Montale is generally regarded as a difficult, rather obscure poet who does not make interpretation easy for his reader. “On the Threshold” is no exception to this rule. It is a mysterious poem that hints at much more than it explains but, fortunately for the reader, whose interest is piqued by this glimpse into Montale’s interior world, Montale tends to repeat his themes (imprisonment/freedom, salvation, memory) and images (wall, water); a reading of the other poems that make up the collection Cuttlefish Bones sheds considerable light on the poetic universe that Montale inhabited in the early stages of his long poetic career. It is easy to see why “On the Threshold” is so often seen as an introduction to the collection as a whole.
The resigned, pessimistic tone of “On the Threshold,” in which the speaker’s passion is roused only by the prospect of someone else’s escape from a seemingly dead, enclosing world, is typical of Montale’s stance in many of these poems. Montale seems passive, almost frozen into inactivity by the weight of the oppression he feels and the fear of the consequences of any positive activity. He also feels set apart from others. As he writes in “Mediterranean”:
I was different: a brooding man
who sees the turbulence of fleeting life
in himself, in others—who’s slow to take
the action no one later can undo.
The last line suggests a determinism that is also apparent in “On the Threshold” (“deeds / the endgame of the future will dismantle”), the feeling that whatever action is taken now not only cannot be offset or modified by any future action but also has no power to alter the eventual outcome, whatever that might be.
In this severely circumscribed, almost tortured universe (“bleak limbo of maimed existences” from “Mediterranean”), the image of a forbidding wall keeps appearing, suggesting the barrier that separates such fractured beings from whatever they might otherwise be. In the short lyrics that compose the “Cuttlefish Bones” section of the collection appear these lines addressed to an unidentified interlocutor: “Sit the noon out, pale and lost in thought / beside a blistering garden wall.” Later in the poem, Montale continues:
feel with sad amazement
that all life and its torment
consists in following along a wall
with broken bottle shards embedded in the top.
The wall in this passage recalls the “sheer wall” of the orchard in “On the Threshold.” There does not seem to be much chance of escape from a world such as this, and the speaker often seems resigned to his stern fate as a man permanently and irrevocably out of harmony with his environment. This deeply entrenched pessimism cannot wholly beat out the imagined possibility of some transforming event—epiphany would be too strong a word—coming along to smash down, at least for a moment, the wall that encloses and stifles the heart. Something in the constitution of the speaker will not allow him to remain entirely dormant, passively accepting the imprisoning status quo. The moment when this impulse of life asserts itself seems to be quite beyond his conscious willing; it happens when it happens and that is all that can be said about it, at least from the evidence of this lyric poem from the “Cuttlefish Bones” section of the collection:
My life, I ask of you no stable
contours, plausible faces, property.
Now in your restless circling, wormwood and honey
have the same savor.
The heart that disdains all motion
occasionally is convulsed by a jolt.
As sometimes the stillness of the country
sounds with a rifle shot.
Whatever the burden it bears, human life cannot be entirely squashed. The inert heart that unexpectedly receives a jolt that brings it back to life is a parallel to the creative wind that the speaker hopes will cause some movement in the static garden of “On the Threshold.” In both cases, the possibility of revival reasserts itself when all seems dead.
Montale often refers to this moment when new life streams in, against all the odds, as the “miracle.” It is the moment referred to in “On the Threshold” in terms of encountering the apparition or “phantom.” Montale did not mean the word “miracle” in the religious sense; for him, the miracle was when something wholly unexpected, beyond what could have been predicted in that “restless circling” of the wheel of life, disturbs the mundane, time-space world and opens up some entirely new way of perceiving:
Maybe one morning, walking in dry, glassy air,
I’ll turn, and see the miracle occur:
nothing at my back, the void
behind me, with a drunkard’s terror.
A profound perceptual shift is envisioned here, as the world for a moment disappears altogether, and the speaker has an experience—a very unsettling one—of the “void” that lies behind all temporal phenomena. It is as if a person watching a film sees for the first time the white screen on which all the images that normally hold his attention are projected. Montale takes up the image of the movie screen in the following verse from the poem quoted above. After the moment of the miracle passes, “as if on a screen, trees houses hills / will suddenly collect for the...
(The entire section is 2249 words.)