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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 in 1925, Montale announced a radically different aesthetic. "Listen," the speaker demands in "The Lemon Trees:"

the laureled poets
stroll only among shrubs
with learned names: ligustrum, acanthus, box.
What I like are streets that end in grassy
ditches where boys snatch
a few famished eels from drying puddles

Montale's speaker cannot be taken entirely at face value: he uses plenty of learned words himself, and lessons from D'Annunzio are smuggled into the poems. But their sound is altogether different: they are dense and clotted, as in the fifth line quoted above, whose "ditches where boys snatch" is (as Rosanna Warren points out in her helpful introduction) a mouthful of double consonants ("mezzo seccate agguantano i ragazzi") in Italian.

Ossi de seppia is set in the harsh, Ligurian coastline around Monterosso, the Northern Italian town where Montale's family spent every summer in his childhood. Unlike D'Annunzio, whose speakers achieve an ecstatic union of self and landscape as they traverse the same coastline on horseback, the speaker of Montale's long sequence "Mediterranean" can only wish he were able to "force / some fragment of [the ocean's] ecstasy / into this clumsy music of mine." Often cloistered in a garden or surrounded by walls, the speakers of the poems are drawn to and repelled by the sea, which beckons with a promise of escape or oblivion. "Arsenio," the speaker says to his alter ego in the poem by the same name, "in the hour dissolving, this is the call / of some strangled life that emerged on your behalf, / and the wind whirls it away with the ashes of the stars."

The poems of Le occasioni (The Occasions), which appeared in 1939, increasingly link the possibility of escape with a woman, and begin to create a myth of salvation that harkens back to Petrarch's Laura and Dante's Beatrice. "Your restlessness reminds me / of those migratory birds that thump against the lighthouse / on stormy nights," the speaker says (in "Dora Markus"). The poems are far more compressed than in Ossi de seppia, contributing to Montale's reputation as a "hermetic" poet. In "Buffalo," for instance, the speaker says "Buffalo" to himself, and "the spell work[s]," but we're never given the least hint why "Buffalo" is significant. Although the rise of Fascism, and thus the need for circumspection, is often cited as a reason for the obscurity of the poems, Montale himself explained them as the natural evolution of his craft. He wrote in 1946 that "it was necessary to express the object and omit the occasion-spur," an approach he analogized to Eliot's theory of the objective correlative, which Eliot had propounded independently during the same period.

Shortly before the publication of Le occasioni, Montale had lost his job at a private library in Florence, where he'd lived since 1927, because he refused to join the Fascist party. He was associated during this period with a group of anti-Fascist intellectuals (and met regularly with the Jewish poet Umberto Saba, who was in hiding in Florence). The turmoil of these years surfaces in many of the poems at the end of Le occasioni (including "News from Amiata," which was later haled as prescient) and in the book that followed, La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things).

In La bufera, which alludes both to the tempest in Dante's Inferno and the onset of Fascism and World War II, Montale continues and complicates his myth of sexual and spiritual salvation. Late in the book, Montale's "tu" (the "you" of the poems), the muse in whom he has invested his dream of escape, is identified as Clizia, a woman who turns into a sunflower in Ovid. But La bufera also features an alternative muse—Volpe ("fox" or "vixen"), who stands in earthy, lusty contrast to the more heaven-oriented Clizia. (Both have been traced to women in Montale's life, but only hints of the actual women, such as the bangs and Jewishness of one, remain by the time they have been transformed into art). Clizia increasingly recedes, apparently to fight a cosmic enemy in a time of universal turmoil, while Volpe moves into the foreground, dominating the last major section of La bufera. At times, the two muses merge or interact, as in the final lines of "The Eel," in which the speaker asks Clizia, "can you /deny a sister?" But the vision collapses, and the book concludes with a prisoner in a cell in which "except for a few signs, you can't tell dawn from night" ("The Prisoner's Dream").

With La bufera, which was published in 1956, although many of its poems dated back to the early 1940s, Montale reached the peak of his fame. The poems were both classically Italian and entirely his own—replete with dazzling wordplay and stylistic innovations like Montale's signature catalogues of nouns (as in the "larva, tadpole, / trendril of creeping vine, francolin, / gazelle, zebu, okapi, / black cloud, hail / before the harvest" of the speaker's search for Volpe in "For Album"). In the 1950s and 1960s, Montale remained a major presence in Italian life, serving as music reviewer at Corriere della Sera in Milan, Italy's leading newspaper. But he stopped writing poems.

Then came Satura, published in 1971. Satura startled critics not just by breaking the silence but much more because the collection seemed to mock everything Montale had written before. "Once / somebody's speech was whole, / incomprehensibly so," according to the speaker in one poem, but now "[s]tuttering, stammering" is needed "to rouse the language / from its torpor" ("Stuttering"). "I don't know if it's been observed," says another speaker, "but our dealings with the Other / were one long scam" ("The Other"). Unlike their difficult predecessors, the new poems often seemed prosaic, almost banal, just a catalogue of Montale's travels and of people he'd met. "The first three books are written in 'tails,' " as Montale himself put it, "the others in pajamas, or let's say in afternoon clothes."

Satura started a flood—a diarrhea of words, one is tempted to say, in the spirit of the scatological imagery that is another recurring feature of the late poems. Between 1971 and 1981, when he died, Montale published four new books; in addition to Satura, these included Diario del '71 e del '72 (Diary of '71 and '72); Quaderno di Quattro anni (Poetic Notebook [1974-77]), and Altri versi e poesie disperse (Other Verses). Still another was cobbled together after his death: Diaria postumo (Posthumous Diary). In addition to their prosiness, the late books are characterized by frequent paradoxes—"nulla/tutto" ("nothing/everything") is a favorite rhyme—that the speakers seem to embrace rather than wrestle with. Critics have not known to do with the later books. Many simply ignore them; they are doodles, or senilia, one might say—the old-age equivalent of juvenilia.

Yet the final books have their share of breathtaking poems. If you're new to Montale, why not hold off on the early poems, and start with a few from the end of his career. Begin with "Xenia I & II," a pair of lovely elegies to Drusilla Tanzi, the woman Montale married late in life. She is no Clizia or even Volpe. She is the speaker's "Dear little insect / nicknamed Mosca"—or "hell-fly," a reference to Tanzi's extreme nearsightedness. "It's not muck that besets me," the speaker concludes at the end of a bittersweet catalogue of their adventures together and their response to the traumas of postwar Italy, "but the events / of an unbelievable, and always unbelieved, reality. / My courage in facing it was the first / of your loans, and perhaps you never knew." A sampling of other highlights might include poems like "The Black Angel," "Visitors," and "My Optimism."

If you follow this unconventional advice, you may be astonished, as I was, when you go back to the beginning, and start reading the earliest poems. Montale was old even in his earliest years. The depth and the sparks, the foreboding, and the utter seriousness of his quest to make something contemporary from seven centuries of Italian tradition, jump off the page after reading the quotidian musings of the late poetry, with their taste for the absurd.

Before The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale was published a year ago, the little exercise I have just proposed would have been quite difficult to pursue in English. The poet and editor Jonathan Galassi published a collection of the first three books in 1998, and there are now English translations of most of the individual books. But The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale is the first attempt to canvas Montale's entire career. For the first time, readers have the poems in a single, attractively laid out volume of translations that are side by side with the Italian. (The volume would be still more convenient if the publisher had put the name of the particular Montale volume at the bottom of each page, so that readers would know where they are as they flip through the book.)

Rosanna Warren, a prominent contemporary poet, assembled The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, which includes every volume except Altri versi (1981) and Diario postumo (1996), from manuscripts William Arrowsmith, the dean of Montale translators, had left at the time of his death in 1992, as well as several volumes Arrowsmith had previously published. Warren also added occasional notes to the extensive notes Arrowsmith provided.

Arrowsmith's translations are sensible and clear, with flashes of ingenious adjustment to as he carries Montale's highly charged verses into English. As compared to Galassi, a fine Montale translator in his own right, Arrowsmith hews more closely to the structure and literal language, or so it seems to me, while Galassi aims more for the poetic effects. Here, first in Italian, are the opening lines of the middle stanza of "News from Amiata," a poem (the famously prescient one) from Le occasioni whose speaker writes from a room in an old hotel (a "honeycomb" cell) at the foot of a dormant volcano on a soon-to-be stormy night:

E tu seguissi le fragili architetture
annerite dal tempo e dal carbone,
i cortile quadrati che hanno nel mezzo
il pozzo profondissimo; tu seguissi
il volo infagottato degli uccelli
notturni e in fondo al borro l'allucciolio
della Galassia, la fascia d'ogni tormento.

The lines do not have true end rhymes, but there are numerous odd half-rhymes (architetture/carbone, whose final e's are pronounced like long a's; seguissi/uccelli; mezzo/l'allucciolio/tormento); and the lines are full of intense assonance and alliteration, such as the t and r sounds in the first three lines, the s's and z's of the third and fourth lines, and the c's and q of the second and third lines.

Galassi gambles as he strains to re-create the intensity and strangeness of the original, translating these lines as:

If it were you following
the fragile structures black with time and soot,
the foursquare courtyards with the deep,
deep wells in the middle; following
the twig-laden flights of night birds
and the winking of the Galaxy,
shroud of every torment, in the bottom of the ditch.

The word he translates as twig-laden ("infagottato") actually means "bundled up" or "wrapped up." Galassi presumably has in mind the nests the birds will build, which works nicely with the structures (the architecture, the galaxy) that pervade these lines, and the w, i, and g of "twig-laden" are picked up in the "winking … Galaxy" of the next line. Although "winking" seems a little too cute, Galassi nicely captures the speaker's feelings of alienation and some of the intricacy of the poetry's tense music.

Arrowsmith offers a more straightforward rendition:

And should you follow the fragile architectures
blackened by time and soot,
the courtyards at whose center stands
the deepest well; should you follow
the shrouded flight of the nocturnal
birds and, at the bottom of the ravine the flickering light
of the galaxy, the swaddling bands of every anguish …

Notice how closely Arrowsmith follows the line breaks in the original. Unlike Galassi, who pushes "fragili architetture" to the second line, and removes the enjambment between "uccelli" and "notturni" ("night bird"), Arrowsmith preserves both. When Arrowsmith does depart from the original, he often does so to add clarity, as with the ellipsis he inserts at the end as a signal that the speaker has broken off his thought without completing his sentence.

Because Montale is such a challenging poet, I think most readers will conclude that Arrowsmith is the best place to start, especially if they do not read Italian. But both translations are simply superb; anyone who develops an interest in Montale will want to have both.

It is hard to overstate how unlikely it was that Montale would be the modernist poet who most brilliantly navigated the social and political tensions of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a poet's poet, and resisted movements of all kinds, both secular and spiritual. (Several poems dismiss both the "red"—communists—and the "black"—the Christian Democrats and Catholic Church.) But this turned out to be just what the times called for, at least in the Italy of the mid-20th century. Unlike Ezra Pound, who was swept up in the hysteria, or a "pure" poet like Wallace Stevens, whose occasional politically tinged poems of this period are among his weakest, Montale warned of the looming threats in verse that melded the tradition of Dante and current events into unforgettable poetry.

Montale's triumph was deeply paradoxical, since it depended on his renunciation—contingent, to be sure (La bufera's last line is "and my dream of you isn't over"), but a clear renunciation—of the possibility of salvation of any kind. It is as if Samson's destruction of the Philistine temple had destroyed not just him but all of Israel as well. It is no wonder the last poems are so cynical, and that Montale asked in his Nobel lecture whether poetry was still possible. But the late poems also are mixed with compassion and lines that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Reading these poems, I found myself thinking about Italian television, which my family and I associate with game shows that veer from the serious to the absurd without warning, and sports-talk programs consisting of three or four blandly serious men and a woman whose only discernible role is her gorgeous good looks. (There are American versions of all of this, of course, but this is an essay about Eugenio Montale.) The poems of Montale's last decade may not be his very greatest, but a few come quite close; and they may, in their own way, have been as prescient as their predecessors.

David Skeel is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He's working on a defense of Christianity entitled "A True Faith."

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