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Eugenio Montale (1896-1981)


Italian poet, prose writer, editor and translator who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1975. Montale made his breakthrough as one of the chief architects of modern Italian poetry in the 1920s. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has called Montale's La bufera e altro (1956) "the finest book to have emerged from the Second World War". In his work, Montale focused on the dilemmas of modern history, philosophy, love, and human existence. Montale was also a student of music-especially bel canto.

"Happiness, for you we walk on a knife edge. To the eyes you are a flickering light, to the feet, thin ice that cracks; and so may no one touch you who loves you." (from 'Felicità raggiunta')

Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa. He was the youngest of five children of Domenico Montale, who ran an import business, and Giuseppina (Ricci) Montale. His formal education was cut short by ill heath. Montale spent his summers at the family villa in a small village nearby the Ligurian Riviera, and later images from its harsh landscape found their way into his poetry. Originally Montale aspired to be an opera singer, dreaming to "deput in the part of Valentine in Gounod's Faust". However, he also was interested in literature, especially Italian classics, French fiction, and such philosophers as Arthur Schopenhauer, Benedetto Croce, whom he regarded as "master of clarity", and Henri Bergson. During World War I he served as an infantry officer on the Austrian front. Upon to his return to his family home, Montale took up singing again. After the death of his voice teacher in 1923, he abandoned his operatic hopes, and began his literary career by writing for several publications.

A white dove has landed me
among headstones, under spires where the sky nests.
Dawns and lights in air; I've loved the sun,
colors of honey, now I crave the dark,
I want the smoldering fire, this tomb
that doesn't soar, your stare that dares it to.

(from Collected Poems, 1920-1954, trans. by Jonathan Galassi)

Montale moved in 1927 to Florence, where he worked briefly for a publishing house. In 1928, he was appointed director of the Gabinetto Viesseux research library. As a critic, he helped along with James Joyce the writer Italo Svevo (1861-1928) to gain critical attention. His first collection of poetry, Ossi di seppia (1925, Bones of the Cuttlefish), was published by the anti-fascist Piero Gobetti; Montale also signed in the same year Croce's Manifesto of anti-Fascist intellectuals. Ossi di seppia included several poems about his childhood's Liguria and its scenery. In the following collections, such as Le occasioni (1939, The Occasions), Montale's expression grew more subjective and introspective. The love lyric of The Occasions are about "Clizia", who has been identified with Irma Brandeis, a Jewish-American scholar of Dante, whom Montale met in the 1930s. She appeared as Montale's Beatrice or Laura in several poems.

With his difficult, pessimistic, and introspective early works Montale was superficially associated with his contemporaries Giuseppe Ungaretti and Salvatore Quasimodo, representatives of hermeticism in poetry. Loosely, the term denotes obscure, difficult poetry, in which the symbolism and images are subjective and the words have emotionally suggestive power. Montale once noted, "The poet does not know-often he will never know-whom he really writes for."

Montale was always an opponent of fascism, but he showed understanding to Ezra Pound, in spite of Pound's sympathies for the Fascist regime. In 1938 Montale was dismissed from his cultural post for refusing to join the Fascist Party. His poems were not included in school syllabuses, but Italo Calvino mentions in his essay 'Eugenio Montale, 'Forse un mattino andando'' (1976), that he learned several of them by heart in the early 1940s. Montale withdrew from public life and spent the following years translating into Italian such writers as William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, whom he once characterized as "a poet-musician", Herman Melville, Eugene O`Neill, and others. He was especially impressed by Eliot's The Waste Land. This work had caught the pessimism and mood of confusion felt by many between the world wars, but whereas Eliot remained for many readers inaccessible, Montale was more open, and also expressed feelings of love. Politicians he despised, and he was sarcastic about every "cleric, red or black". Eliot knew Montale's work and published a translation of Montale's 'Arsenio' in an early number of The Criterion.

After the war Montale moved to Milan, where he contributed to the literary page for Corriere della sera, the most influential Italian daily newspaper. He wrote among others about Ettore Schmitz, who became known under the name Italo Svevo, W.H. Auden, a "cosmopolitan poet in every sense of the word," Emily Dickinson, "a virile soul", and Henry Furst, an unknown poet, who published his poetry in private editions. Montale reviewed almost all important new Italian books and his opinions influenced other reviewers. In spite of Pound's sympathies for the Fascist regime, he considered Pound a profoundly good man.

"Montale is an ardent defender of simplicity and clarity and an enemy of irrationalist methodologies. He thinks of criticism largely as "reading," lettura - I would say "close reading" - though this close reading must be supplemented by what he calls "framing," meaning an interest in history and in the social milieu, which Montale conceives in the widest terms as the whole of Western civilization. This criticism demands from the critic a personal engagement and even justifies a serious participation in contemporary life." ( René Wellek in A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, vol. 8, 1992)

Montale's third major collection, La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Poems), drew from the experiences of World War II and post-war anxieties: "and a shadowy Satan will disembark on the bank of the Thames, the Hudson, the Seine, shaking his bitumen wings half-worn by the effort, to tell you: the time has come". Hitler, Hell's messenger meets in 'The Hitler Spring' Mussolini in Florence, and the poet and his muse, Clizia, exchange long farewells. The poem is concluded with an apocalyptic vision: "Perhaps the sirens, the tolling bells that greet the monsters on the evening of their witches' Sabbath are already mingling with the sound that, unloosened from heaven, descends, conquers, with the breathing of a dawn that tomorrow, for everyone, breaks again, white, but without wings of horror, over the scorched wadis of the south." (transl. by George Kay)

When Montale's earliest poems were mostly set in Liguria, from Le occasioni and La bufera e altro Montale widened his angle of view and range of expression. Satura (1962), Montale's fourth collection experimented with dialogue, journalistic notation, aphorism, commentary, and half-strangled song. 'Satura' is Latin for a stew or mixed dish. In such poems as 'Gotterdammerung' and 'Non-Magical Realism', he satirized the proliferation of ideologies, which promised more than they could accomplish: "Twilight began when man thought / himself of greater dignity than moles or crickets."

In 1967 Montale became a member-for-life of the Italian Senate. He died in Milan on September 12, 1981. Montale was married to Drusilla Tanzi; she had separated from her husband in the late 1930s, but Montale and Tanzi were not married until in 1958, after her husband died. The couple had no children. In Xenia (1966) Montale dealt with love and marriage. His wife, called Mosca (fly), had died in 1963, and in the title poem of the collection he wrote: "They say my poetry / is a poetry of unbelonging. / But if it was yours it was someone's, / yours, who are no longer form, but essence."

In his work Montale attempted to move his expression to new directions and create new myths. He rejected early on D'Annunzian rhetoric, but struggled with the heritage of Dante and Petrarch. Like Picasso, who said, "I do not seek. I find", Montale remarked, "I do not go in search of poetry. I wait for poetry to visit me." Montale developed a precise style that mixed archaic words with scientific terms and idioms from the vernacular. "Montale was the poet of exactness, of justified lexical choices," Italo Calvino has said. Carlo Bo has argued that Montale's poetry betrays a "contradiction between a lucid and ruthless cruelty and a very pure feeling of love". Montale's newspaper articles have been published with other things in Fuori di casa (1969). His last books, Satura, and his diaries in verse, Diario del '71 e del '72 (1973), Quaderno di quattro anni  (1977), were closer to everyday life and used autobiographical material.

For further reading: Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale by Joseph Cary (1969); Eugenio Montale by G. Gambon (1972); Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study by G. Singh (1973); Eugenio Montale: The Private Language of Poetry by G. Almansi and B. Merry (1977); Eugenio Montale: A Poet on the Edge by R. West (1981); Eugenio Montale's Poetry by G. Gambon (1982); Montale and the Occasion of Poetry by C. Huffman (1983); Eugenio Montale by J. Becker (1986); Denussy, and Modernism by G.P. Biasin (1989); Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba Ungaretti Montale by Jonathan Cary (rev. ed. 1993); Montale's Mestiere Vile: The Elective Translations from English of the 1930s and 1940s by George Talbot (1995); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Eugenio Montale: The Poetry of Later Years by Éanna Ó Ceallacháin (2001) - See also: Alba de Céspedes - Suomeksi Montalelta on julkaistu runoja antologiassa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1973) ja 21 Nobel-runoilijaa (1976)

Selected works:

  • Ossi di seppia, 1925 (revised edition, 1926, 1948)
    - The Bones of Cuttlefish (translated by Antonino Mazza from Ossi di seppia, 1983) / Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927(translated, with preface and commentary, by William Arrowsmith, 1992)
  • La casa dei doganieri e altre poesie, 1932
  • Le occasioni, 1939
    - The Occasions (translated, with preface and commentary, by William Arrowsmith, 1987)
  • La barraglia, by John Steinbeck, 1940 (translator)
  • La storia di Billy Budd / Herman Melville, 1942 (translator)
  • Il mio mundo è qui / Dorothy Parker, 1943 (translator)
  • Strano interludio / Eugene O'Neill, 1943 (translator)
  • Finisterre, 1943 (Land´s End)
  • Al Dio sconosciuto / John Steinbeck, 1946 (translator)
  • La commedia degli errori; Racconto d'inverno; Timone d'Atene / William Shakespeare, 1947 (3 vols.; translator)
  • Il volto di pietra, 1947 (translator, with Luigi Berti)
  • Quaderno di traduzioni, 1948 (translator; rev. edition 1975)
  • Poesie, 1948-57 (3 vols.)
  • Amleto, principe di Danimarca / William Shakespeare, 1949 (translator)
  • La tragica storia del dottor Faust / Christopher Marlowe, 1951 (translator)
  • Proserpina e lo straniero / Omar Del Carlo, 1952 (translator)
  • La cicuta e dopo / Angus Wilson, 1956 (translator)
  • La bufera e altro, 1956
    - The Storm and Other Poems (translated by Charles Wright, 1978) / The Storm and Other Things (translated, with preface and commentary, by William Arrowsmith, 1985)
  • La farfalla di Dinard, 1956
    - The Butterfly of Dinard (translated by G. Singh, 1970)
  • [Selections] / T.S. Eliot, 1958 (translator)
  • Poems from Eugenio Montale, 1959 (translated by Edwin Morgan)
  • Il Cid / Corneille, 1960 (translator; in Teatro francese del grande secolo, ed. by G. Macchia)
  • Poesie di Montale, 1960 (bilingual edition, translated by Robert Lowell)
  • Accordi e pastelli, 1962 (Harmony and Pastels)
  • Poesie/Poems, 1964 (ed. by George Kay; as Selected Poems, 1970)
  • Selected Poems of Eugenio Montale, 1965 (ed. by Glauco Camson)
  • Il colpevole, 1966 (The Offender)
  • Lettere: Montale-Italo Svevo, 1966
  • Satura, 1966 (rev. edition, 1971; as Satura: Five Poems, 1969)
    - Satura (translated by William Arrowsmith, 1971) / New Poems: A Selection from Satura and Diario del ´71 e del '72 (translated by G. Singh, 1976)
  • Auto da fé: Cronache in due tempi, 1966
  • Xenia, 1966
    - Xenia (translated by G. Singh, 1970) / Xenia; and, Motets (translated by Kate Hughers, 1977)
  • Fuori di casa, 1969
  • Provisional Conclusions, 1970 (translated by Edith Farnsworth)
  • La poesia non esiste, 1971
  • Nel nostro tempo, 1972
    - Poet in Our Time (translated by Alastair Hamilton, 1976)
  • Trentadue variazioni, 1973
  • Diario del ´71 e del ´72, 1973
    - New Poems: A Selection from Satura and Diario del ´71 e del '72 (translated by G. Singh, 1976) / Poetic Diaries 1971 and 1972  (translated by William Arrowsmith; introduction by Rosanna Warren, 2012)
  • Mottetti, 1973 (bilingual edition, translated by Lawrence Kart)
  • Selected Poems, 1975
  • Sulla poesia, 1976 (edited by Giorgia Zampa)
  • Tutte le poesie, 1977
  • Quaderno ni quattro anni, 1977
    - It Depends: A Poet's Notebook (translated by G. Singh, 1980)
  • Selected Essays, 1978 (translated by G. Singh)
  • Mottetti, 1980 (edited by Dante Isella)
  • Montale commenta Montale, 1980 (edited by Lorenzo Greco)
  • L'Opera in versi, 1980 (2 vols, edited by Rosanna Bettarini and Giancarlo Contini)
  • Lopera in versi, 1980 (edited by Rosanna Bettarini and Gianfranco Contini) 
  • Prime alla Scala, 1981 (edited by Gianfranca Lavezzi)
  • Altre versi e poesie disperse, 1981 (edited by Giorgio Zampa)
    - Otherwise: Last and First Poems of Eugenio Montale (translated by Jonathan Galassi, 1984)
  • I miei scritti sul "Mondo": da Bonsanti a Pannunzio, 1981 (edited by Giovanni Spadolini)
  • Lettere a Salvatore Quasimodo, 1981 (edited by Sebastiano Grasso)
  • The Second Life of Art, 1982 (edited and translated by Jonathan Galassi)
  • Quaderno genovese, 1983 (edited by Laura Barile)  
  • Mantova per Montale: immagini e documenti, 1983 (edited by Vanni Scheiwiller)
  • Eugenio Montale: immagini e documenti, 1983 (edited by Vanni Scheiwiller) 
  • Tutte le poesie, 1984 (edited by Giorgio Zampa;7th ed., 1996)
  • Mottetti: Poems of Love, 1990 (translated & with an introduction by Dana Gioia)
  • Diario postumo, 1991-1996 (2 vols., ed by Annalisa Cima)
  • Prose e racconti, 1995 (edited by Marco Forti)
  • Lettere e minute: 1932-1938, 1995 (introduction by Elio Pecora)
  • Lettere e poesie a Bianca e Francesco Messina, 1923-1925, 1995 (edited by  Laura Barile)
  • Il secondo mestiere. Prose, 1920-1979, 1996 (2 vols., edited by Giorgio Zampa)
  • Eusebio e Trabucco / carteggio di Eugenio Montale e Gianfranco Contini, 1997 (edited by Dante Isella)
  • Collected Poems, 1920-1954: Bilingual Edition, 1998 (translated by Jonathan Galassi)
  • L'arte Di Leggere: Una Conversazione Svizzera, 1998 (edited by Claudio Origoni, Maria Grazia Rabiolo)
  • Poesia Travestita, 1999
  • Giorni di libeccio: lettere ad Angelo Barile 1920-1957, 2002 (edited by Domenico Astengo, Giampiero Costa)
  • Finisterre: versi del 1940-42, 2003 (edited by Dante Isella)
  • Caro maestro e amico: carteggio con Valery Larbaud: 1926-1937, 2003 (edited by Marco Sonzogni)
  • Selected Poems, 2004 (translated by Jonathan Galassi, Charles Wright and David Young; edited with an introduction by David Young)
  • La casa di Olgiate e altre poesie, 2006 (edited by Renzo Cremante and Gianfranca Lavezzi)
  • I Madrigali privati di Eugenio Montale: saggio di un commento, 2011 (edited by Antonella Smarrelli)
  • Eugenio Montale, 2011 (edited by Edoardo Esposito)
  • Poetic Notebook, 1974-1977, 2012 (translated by William Arrowsmith; introduction by Rosanna Warren)
  • The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925/1977, 2011 (translated by William Arrowsmith; edited by Rosanna Warren)

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