Salvatore Quasimodo

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Quasimodo, Salvatore 1901–1968

An Italian poet, translator, and critic, Quasimodo imbued his poems with lyrical, musical qualities underscored with a strain of sadness and anxiety. He believed that the artist could not remain separated from society, but instead must take an ethical, political stand on the events of his time. Quasimodo received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Louis R. Rossi

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Salvatore Quasimodo has always worked to remove the barriers that prevent understanding between men. This preoccupation brought about a change in his poetic and critical orientations during the war. The time for engaging in "abstract modulations of one's own feelings," he insists, has come to an end. He believes that poetry must serve as a means of communication; the poet must address all men and speak out for truth and "not renounce his presence" in the world. But it would be a mistake to use his own words against him, to interpret them as a repudiation of his earlier poetry, and so to pass over the very personal and often involute poems in which he distilled his private anguish. (pp. 3-4)

While a number of the earlier poems may have seemed derivative, with echos of D'Annunzio and Pascoli and certain attitudes of despair reminiscent of Ungaretti or Montale, it was also apparent that Quasimodo had fused these elements in the alchemy of a personal style. The sensual music of his verse was not audible in any of his contemporaries, who were perhaps wary of the facile musicality of too much Italian poetry. Compared to the harsher line of Montale, for instance, the lush cadences of many of Quasimodo's earlier poems make him sound less "contemporary." To find the equal of his rich melody one must go as far back as Tasso…. But despite his musicality, Quasimodo shared with Ungaretti a sparse phrase reduced to the bare essentials of discourse, yet rich in suggestive power. Like Montale, his poems encompassed a vast and changing landscape over which moved the elemental forces of winds, tides and rivers, and he filled it with the sounds of nature and with things that stand as mute witnesses to the solitude of man. And like his contemporaries, but more than they, he discovered in this world stripped of illusion the presence of mystic signs.

A vision of a lost but still remembered blessedness pervades Quasimodo's wasteland, evoked in accents that recall Baudelaire, and more directly, the Italian Leopardi, especially where the evocation is bitter…. [Often], the poem becomes an incantation that for an instant suppresses time and dissolves all bitterness; a new power of illusion restores a moment of youth and hope once lost, lived on "Islands that I have inhabited / green upon immobile seas."

However, the obsession of a lost Eden and the crushing sense of an irremediable fall are themes older than Quasimodo, or Baudelaire. Ultimately, they are simply the themes of life and death, which, as must be, are the basic stuff of all poetry. Their affective power in Quasimodo's poems derives from their particular determination in the form of each poem. The contrasting themes are related in a changing oscillation that in some of the poems develops a structure of complex formal beauty. In its context, the words and sounds of the poem take on related values, and the contrasting themes are fused in the play of a verbal chiaroscuro. Obviously, these effects can only be observed in a close reading of some of his earlier poetry. (pp. 4-5)

"Ed è subito sera," the shortest poem of Quasimodo's...

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first volume of verse (Acque e terre, 1930), embodies in its three lines the epigrammatic terseness that characterized much of the poetry he wrote in the Thirties.

      Every man stands alone on the heart of the earth       pierced by a ray of the sun:       and suddenly it is evening….

Human life is telescoped into three successive instances: emergence, apogee, and decline. (p. 5)

The rigorous simplicity of the metaphysical geometry and its polar equilibrium along an armature of assonance and of alliterative sounds give the poem the form that makes it something more than a mere restatement of the "tragic human condition."

In some of Quasimodo's early poems, the descent in time is not a sudden extinction but a slow disintegration—a "minor curve." (p. 6)

[In "Curva minore" the] concept of becoming … includes both its positive and negative aspects in time: it is an organic maturation that is both growth and decomposition. But since only a minor curve is left, it is the aspect of deterioration that must dominate. (p. 7)

[Expressions] of hope or consolation are interwoven with the darker moods in varying patterns traced by Quasimodo's sensuously melodic line. The basic pattern of many of the poems is, however, the essential oscillation that we have already seen in "Ed è súbito sera" and "Curva minore"; a privileged moment or lost Eden is glimpsed, a possible evasion opens up; a moment of transport follows but then the way of escape is closed and there is a return to a real and painful present. But often in the longer poems a coda is added that recapitulates both themes, and a resolution is effected in which some of the consoling power of the vision is retained. The early "Vento a Tindari" is perhaps one of the better examples of this full pattern. (p. 8)

"Vento a Tindari" contains something of the mystic aura that surrounds Quasimodo's Sicily, magically resurgent in apocalyptic visions of winds, lands and waters and heavenly prodigies, a Sicily to which he has restored its ancient powers of myth and metamorphosis. (p. 11)

[The] mythic vision is often fused with very human memories of childhood and adolescence. (p. 12)

The poem ["L' Anapo"] is about the stir of life and the silence of death that inhabit the body of the eternal Adamadolescent. (p. 13)

The poem is not simply a bitter comment on the tides of blood and the vain cycles of death. Its irony has a double edge: it also celebrates the moment of human laughter and the eternal recurrence of life preserved in immortal germ. (p. 14)

[With the appearance of Giorno dopo giorno, it] became evident that Quasimodo had worked a definite change in his style, and it was felt that his new idiom shared some of the qualities of his translations. The concentrated phrases had opened up, had become longer and more explicit and, in contrast to the fragmentary utterances of his first style, they were connected in a discourse of greater continuity. There were already indications of this change in some of the later poems of the volume Ed è subito sera, especially the longer ones, but perhaps even in the shorter "Che vuoi, pastore d' aria" ("What do you want, shepherd of the air?") the sententiousness of the earlier poems has dissolved in an almost idyllic tone; in the place of their compressed and richly melodic phrase there is a sustained but subdued rhythm. (pp. 14-15)

[Roles] for the man and woman in the alternation of dream and reality, and the man's acquiescence—if not his complete resignation—are expressed in "L'alto veliero" ("The tall sailing ship"). The tone also remains subdued—the dialog of a domestic idyll. (p. 15)

The memory of Sicily is also present in these poems, but it is invoked with new accents: the mythic grandeur and aura of miraculous power, once recalled in images "not human," are diffused in softer tones. There is, to be sure, a passage in which the south wind is envisioned as a creative force, like the Lucretian Venus infusing the stir of life in the land, but it remains a natural power…. (p. 16)

The poems contained in the volume Giorno dopo giorno (Day after day) recite the efforts of a heart enclosed in a "defeated christian pity" to overcome its rancor and to find the words and signs that could establish the dialog with other men: "the yearning to speak a word to you / before the sky closes again / upon another day." The anguish that before remained enclosed is now poured out in pity for the living and the dead….

[In "The Snow," the] solitude and sense of estrangement remains, but the rancor has become pietà, a word now often repeated. It is more than pity; it is piety and love that seeks a means of breaking out of solitude, of surpassing a life that seems to have been reduced to a mechanical "play of blood." (p. 18)

The name of Christ and Christian images now appear in these poems, a Christ invoked because of his absence from the earth and from the hearts of men at war…. The human beings who inhabit this world can be loved only with a measure of ironic pity. (p. 19)

"Man of my time" is the closing poem of the volume Day after day, and with it we have reached the present term of Quasimodo's evolution as a poet…. [In three subsequent volumes] the content of the individual poems vary, but the same direct, emphatic voice and rhetorical attitude prevail. The change is deliberate and reflects Quasimodo's conception of the poet's necessary role in our time.

The wispy dream, the wavering flutes of the Mallarmean faun or the perennial Arcadia are now impossible pastimes. Absent is the passive or despairing attitude often assumed in Quasimodo's earlier poetry; the new activist of the word now assumes his social responsibility and his poems breathe a positive fervor. A decisive voice tells us that this is not a time for "closed mumbling of maledictions." The blank page must be filled and a reply must be given to the unanswered questions. (pp. 20-1)

The forcefulness of these two poems cannot be discounted as rhetoric. But very often the dramatic statement is overcharged, the image crude and emphatic…. Many Italian readers, conscious of the qualities of reserve and understatement recently recovered by Italian poetry, have not taken kindly to the later Quasimodo. He answered them in a "Discourse on Poetry" published in The false and true green (1956). The idiom of poetry, he proclaims, has no life apart from history…. The mode of poetry is determined by history, but in return, the real poet "modifies" the world. "The strong images of his creation beat upon man's heart" more powerfully than philosophy or written history. His poetry is transformed into ethics because of its very beauty; his responsibility is the direct consequences of its perfection. He opens a dialog with his fellow men that is more necessary than science or than treaties between nations…. (pp. 22-3)

Quasimodo takes himself—and life—with a terrible seriousness. He once said of his poetry:

         Your tremendous gift of words, O Lord,          I pay out          assiduously.

Such seriousness is not without presumption, and there have been moments when it seemed slightly ridiculous, at least to some. Quasimodo himself has allowed querulous comments to enter his "dialog," and one senses a professional rancor. But no one … would deny the expressive power and beauty of much of his poetry. They cannot deny, either, his sincerity, nor the basic soundness of his poetics, and the need for a new rhetoric…. Salvatore Quasimodo may not have succeeded in writing the poems implicit in his poetics. But there is something admirable in his intense and pained awareness. (p. 23)

Louis R. Rossi, "Salvatore Quasimodo: A Presentation," in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1960 by Chicago Review), Vol. 14, No. 1, 1960, pp. 1-23.

Francis Golffing

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[Quasimodo's] voice is not only unique in contemporary European poetry but it is a voice of rarest distinction: absolutely free of rhetorical inflation, at once generous and fastidious, un "fashionable" yet representative of an entire generation. The formal perfection of his verse is matched by both solidity and urgency of matter; in other words, Quasimodo is the least vapid of poets, even as he is one of the purest by those exigent standards to which Mallarmé, Rilke, and Valéry have accustomed us, the dedicated readers and judges of lyric poetry.

Italian critics have made much of Quasimodo's changes of style, of his evolution from complete internality, or subjectivity, into a writer of verse that is public and largely available, because of his new concern with extra personal issues and relevancies. Provocative though they are, considerations of this sort tend to base themselves on psychological rather than artistic evidence. Unquestionably the late war brought on a crisis in Quasimodo's career as a poet: from 1940 onward there is less listening to the "inner voice," a marked shift from the personal to the general tragedy. Unquestionably, too, that shift of thematic attention has resulted in certain stylistic modifications, which I am the last to undervalue. But what strikes the reader most forcibly is the continuity of Quasimodo's work, not its discontinuity. I would even hesitate to speak of the later work as being richer, or more mature, or more complex, than the poems contained in Ed è subito sera. From first to last Quasimodo is an extraordinarily subtle but rather simple poet, compared with such writers as Montale, Eliot, Yeats. His poetic extensions have been lateral rather than in (intellectual) depth; his gains have been gains in technical mastery, made possible by the influx of fresh subject matter. Yet even in his latest work the prevailing mode is that of the chant intérieur, the continuous melodic line in the manner of Eluard or Reverdy. There are certain traits, too, which he shares with Montale: a strong distaste for the anecdotal conduct of the poem; his determination to allow the initial emotion to shape the occasion—not of the poem, but that occasion which is, itself, the poem.

The pieces contained in Giorno dopo giorno are his most formal compositions, Leopardian up to a point, at least in diction and the technical management of the hendecasyllable. Yet Quasimodo's sensibility is entirely different from this or any other predecessor. His nostalgia points to no Nirvana (Leopardi) or Platonic eros (il dolce stil nuovo), no Christian or pagan cosmic essence (Pascoli, Carducci). Rather, it seeks to relocate emotion in a primordial purity of perception and compassion, a paradisiacal state of radical innocence. That innocence is, most frequently, associated with nature, the basic vegetative conditions of the earth….

While Quasimodo lacks the intellectual complexity and male power of Montale, he excels the latter in sheer lyrical intensity. That lyricism is sustained in poem after poem, throughout the body of his work. Passages of deliberate prosiness—there are many of those in his latest book—only serve to give further resonance, a subtler edge, to the welling up of music from within: They never contradict the song, nor do they destroy any "poetic illusion." For of illusion there is none in Quasimodo; every word means exactly what it says, even as it shades into the unsayable; every statement is authentic and involves, along with the poet's inwardness, the total constellation of this earth as we know it; as we can never forget it, save at our peril. For this earth is incomparable—impareggiabile—precisely because we and it are one; comparison can neither raise it in our esteem nor dwarf it. This co-extension of man and earth is, to me, the most significant—and most affecting—aspect of the poet's work. Quasimodo triumphs in the abolition of both facile dualism and mystical vagueness, in the resolute allegiance to what is and, since it can be, will be. (p. 17)

Francis Golffing, in Books Abroad (copyright 1960 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter, 1960.

Thomas G. Bergin

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Assaying [the letters of Lettere d'amore a Maria Cumani] collectively, the first thought that comes to mind is that they are truly and exclusively love letters. For the central theme throughout is the love inspired in the poet by the dancer: its mystery, its strength and its significance in his life and his art. Over the years this obsessive concentration endures…. The preface, by Davide Lajolo, suggests that the collection provides a kind of commentary on the literary world of the period, but I doubt the validity of this affirmation…. We do hear much about Quasimodo's own work of course—what he is planning, what he is writing, what kind of reviews he gets and the like. We get a clear picture of a man who has no doubts about the importance of his art nor about his own destiny. And of a man in love. The beauty and eloquence of many passages bear witness to the sincerity of his love, and they have their own irony in a way. For Quasimodo had a horror of being "romantic," yet, as he is obliged to confess, some of his outpourings of rapture are couched in the old romantic idiom. (pp. 103-04)

Thomas G. Bergin, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.




Quasimodo, Salvatore (Poetry Criticism)