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Umberto Saba

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Although remembered primarily for his poetry, particularly as assembled in the monumental editions of Il canzoniere, Umberto Saba also wrote several significant prose works, most of which were collected by Saba’s daughter Linuccia in Prose (1964). Scorciatoie e raccontini (1946; short cuts and vignettes) consists mainly of terse reflections on poetry and meditations on politics and postwar society. The collection Ricordi—racconti, 1910-1947 (1956; remembrances—stories) contains stories and sketches, some directly autobiographical. Saba’s prose style is usually rich and complex, though not particularly experimental. Like his poems, the prose works are reflective and benefit from a careful rereading. The pieces in Scorciatoie e raccontini are “shortcuts” because they cut through the twisting paths of conventional, logical thought to arrive at a conclusion which is often startling in its revelation and insight. In Storia e cronistoria del canzoniere (1948; history and chronicle of the canzoniere), Saba turns his critical eye to his own works, explaining the biographical background of the poems in Il canzoniere and giving interpretations. This self-criticism not only recalls the commentary of Dante Alighieri on his own poems in the La vita nuova (c. 1292; The New Life) but also exemplifies the influence of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis on Saba’s thought and technique. The incomplete novel Ernesto, published posthumously in 1975, is on the surface Saba’s least typical work; set in Trieste and vividly capturing the dialect of that Mediterranean city, Ernesto depicts the love of a young boy for an older man. Still, while more realistic and explicit than Saba’s other works, Ernesto develops the same themesart, love, change, and loss—with an equal complexity and subtlety.

Achievements

Often considered one of the three great Italian poets of the twentieth century, along with Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, Umberto Saba is also one of the most important poets to combine traditional verse forms with a modern restraint and to treat universal themes with an analytical and self-conscious approach typical of the twentieth century.

The clarity and reflectiveness of Saba’s earlier poems reveal the influence of the nineteenth century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the calm, melancholy atmosphere of many of Saba’s poems has its roots in the poetry of the crepuscolari (twilight) poets such as Guido Gozzano and Sergio Corazzini, who described everyday objects and settings with a wistful nostalgia. Saba’s later poems break more definitely with traditional meter and line length, reflecting the terse, ragged rhythms of Ungaretti.

Saba won several prizes and honors, including the Premio Viareggio in 1946 for Scorciatoie e raccontini, the Premio dell’Accademia dei Lincei in 1951, and the honorary degree in letters from the University of Rome in 1953; critics have generally appreciated Saba’s works, particularly since the 1960’s. While Saba’s poetical works have been generally well received and studied in Italy, however, his place in modern world literature has not yet been established, perhaps in large part because of a scarcity of translations. As critics continue to construct an account of Saba’s biography and his rich inner life, his significance should become increasingly apparent.

Biography

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...

(The entire section is 3,480 words.)