Salvatore Quasimodo Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Although outside his native country Salvatore Quasimodo’s reputation rests primarily on his poetry, in Italy he achieved prominence for his many other literary activities as well. He wrote a number of important critical studies, and his librettos have been performed in opera theaters as well-known as those of Venice and Palermo. More important, however, is his work as a translator. One of the finest literary translators of his time, Quasimodo ranged from Homer to the twentieth century: His translations include classical Greek and Latin poetry, the Gospel of John, and writers as varied as William Shakespeare, Molière, Pablo Neruda, E. E. Cummings, Conrad Aiken, Tudor Arghezi, Yves Lecomte, and Paul Éluard.


Together with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, Salvatore Quasimodo unquestionably belongs to the select circle of world-renowned modern Italian poets. Of the three, however, Quasimodo was the first to win wide acclaim, perhaps because he was able to express most lucidly the anguish and the doubts of a poet in a time when the irrational seemed to gain steadily at the expense of the rational, when poetry had gradually turned inward, divorcing itself from its tormented historical and social context. The winner of several prestigious awards (the Etna-Taormina International Poetry Prize, which he shared in 1953 with Dylan Thomas, and the 1958 Viareggio Prize, among others), Quasimodo received in 1959 the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ideology and Social Engagement

World War II brought about the externalization of the poet’s feelings, a sort of psychological denouement along with a measure of objectivity induced by the mercilessly all-encompassing war years. Beginning with the poems of Giorno dopo giorno, Quasimodo made a conscious and coherent effort to overcome early unresolved dissonances and to present the reader with his own historical experience defined within the framework of a choral poetic. As Quasimodo moved toward a poetry of ideological and social engagement, he gradually rejected the poetics of memory, seen as a negation of life as exemplified in “Quasi un madrigale” (“Almost a Madrigal”) from La vita non è un sogno: “I have no more memories, I do not want to remember;/ memory stems from death,/ life is endless.” The final assimilation of opposites was dialectically assured by Quasimodo’s realization of the necessity for a new ethical dimension; he was forced to abandon once and for all his poetic monologue in favor of a socially committed dialogue with his fellowman. In “Epitaffio per Bice Donetti” (“Epitaph for Bice Donetti”), from La vita non è un sogno, life and death are no longer antithetical and their synthesis is suggested by his discovery of a shared destiny: He is “one of many others” and thus finds his roots in the sorrowful plight common to all humankind.

Ed è subito sera

The collected verses of Ed è subito sera were the result of painstaking revision and selection of poems from Quasimodo’s previous collections, from Acque e terre and Oboe sommerso to Erato e Apollion. With the addition of a number of new poems, Ed è subito sera constituted both the definitive statement of his past work and the assertion of a new aesthetic vision. With the new poems which concluded the collection, Quasimodo turned to longer, more discursive verse forms (especially the hendecasyllable) and to a less cryptic use of language. While these changes reflected to a certain extent the vogue for neorealism, Quasimodo’s stylistic evolution was also influenced significantly by two other factors: first, the stylistic models that he encountered in translating the classics, and second, the urgency of speaking out against the ills of fascism and war, which necessitated the establishment of a new relationship with his readers.

From “I” to “We”

The twenty poems of Con il piede straniero sopra il cuore, eighteen of which were to be included the following year in Giorno dopo giorno, dramatically reaffirm the new poetic phase initiated in Ed è subito sera. Quasimodo’s hermetic phase, with its inward focus on the self and on memory, is typified by the careful choice of a few nouns and adjectives in the poem “L’eucalyptus” (“The Eucalyptus”) from Oboe sommerso: “In me un albero oscilla/ da assonnata riva,/ alata aria/ amare fronde esala” (“Within me sways a tree/ from sleeping shores/ winged air exhales/ my bitter fronds”). By contrast, in “Alle fronde dei salici”—published in 1947 in Giorno dopo giorno but written three years earlier, in the winter of 1944, during the harshest period of the German Occupation—Quasimodo is painfully aware that the time has come to break away from his hermetic past in order to speak with a new voice and of new themes: “E come potevamo noi contare/ con il piede straniero sopra il cuore,/ fra i morti abbandonati nelle piazze/ . . . Alle fronde dei salici, per voto/ anche le nostre cetre erano appese” (“And how could we sing/ with an invader’s foot on your heart/ among the dead abandoned in the squares/ . . . To the branches of the willow, as a vow/ also our lyres were hung up”). The language is no longer rarefied and impenetrable; it is almost epic in tone, and the poet has switched from “I” to the choral “we.” As Quasimodo himself said in a speech in 1953,

something happened in the field of poetry about 1945, a dramatic destruction of the content inherited from an indifferent idealism and the poetic language flourishing up to that time. . . . All of a sudden the poet found himself thrust out of his own internal history; in war his individual intelligence was worth no more than the collective intelligence of the people. . . . The private (lyric)...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Cro, Stelio. “Salvatore Quasimodo.” In Twentieth Century Italian Poets, First Series, edited by Giovanna De Satasio. Vol. 114 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1992. A full biographical treatment in English. Traces the development of Quasimodo’s poetry and translation from his early explorations of Hermeticism to his more political (and less successful) poetry after World War II.

Dutschke, Dennis. “Salvatore Quasimodo.” Italian Quarterly, nos. 47-48 (1969): 91-103. This article, published shortly after the poet’s death, presents ten poems newly translated into English by Dutschke, along with the Italian originals. Includes a brief biography and bibliography.

Hays, Gregory. “Le morte stagioni: Intertextuality in Quasimodo’s Lirici greci.” Forum Italicum 29, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 26-43. A critical study of Quasimodo’s translations of ancient Greek poetry.

Jones, F. J. “The Poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo.” Italian Studies 16 (1961): 60-77. An overview of the poet’s major themes and genres.

Loriggio, Francesco. “Modernity and the Ambiguities of Exile: On the Poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo.” Rivista di studi italiani 12, no. 1 (June, 1994): 101-120. Loriggio examines Quasimodo’s poetry dealing with the theme of exile and shows how it was this theme that caused Quasimodo’s popularity to decline in the middle of the twentieth century and to be rekindled at century’s end. Loriggio’s analysis is clear and readable but unfortunately the passages of poetry he examines closely are rendered in the original Italian.

Nolan, David. “Three Modern Italian Poets.” Studies 56 (1967): 61-72. An overview of the life and works of Quasimodo and two other important Italian poets of the first half of the twentieth century. The focus in Quasimodo’s section is on the early lyrics, in which Nolan finds beauty and mastery unobscured by the politicism of the later verse.

Williamson, Edward. Introduction and biographical notes to Twentieth Century Italian Poetry, edited by Levi R. Lind. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974. Williamson’s introduction and notes offer some historical and biographical background to Quasimodo’s life and work.