The life of Umberto Saba is reflected throughout his work, and this relationship is most evident in Saba’s structuring of Il canzoniere around the three periods of his development—youth, maturity, and old age; for Saba, all literature is in a sense autobiographical. Still, the richness and complexity of the poems and prose works give no indication of the relatively simple life of the poet.
Saba was born Umberto Poli on March 9, 1883, in Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, Ugo Edoardo Poli, was the son of the contessa Teresa Arrivabene; Saba’s mother, Felicita Rachele Coen, was the daughter of Jewish parents who had a fairly successful business in the ghetto of Trieste. The marriage did not last long, and Ugo Poli, who had converted to Judaism, abandoned his wife as soon as Umberto was born. Saba refers to his parental background in sonnets 2 and 3 from the chapter “Autobiografia” in Il canzoniere. In the second, “Quando nacqui mia madre ne piangeva” (when I was born my mother cried), Saba describes both his and his mother’s sorrow at being abandoned by his father. The speaker’s happy memories of his relatives in the ghetto shopping for him and his mother are tempered by his loneliness: “But I soon became an expert at melancholy;/ the only son with a distant father.” The third sonnet, “Mio Padre è stato per me ‘l’assassino’” (my father has been for me “the assassin”), recounts the meeting between Saba and his father when Saba was twenty, a meeting which surprises the speaker, for he realizes that he has much in common with his father, the man whom he had hated for so long: “His face had my azure stare,/ a smile, amid suffering, sweet and sly.” The speaker remembers his mother’s warning not to be like his father and then understands for himself what she meant, that “they were two races in an ancient strife.” With this awareness, the poet also sees in himself the unreconciled opposition of two forces, Jewish and Christian, old and new, victim and assassin.
As a boy, Saba was sent to stay with a nursemaid, Giuseppina Sabaz, from whom he derived his pseudonym and whom he recalls as Peppa in the chapter “Il piccolo Berto” (little Berto) in Il canzoniere. In “Il figlio della Peppa” (the son of Peppa), Saba remembers the paradise of his stay with Peppa, who had found in Berto a replacement for her dead son. The speaker sees this time with his Catholic nurse as lighter and happier than the time with his mother; after three years, as Saba remembers, his mother took him away from Peppa.
Saba had formal schooling beyond high school, attending the Ginnasio Dante Alighieri in Trieste. Wanting to be a sailor, he took courses at a nautical academy but was not graduated, for his mother made him take a position as a clerk in a commercial firm. In 1902, he left this job, traveling in Northern Italy and reading widely such poets as Leopardi, Giosuè Carducci, and Giovanni Pascoli, major influences on Saba’s first volume of poetry, which was originally published in a private edition as Il mio primo libro di poesie (my first book of poetry) in 1903 and republished in 1911 as Poesie.
In 1908, Saba was drafted into the infantry and was stationed at Salerno, an experience that he depicts in Il canzoniere in “Versi militari” (military verses) and an experience which gave him for the first time a sense of comradeship with others. The same year, after finishing his service, he married the seamstress Carolina Wölfler, the “Lina” of his love poetry, whom he had met in 1907. The couple settled near Trieste and had a daughter, Linuccia. Saba returned to the army during World War I as an airfield inspector but did not see combat. After the war, Saba opened an antiquarian bookstore in Trieste, which served as his chief source of income and which furnished a meeting place for numerous writers and artists; from his bookstore, Saba published the first edition of Il canzoniere in 1921.
Much of the rest of Saba’s life was relatively uneventful, and he published little between the years 1934 and 1945. Just before World War II, the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere pressured Saba into fleeing to France; later, he returned to Italy, staying incognito in Rome and in Florence. After the Liberation, Saba returned to Trieste and published in 1944 the volume Ultime cose (last things). The title is somewhat misleading, though, for in 1945 Saba published the first definitive gathering and reworking of his poems in Il canzoniere. After this edition, Saba continued writing poetry and prose, including some of his most famous works, such as “Ulisse” (“Ulysses”). In 1956, Saba was confined to a clinic in Gorizia; his wife died in November, and nine months later, on August 25, 1957, Saba himself died.