Salvatore Quasimodo 1901-1968
Italian poet, critic, and translator who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1959.
The following entry provides information on Quasimodo's career from 1977 through 1998.
Known for his classical references and allusions to the Sicilian landscape, Salvatore Quasimodo is widely hailed as one of the foremost poets in the Italian language. Along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, he is known as a leading figure in the hermetic poetic movement in the early twentieth century. During and after the World War II, Quasimodo's verse became more socially engaged and universal in its themes. Winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, Quasimodo shared the 1953 Etna-Taormina International Prize for Poetry with Irish poet Dylan Thomas, was honored with the Tor Margana and Viareggio Prizes in 1958, and was named Oxford University's laureate honoris causa in 1967.
The son of a railway station master, Salvatore Quasimodo was born on August 20, 1901, in Modica, near Syracuse, Sicily. Although Quasimodo wrote verse from a young age, his parents, Gaetano and Clotilde, wanted a practical career for him. In 1919, Quasimodo studied engineering at the Politecnico in Rome but suffered financial hardship and was unable to complete his studies. In 1922, he moved in with Bice Donetti, whom he married in 1925. In 1926, Quasimodo earned a government appointment to the Civil Engineering Department, which enabled him to travel throughout Italy. Quasimodo's brother-in-law, Elio Vittorini, a novelist, introduced Quasimodo to an influential literary circle that included hermetic poets Eugenio Montale and Guiseppe Ungaretti. In 1930, while living in Florence, Quasimodo published three poems in the avant-garde literary journal, Solaria, as well as his first book of verse, Acque e terre (1930; Waters and Lands), which included poems he had written when he was eighteen. Still working as an engineer, Quasimodo published three more volumes of verse and acquired a reputation as an important poet. During this time, he also had a daughter out of wedlock, and met Maria Cumani, a dancer who would become his second wife after Bice's death in 1946 and with whom he would have a son, Alessandro. From 1938 to 1940, Quasimodo served as assistant editor and drama critic for Il Tempo. In 1941, Quasimodo was appointed chair of Italian Literature at Conservatory Guiseppe Verdi in Milan. During World War II, Quasimodo was involved in an anti-Fascist movement and was briefly imprisoned. After the war, he joined the Italian Communist Party but resigned in protest when the Party insisted he write political poems. During the 1940s and 1950s, he established himself as one of Italy's most outstanding poet-translators, developing an international reputation. Quasimodo shared the Etna-Taormina International Prize for Poetry with Dylan Thomas in 1953 and was awarded the Tor Margana Prize and Viareggio Prize in 1958. In 1959, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Quasimodo lectured widely throughout Europe. While presiding over a poetry competition in Amalfi, Italy, on June 14, 1968, Quasimodo died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Although Quasimodo's work falls roughly into two periods, hermetic and engagé, divided by World War II, memories of childhood and the life and culture of Sicily pervade his oeuvre, as do allusions to classical mythology and literary associations. Quasimodo's hermetic period was influenced by the French symbolist poets, who eschewed rhetoric and stylistic traditions, relying instead on idiosyncratic analogy and association to represent personal meditations on the human condition, as illustrated by Quasimodo's three-line poem “Ed è subito sera” from Acque e terre (Waters and Lands): “Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth / Transfixed by a sun-ray: / And it is suddenly night.” In poems such as “Vento a Tindari” (“Wind at Tindari”), Quasimodo uses the Sicilian landscape to suggest that despite the death of illusions, a belief in poetic beauty remains. Òboe sommerso (1932; Sunken Oboe), Erate e Apollion (1936), and Poesie (1938) focus on the “poetica della parole,” the poetics of the word and the rhythmical arrangement of words around a lyrical nucleus, with Sicily a constant, ever-present theme. Ed è subito sera (1942; And Suddenly It's Evening) reveals the influence of ancient poets and hints at the “poetry of engagement” that Quasimodo produced after the Second World War, in which he addresses the interpretation of contemporary history, social conditions, and the persistence of hope. Giorno dopo giorno (1947; Day After Day), which tackles his country's hardships and his horror with Italy's role in the war, is widely considered the best book of poetry to come out of World War II. La vita non é sogno (1949; Life Is Not a Dream), Il falso e vero verde (1956; The False and the True Green) and La terra impareggiabile (1958; The Incomparable Earth) show a change from individualism toward society and affirm the positive characteristics of life even in a world where death is omnipresent. His last volume of poetry was Dare e avere (1966; To Give and To Have). Quasimodo translated Greek and Latin poets, including Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Virgil, as well as Shakespeare, Molière, and contemporary poets, such as e. e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, and Conrad Aiken.
Salvatore Quasimodo, the recipient of the 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, is widely considered “one of the foremost poets in the Italian language,” a “principal innovator” who is “nevertheless bound to the classical tradition,” according Anders Osterling. Stelio Cro surmises that “probably no other Italian poet, in the first decades of the twentieth century, exercised such a deep and lasting influence as Quasimodo has.” A critic in The Yale Review finds that although “[a]t first glance [his] poetry may seem somewhat minor and monotonous[,] … careful examination will reveal Quasimodo's rare gift for delicacy of phrasing and tightness of structure.” Of Quasimodo's hermetic period, Francis Golffing writes: “His 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, ‘unfashionable’ yet representative of an entire generation.” Òboe sommerso (1932) is considered the best example of Quasimodo's hermetic poetry, and Giorno dopo giorno (1947) is generally considered the best volume of poetry to come out of World War II. Osterling contends that in Quasimodo's later work “not one single line is unimportant.” C. M. Bowra considers Quasimodo “a classical poet who has absorbed the best modern devices and combines order, economy and clarity with a full measure of inventive surprise.” Further, Quasimodo's work “has an impressive, majestic movement which owes not a little to the great masters of his language.” Bowra calls Quasimodo “intimate, discerning, [and] sensitive,” noting that he “writes with an unusual sensibility about nature and with a keen understanding about the more elusive moods of the human spirit.” Cro notes that “much of Quasimodo's literary achievement rests on his masterful translations of the ancient Greek poets in Lirici Greci.” Louis Aragon maintains that although some critics resented Quasimodo's Nobel Prize, they were primarily opposed to Quasimodo's political choices rather than his divergence from hermeticism.