BORN: 1896, Genoa, Italy
DIED: 1981, Milan, Italy
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
Cuttlefish Bones (1925)
The Customs House and Other Poems (1932)
The Storm, and Other Poems (1956)
Eugenio Montale. Keystone / Getty Images
Eugenio Montale, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975, is considered one of the most important voices of modernism in twentieth-century poetry. His poetry, from the first publications in the 1920s to his complete works that appeared in 1981, is a touchstone for all those who seek to understand the potential and achievement of twentieth-century verse.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood on the Ligurian Coast. Montale was born in Genoa in 1896 into a wealthy family. He spent his childhood and early adult years in Genoa and in the Cinque Terre, a rugged coastal area south of the city, where his family had a summer residence. That Ligurian coast, with its then unspoiled beauty, and the Mediterranean Sea spreading out beneath the rocky cliffs, figure prominently in his first collection of poetry, Cuttlefish Bones (1925).
Montale attended school until the age of fourteen, when poor health prevented further formal education. In 1915 Montale decided to dedicate himself to the study of bel canto (a style of operatic singing), but his musical career was cut short by the death of his maestro, Ernesto Sivori, in 1916. Music, within Montale’s poetry, is not only incidental or thematic but functions as a constitutive element of his poetics and subsequent verse. Montale himself emphasized how music and poetry have an indissoluble tie between them.
War and Its Aftermath. In 1917 World War I (which had been raging since 1914) intervened, and from 1917 to 1919 Montale served as a soldier, mostly in the Trentino region and in and around Genoa. Unlike some contemporary poets, whose poetry was heavily conditioned by wartime experiences, Montale did not incorporate many direct personal or collective references to those difficult times into his subsequent poetry. There is no doubt, however, that the war was a watershed for all Italian intellectuals and artists. For some, the destruction of the old order was cause for rejoicing; for others, the war was a cause for increased disorientation and somber reflection on what the future might bring.
After the war, Montale returned to his family home and continued to frequent the literary circles of Genoa and Turin, where he had already begun to develop friendships. He was an autodidact (he never studied for a university degree), immersing himself in readings of philosophy, Italian classics, and an eclectic selection of foreign writers. In 1922 he met the antifascist intellectual Piero Gobetti, who was one of the most important influences on the diffident young poet and who published Cuttlefish Bones. Gobetti’s open anti-D’Annunzianism (opposing the ideas of fascist poet Gabriele d’Annunzio), as well as his informed interest in the increasingly potent intellectual hegemony of Crocean idealism (based on the philosophy of liberal-thinker Benedetto Croce), fed strongly into Montale’s own development.
The publication of Cuttlefish Bones established Montale as a poet worthy of serious critical attention. Contemporary critics praised it as an event of lasting importance that presented an authentically new voice. Rather than feelings about the war, Montale’s poems in this collection reflect the harsh terrain of the Ligurian coast and the Mediterranean below, his beloveds, and the constant search for an escape from necessity.
Journal and Newspaper Work. Upon leaving the military after World War I, Montale returned to Genoa, cofounded a short-lived literary journal in 1922, and began contributing poems, articles, and reviews to newspapers and magazines. After relocating to Florence, where he worked for the publisher Bemporad for a year beginning in 1927, he assumed the directorship of the Gabinetto Vieusseux Library, a position he held for a decade before being forced to resign due to his antifascist sympathies.
After his dismissal from the Vieusseux, Montale lived on translations and journalistic writing, and he continued to write poetry. During the years of World War II he led a relatively quiet, if troubled, existence in Florence, working primarily as a translator and as the poetry critic of La fiera letteraria. He joined the staff of a Milan daily paper, Corriere della sera, in 1948. During his career with Corriere della sera, Montale functioned as a literary editor and music critic and served in the latter capacity until his death.
The second major collection of Montale’s poetry, Occasions, includes the poems of the 1925 volume as well as many new poems. In Italian, ‘‘occasions’’ signify not just occurrences or casual events but also rare moments of illumination and epiphany, literally ‘‘opportunities’’ that the poet re-creates in brief lyrical flashes. The poems of this period (1928-1940) are generally thought of as Montale’s most hermetic, both in terms of their extreme thematic privacy and their formal compression. Not all contemporary critics were pleased with this new approach, however.
Widespread Recognition. In 1956 Montale published his third major collection of verse, The Storm, and Other Poems. The verses in this collection are filled with his emotion toward the Mediterranean landscape. The thematic variety is matched by stylistic virtuosity as Montale experiments with the sonnet form, the madrigal, and the prose poem, which points up the deep connection between prose and poetry that emerges more vividly in his collections that follow. The decades after the publication of The Storm, and Other Poems were filled with public recognition of Montale’s work. In 1961 he was awarded honorary degrees from the Universities of Rome, Milan, and Cambridge; in 1967 he was named Senator for Life (an honorific membership in the Italian Senate). Yet, as the 1960s progressed (and following his wife’s death in 1963), he became less and less involved in the social and literary circles of Milanese society in which he had formerly moved.
Italian culture and society both had been radically transformed in the postwar years, and poets were following new directions and seeking forms of expression totally unrelated to Montale’s generation. The so-called neoavantgarde sought to sweep away ancient and more recent tradition alike, and Montale was in danger of becoming a sort of living relic. The surprise was enormous, therefore, when he published a hefty collection of new verse in 1971 under the title of Satura. Surprise modulated into something like astonishment when this work was followed by others. The ‘‘unprolific’’ poet whose production seemed destined to consist of three collections was a writer of great productivity in his old age. This new outpouring of work prompted the Nobel Prize committee to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975.
Montale died on September 12, 1981, exactly a month before his eighty-fifth birthday. His long life was relatively uneventful on the surface, but his poetry is deeply reflective of the eventfulness and complexity of his inner life where he absorbed the trials, the lessons, and the continuing search for answers that characterize human experience. His is undeniably a modern voice, attuned to the times in which he lived and wrote, but it is also a voice with a timeless pitch, expressing the transcendent music of poetry. Unable to offer concrete solutions to existential and spiritual dilemmas, Montale’s poetry nonetheless retains an abiding power in its formal beauty, its incisive and intelligent consciousness and conscience, and its commitment to the importance of the individual and to that which is unrepeatable in life and in art.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Montale's famous contemporaries include:
Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): Fascist statesman who led Italy from 1922 until the end of World War II.
Andre Breton (1896-1966): French writer who was one of the main founders of the surrealist movement.
Henry de Montherlant (1896-1972): French novelist and playwright noted for his nonconformism and controversial themes.
Paul Eluard (1895-1952): French poet who helped found the surrealist movement.
William Faulkner (1897-1962): American author who is widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century; he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949.
Alfredo Bracchi (1897-1976): Italian author who wrote popular song lyrics and movie scripts.
Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936): Spanish poet and playwright who was killed at the beginning of the Spanish civil war.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
While Montale's poetry expressed a bleak view of modern life, it was also characterized by a persistent hope and the recognition of human dignity. Here are some other works with a similar view:
The Waste Land (1922), a poem by T. S. Eliot. This modernist poem uses satire and prophecy to express both despair and hope.
Swan Song (1987), a novel by Robert McCammon. This science fiction novel depicts a nuclear apocalypse and the evolution of humanity that follows.
Arlington Park (2007), a novel by Rachel Cusk. This novel explores the difficulties of modern life by following a group of young mothers through the course of one day.
Works in Literary Context
Montale’s poetry affirmed a belief in human dignity and the ultimate value of existence, but it also expressed pessimism at the disparity between human spiritual aspirations and the reality of our condition. His existentially profound poetry is conveyed in deeply personal and impressionistic terms, in contrast to the embellished, formal style that predominated in Italy in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Montale, ‘‘I wanted to free the music in words, apply them to reality, and in transcending mere depiction, capture what is essential.’’ Because of its subjectivity, Montale’s verse often verges on impenetrable, leading some critics to label him a hermetic poet.
Precursors and Influences. Montale completely absorbed the Italian lyric tradition, from Dante Alighieri to Petrarch to Giacomo Leopardi, and including Montale’s immediate precursors: the crepuscolari (twilight poets) and futurists. His poetry further reveals the extraordinary importance of certain antimodels, especially Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benedetto Croce, whose art and philosophy, respectively, dominated Montale’s formative years. Although, like T. S. Eliot—to whom his work has often been compared—Montale can be seen ultimately as a philosophical poet. He himself refused this label, insisting that he sought not to promote ideas but rather to seek knowledge, however partial, of individual as well as collective truths about the human condition.
Themes and Stylistic Elements. Montale was a metaphysical poet whose art probes and questions both personal and collective historical experience as well as the eternal questions of the meaning of existence, the role of love, and the place of humankind. In Montale’s first major verse collection, Cuttlefish Bones, the sea and shore of the Ligurian coast near Genoa serve as symbols of the poet’s emotional and mental states. Here Montale not only conveys the ethical and metaphysical anguish that was palpable in the aftermath of World War I but also explores what he perceives as ungovernable forces that shape human experience. The poems register loneliness, exhaustion, and despair, and ultimately offer no solutions to the poet’s anxiety. Later volumes incorporate some of these motifs and introduce new emphases as well.
There is a kind of dramatic progression that accompanies Montale’s poetic development. In Cuttlefish Bones, personal considerations such as memory, identity, and the relation of the self with the outside world are paramount. In his later collections, Occasions and The Storm, and Other Poems, these same concerns are viewed in the more complex historical context of the threat to civilized values posed by the brutal forces of war and fascism.
A saving constant for the poet in this period and a compelling presence in much of his poetry is a symbolic female figure identified as ‘‘Clizia’’ or ‘‘Volpe.’’ By her very nature, she is opposed to the forces of darkness. She is an idealized lover or the embodiment of goodness and strength. The poet addresses his deepest concerns for himself and humanity to these angelic beings and draws hope and inspiration from them.
Works in Critical Context
Montale is widely regarded as one of the dominant voices of modernism, not only within the context of Italian letters but also internationally. When comparing Montale to other poets, critics usually mention T. S. Eliot and Dante Alighieri. His disinterest in realism and his use of external phenomena—landscape, historical events, and physical objects—as a means of revealing thoughts and states of mind has led commentators to observe the influence of the symbolist poets in his work. Montale’s focus on psychological and emotional states renders his verse subjective and sometimes inscrutable, leading to occasional accusations of intentional obscurity.
The publication of Cuttlefish Bones established Montale as a poet worthy of serious critical attention, but it was after The Storm, and Other Poems that he received considerable public recognition. The attention given Montale by renowned and respected critics such as Gianfranco Contini, Alfredo Gargiulo, and, later, Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo and Glauco Cambon, among many others in Italy and elsewhere, has not abated. The first collection was not universally acclaimed, but for the most part, contemporary critics praised it as an event of lasting importance that presented an authentically new voice.
Cuttlefish Bones. When Cuttlefish Bones was published in 1925, it was widely regarded as a success. Literary scholar G. Singh declares, ‘‘It is... those poems specifically grouped under the title [Cuttlefish Bones] that reveal Montale’s art at its best.’’ Singh also asserts that Montale was an artist of consistent quality, even in this first collection: ‘‘The most conspicuous characteristic of [ Cuttlefish Bones] is its strikingly uniform level of maturity—a maturity that does not depend on, and cannot therefore be explained in terms of, the stages of development one can often trace in the works and careers of other poets.’’ Alfred Corn seems to agree, noting that the book ‘‘makes the impression it does not only because of its serious thematic concerns but also because of Montale’s careful craftsmanship.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Although he was accused of antifascist tendencies by the fascist government of Italy, Montale remained largely apolitical in his views and works. After reading several poems, hold a group discussion and determine if there are any underlying political messages in his works. What do his political messages suggest?
2. Montale rarely used real places, objects, or events in his poetry. Select one poem and note where his themes and images might benefit from the inclusion of external phenomena.
3. Montale’s poetry focuses on psychological and emotional states while generally excluding external descriptions. Write a poem or set of poems that recreates a pscyhological or emotional state without making use of external description.
4. Montale often expressed a negative view of modern life that also included the hope that things could and would be better. Write an essay or poem expressing your view on the present-day world and outlining your hopes for the future.
Almansi, Guido and Bruce Merry. Eugenio Montale: The Private Language of Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1977.
Becker, Jared. Eugenio Montale. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Brook, Clodagh J. The Expression of the Inexpressible in Eugenio Montale’s Poetry: Metaphor, Negation, and Silence. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Cambon, Glauco. Eugenio Montale’s Poetry: A Dream in Reason’s Presence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Contorbia, Franco ed. Eugenio Montale: Immagini di una vita. Milan: Librex, 1985.
‘‘Eugenio Montale (1896-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Phyllis Carmel Mendelson and Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1977, pp. 221-32.
Forti, Marco. Eugenio Montale: La poesia, la prosa di fantasia e d’invenzione. Milan: Mursia, 1973-1974.
Grignani, Maria Antonietta. Prologhi ed epiloghi: Sulla poesia di Eugenio Montale, con una prosa inedita. Ravenna, Italy: Longo, 1987.
Huffman, Claire. Montale and the Occasions of Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Nascimbeni, Giulio. Montale: Biografia di un poeta. Milan: Longanesi, 1986.
Sica, Paola. Modernist Forms of Rejuvenation: Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot. Florence: Olschki, 2003.
Singh, G. Eugenio Montale: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Prose, and Criticism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973.
West, Rebecca. Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.