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The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977
The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977
Eugenio Montale
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
832 pp., $49.95

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David Skeel

Unlikely Seer

The poetry of Eugenio Montale.

Mention Eugenio Montale's poem "The Eel" to an Italian student and you may get an ambivalent reaction. Montale is notoriously difficult, but this isn't the problem: any student can follow the eel, a "coldwater / siren," as it makes its way south from the Baltic Sea to Italy's wetlands and marshes, then fights its way upstream, flashing in the muck. And the racy description of the eel as a "torchlight, lash, /arrow of Love on earth" might titillate schoolboys of a certain age, a little like the bawdy jokes in a Shakespeare play. What students don't like quite so much is being forced to memorize all 30 lines of the poem, as many are. Unfolding as a single, sinuous sentence that culminates with an ecstatic vision of the iris of the eye of the speaker's muse, "The Eel" is the most famous Italian lyric poem of the 20th century, as familiar to Italians as poems like Frost's "The Road Not Taken" are to American readers.

Montale, a 1975 Nobel Laureate and Italy's greatest 20th-century poet, made his name early, but poetry wasn't even his first love. "I had more concrete and stranger ambitions," he later wrote. The son of a comfortably well-off family that owned a chemical products business in Genoa, he began studying intensely with a well-known Italian baritone named Ernesto Sivori in 1915, shortly before he turned 19, preparing, he imagined, to debut as Valentino in Gounod's Faust. Sivori died the following year, derailing Montale's plans for a career in opera. Montale believed that his musical training was profoundly beneficial to his poetry; he wrote many reviews of musical performances; and he enjoyed singing for his friends throughout his life. But he set aside his professional singing ambitions for good.

The dominating presence in Italian poetry during this period was Gabriel D'Annunzio, a bombastic, supremely gifted poet whose poems were as lush, mellifluous and romantic as the Italian language itself. In his first book, Ossi de seppia (Cuttlefish Bones), which first appeared ...

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