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Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968)


Italian poet, critic, and translator, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. Salvatore Quasimodo's works fall roughly into two periods, divided by World War II. His early poems were difficult with their metaphysical and complex imagery. In later works in his humanistic period he was more concerned with the contemporary history, social conditions, horrors of war, and the problems of human suffering. Many of his poems depict the landscape of Sicily.
"Here the earth is finished:
with strain and with blood
I make myself a prison."

(from 'Horses of Moon and of Volcanoes,' Ed è subito sera, 1942)

Salvatore Quasimodo was born in Modica, a small town near Syracuse, Sicily, the son of Gaetano Quasimodo, a railway officer, and Clotilde Quasimodo (née Ragusa). His father's work took the family to Messina, where they arrived two days after the great earthquake of 1908.

Quasimodo started to read and write at an exceptionally early age and show interest in Greek lyric poetry. When his parents felt that technical training would lead to a more practical career, Quasimodo was sent to the Palermo technical college and then he moved in his teens to Rome, where he studied engineering at the Polytechnical Institute. Because of financial problems, he left the school without completing an engineering degree, but was qualified as a surveyor. For a period he worked for a construction firm.

In 1926 Quasimodo was appointed to the government Civil Engineering Department. The new job took him to many differents parts of Italy. Eventually he returned to the south in Reggio Calabria, where he wrote his first poems. Quasimodo's brother-in-law, Elio Vittorini, who became a novelist, introduced him to the literary circles. Among his friends were Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Alessandro Bonsati.

After meeting Monsignor Rampolla del Tindaro, a Sicilian priest, Quasimodo began to learn Greek. His earliest poems appeared in magazines. His first collection, Acque e terre (Water and Land), came out in 1930, but it included poems written when he was eighteen. Two of the most famous works in the collection are 'Vento a Tindari' and the three-line 'Ed è subito sera': "Everyone stands alone on the heart of the earth / transfixed by a ray of sun: / and suddenly it's evening." (trans. Patrick Barron) Water and Land contained nostalgic poems about Sicily, and reveal moods of loneliness and melancholy. It was followed by Oboe sommerso (1932), Erato e Apollion (1936), and Poesie (1938), in which Quasimodo expression showed influence of symbolism. In 1938 he resigned from his work, and settled in Milan, where he worked as an assistant to Cesare Zavattini, who was editor of several periodicals. Quasimodo was named in 1941 professor of Italian literature at Milan's Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory.

During WW II Quasimodo joined a member of an anti-Fascist group, and was briefly imprisoned at Bergamo. His most widely read book, Ed è subito sera, appeared in 1942. After the war in 1945 he became a member of the Italian Communist party. When the party insisted that he should write political poems, he resigned in protest. Giorno dopo giorno (1947) reflected his country's hardships and his horror at Italy's role in the war. It has been characterized perhaps the best volume of poetry to come out of World War II in any country. With the following collection, La vita non è sogno (1949), Quasimodo placed himself in the role of "rifare l'uomo" (remake man), a poet of engagement - at moments his poesie sociale bitterly attacked failures of Christians in front of the hopes given by Communists.

Quasimodo's first wife Bice Donetti died in 1948, and he married in 1948 Maria Cumani, a dancer. They separated permanently in 1960. Cumani later acted in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's I sovversivi (1967), Liliana Cavani's Galileo (1968), Franco Rubartelli's Veruschka (1971), Franco Rossi's Porgi l'altra guancia (1974), and other films. Quasimodo's daughter Orietta was born out of wedlock in 1935 to Amelia Spezialetti, whom he had first met in 1931. Quasimodo's love letters to the feminist writer Sibilla Aleramo (Rina Pierangeli Faccio, 1876-1960), who was engaged in affairs with many male writers, were published in 1983.  

Quasimodo died suddenly. While presidenting over a poetry competition in Amalfi, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in Naples, on June 14, 1968. His last four volumes of verse show a continuing concern for social justice, but there are also fond memories of past friends and past loves. His final collection of verse was Dare e avere (1966, To Give and to Have). Besides the Nobel Prize, Quasimodo reveived several other literary prizes, including the Premio Viareggio in 1958 and the Taormina Prize, which he shared with Dylan Thomas in 1953.

Recurrent themes in Quasimodo's works are memories of childhood and the life and culture Sicily. He connects his impressions of the landscape to literary associations, and the cultural heritage from Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and other invaders. In the 1930s he became a leader of the 'hermetic' poet with Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) and Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970), abandoning realism. Hermetic poets were accused of obscurity. They were guided by listening to their own inner voice, and they often used difficult private symbolism. "Poetry, even lyrical poetry, is always 'speech,'" Quasimodo said once. "The listener may be the physical or metaphysical interior of the poet, or a man, or a thousand men."

After WW II Quasimodo's poetry dealt largely with social issues, reflecting deep concern of the fate of Italy. In 'Discourse on Poetry' he wrote: "... a poet is a poet when he does not renounce his existence in a given country, at a particular time, defined politically. And poetry is the liberty and truth of that time, and not abstract modulations of sentiment." A modernist but acutely conscious of the tension between tradition and innovation, he wrote many essays on literature and translated classical writers and drama, among them such writers as William Shakespeare, Molière (Tartuffe), Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Catullus. Quasimodo's light-hearted prose translation of Romeo and Juliet from 1949 was performed in Verona. His translations from European and American contemporaries include e.e. cummings and Pablo Neruda.

For further reading: 'Quasimodo' by G.Cambon, in Chelsea 6, pp. 60-67 (1960); Quasimodo by N. Tedesco (1959); The Poem Itself, ed. by S. Burnshaw (1960); Dialogue With and Audience by J. Ciardi (1963); Poetry of This Age by J.M. Cohen (1966); 'Salvatore Quasimodo' by D. Dutschke, in Italian Quaterly 12, 91-103 (1969); Quasimodo e la critica, ed. by G. Finzi (1969); L'isola impareggiabile by C.M. Bowra (1977); Concordanza delle poesie di Salvatore Quasimodo by Giuseppe Savoca (1994); Quasimodo: Biografia per immagini by Rosalma Salina Borello (1995); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Italian Environmental Literature An Anthology, edited by Patrick Barron and Anna Re (2003); The Facts on File Companion to World Poetry: 1900 to the Present, ed. by R. Victoria Arana  (2008) - Huom!: Quasimodolta on julkaistu suomeksi valikoima Ja äkkiä on ilta (1962), suomennoksia on myös mm. antologioissa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1973), Runon suku, toim. Jarkko Laine (1991) sekä Maailman runosydän, toim. Hannu Tarmio, Janne Tarmio (1998)

Selected works:

  • Acque e terre, 1930
  • Oboe sommerso, 1932
  • Odore di eucalyptus, 1933
  • Erato e Apòllìon, 1936
  • Poesie, 1938
  • Lirici Greci, 1940 (a presentation of ancient Greek poetry)
  • Ed è subito sera, 1942 - Ja äkkiä on ilta (suomennos Elli-Kaija Köngäs, 1962)
  • Con il piede straniero sopra il cuore, 1946
  • Giorno dopo giorno, 1947
  • La vita non è sogno, 1949
  • Il Vangelo secondo Giovanni, 1950 (translator)
  • Elettra; versione di Salvatore Quasimodo, 1954 (translator)
  • Il falso e vero verde, 1956
  • Il fiore dell "Georgiche," 1957 (translator)
  • La terra impareggiabile, 1958
  • Poesie scelte, 1959 (edited by Roberto Sanesi)
  • Il poeta e il politico e altri saggi, 1960 - The Poet and the Politician, and Other Essays (translated by Thomas G. Bergin and Sergio Pacifici)
  • Tutte le poesie, 1960 (edited by Sergio Solmi and Carlo Bo)
  • The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo, 1960 (edited and translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
  • Scritti sul teatro, 1961
  • Mutevoli pensieri / Conrad Aiken, 1963 (translator)
  • Ecuba di Euripide, 1963 (translator)
  • Tragici greci tradotti da Salvatore Quasimodo, 1963 (translator)
  • Anita Ekberg, 1965
  • Quasimodo: Selected Poems, 1965 (translated by Jack Bevan)
  • Antonio e Cleopatra Di Shakespeare, 1966 (translator)
  • Dare e avere, 1959-1965, 1966 - To Give and To Have and Other Poems (translated by Edith Farnsworth, 1969) / Debit and Credit (translated with an introduction by Jack Bevan, 1972)  
  • Dall’Odissea, 1967 (translator)
  • Il poeta e il politico e altri saggi, 1967
  • Tutte le poesie, 1967 (6 ed.)  
  • Iliade. Episodi scelti e tradotti da Salvatore Quasimodo, 1968 (translator)
  • Da Aiken e Cummings, 1968 (translator)
  • Quasimodo per Luther King, 1968
  • Salvatore Quasimodo, 1968
  • Il fiore delle Georgiche, 1968 (translator)
  • Birolli, X, 1969
  • Le lettere d’amore di Quasimodo, 1969
  • Donner à voir / Paul Éluard, 1970 (translator)
  • Poesie e discorsi sulla poesia, 1971 (introduction by Gilberto Finzi, preface by Carlo Bo)
  • Edipo re / Sophocles, 1972 (translator)
  • Lettere d’amore a Maria Cumani (1936-1959), 1973 (preface by Davide Lajolo)
  • A colpo omicida e altri scritti, 1977 (edited by Gilberto Finzi)
  • Lettere a Salvatore Quasimodo / Eugenio Montale, 1981 (edited by Sebastiano Grasso)
  • A Sibilla, 1983 (preface by Giancarlo Vigorelli)
  • Complete Poems, 1984 (introduced and translated by Jack Bevan)
  • Tutte le poesie, 1984 (introduction by Gilberto Finzi)
  • Carteggio, 1929-1966, 1988 (edited by Giuseppe Miligi)
  • Dalla Sicilia: quattro poesie e manoscritti inediti, 1989 (edited by Gilberto Finzi, illustrated by Piero Roccasalva)
  • Quasimodo, 1999 (edited by Alessandro Quasimodo)
  • Lettere d’amore / Sibilla Aleramo, Salvatore Quasimodo, 2001 (edited by Paola Manfredi, preface by Bruna Conti)
  • Senza di te, la morte: lettere a Curzia Ferrari (1963-1968), 2001 (edited by Giovanna Musolino)
  • I poeti devono soffrire: lettere a Giuseppe Susini (1934-1950, 2003 (edited by Giovanna Musolino)
  • Epigrammi, 2004 (edited by Giovanna Musolino)  
  • The Night Fountain: Selected Early Poems, 2008 (translated by Marco Sonzogni, Gerald Dawe)

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