “rainbows” and “petals” to combat prison bars and unending beatings. His thoughts rise, “only to fall back/ into the gulf where a century’s a second.” Physical suffering and mental delirium uncover moral crisis and self-doubt: “I don’t know whether I’ll be at the feast/ as stuffer or stuffing.” The only certainty is that he must endure and dream, a realization which closes the poem.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

The two poems are joined not only by poet Eugenio Montale’s label as “provisional conclusions” but also by the similar forms and devices they share. Presented as loose, even sometimes incoherent ruminations, both open with references to the night, as the narrator ponders the perennial battle between darkness and light. Through various manifestations and images of these forces, each poem offers its own distinctive vision of the difficult, often tragic reality of modern life. In “Little Testament,” this vision is structured around a nucleus of personal religious sentiment. In “The Prisoner’s Dream,” on the other hand, it is conditioned by the exigencies of political dogma. No doubt its focus on the public or social arena of contemporary times makes this second poem more accessible to most readers.

In large part because of their pessimistic visions, both poems are pervaded by gloom and obscurity, which the poet partially offsets through the device of symbolic imagery. Above all, Montale’s images revolve around different types of illumination. In “Little Testament,” for example, “flickering,” “glass-grit,” “faint glow,” and “strikingmatch” all refer to brief, unstable fits of light, with an eventual and more constant brightness promised in references to the “tough log on a grate” and the “glow catching fire/ beneath” at the end of the poem. Images of light of equal significance can be found in “The Prisoner’s Dream,” such as the realistic “oily sputtering” of lamps or the fanciful “winey lantern,” or even the prisoner’s own metaphorical fits of mental lucidity. Through this figurative sense, especially evident in the fourth stanza, reality, dream, and hallucination become one.

Closely related to images of tenuous, shifting light are those of iridescent rainbows and spider webs. An evocative symbol of fragility and transience, “spiderweb” is present in both poems, although “Little Testament” additionally identifies it with the idea of memory. It is the rainbow, however, which is Montale’s most symbolically charged image. In Italian, iride denotes both a rainbow and an iris; the poet uses both of these images as his own private token or emblem of fidelity, love, faith, and hope. The poet plays upon the word’s multiple denotation in “Little Testament,” for the second sentence associates the image with the biblical postflood rainbow representing God’s covenant or promise, while in the next he treats it as a flower now crumbled to dust. This image has a much weaker presence in “The Prisoner’s Dream,” however, where it seems to function more as an illusion “conjured up” to transform the dingy here and now than as a complex emblem of faithful love.

The poet’s vision of an ever-worsening world focuses on two equally powerful and ambiguous forces, religion and politics, which also offer their own share of imagery. Although “Little Testament” expresses an idiosyncratic form of belief, it is nonetheless full of allusions to traditional religion: Faith, hope, humility, pride, signs, Lucifer, apocalypse, salvation, and resurrection are all derived from Christian belief. Many of these same elements appear faintly and in a more abstract form within the strongly defined atmosphere of political evil in “The Prisoner’s Dream.”

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Themes