David Young's Introduction to Eugenio Montale's Selected Poems
Oberlin College Press

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To survey Montale’s poetry in its entirety, as this selection does, is to witness the outlines of a remarkable life, lived in an extraordinary and terrifying century, mainly as an Italian, of course, but also as a citizen of Europe and the world, with wide interests and unusual awareness. It was a life-span (1896-1981) that covered two world wars and a cold war. It saw the rise and fall of fascism and of its most notorious dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, followed closely by the comparably destructive communist dictators, Stalin and Mao. The world that had been stable and reassuring in Montale’s youth seemed, in his later years, to stagger from one crisis to the next. And all the political upheavals and destructive wars coincided, of course, with the gigantic revolution in the arts known as Modernism. There is very little about the twentieth century that did not touch Montale, or to which he was not a grim witness.

Yet the cataclysms of history and of world politics are for the most part perceived dimly in these poems, as background noise and bleak horizon ("This Christian brawl with its / shadowy words, its mere lament," writes the poet in "News from Mount Amiata" as World War Two descends on him, "what does it bring you from me?"), while in the foreground an intensely private sensibility muses on incidental details and ordinary things: the changes of weather and season, landscapes and seascapes, and such features of daily living as the familiar sights and smells of a kitchen garden or the peculiar contents of a woman’s handbag. Even the rubbish on a beach can give the poet, and through him the reader, a sense of grounding and stability, something to hold onto in a crazed and tumultuous world. Intimacy and the mundane are turned inside out, as it were, and the contours peculiar to some fairly trivial incident or to the topography of a musing consciousness become enormously magnified, even as history’s fireworks explode in the distance.

A first impression of Montale’s poetry, then, may be that of a fierce and uncommunicative privacy. As Montale’s speakers muse, recall, murmur, complain, and soothe, we might, at the outset of our listening in, feel ignored or excluded. But that sensation turns out to be quite wonderfully misleading. Once we have made our way into Montale’s poetic world, we discover that its seclusion and intensity?"hermetic" is the term often applied to this style of poetry?are both fascinating and addictive. We begin to realize that the privacy and inwardness are deliberate constructions, designed in such a way as to allow us to enter and inhabit them. They are labyrinths in which we are invited to play and get lost. If they did not delight us with their eccentricities and sharp details, their purpose would evaporate.

The privacy, in other words, is ours; the intimacy is for us, to share and explore as we please. Poetry can also of course be cast as public discourse, commenting eloquently on matters of state and historical crisis; but when it is it can never afford the distinctive and confidential pleasures that Montale’s poems offer us.


The world of Montale’s poems is, finally, just as complicated and inexplicable as the one we live in. But it has somehow acquired a music and an order that reveal themselves to us more and more powerfully as our eyes and ears grow attuned to them. Our own lives, mirrored in that musical order, begin to take on some of the same layered and resonant quality, a polyphony of nature, myth, life, and death, of branching and luxuriant metaphors, of tonalities involving humor, love, irony, and loss. The complexity becomes a source of satisfaction and sustenance.

Like experiences that are fleeting, there are poems in this world that we need read only once, and others that we know we will return to again and again. Montale’s are very much in this latter category. One reading never suffices; many readings offer astonishing rewards. And as poems match up to our most memorable and complex experiences, we begin to feel that this poet is indispensable to us. He asks at one point if we can think of calling an eel our sister; by then we have probably reached a point of intimacy that makes the question both inevitable and friendly. How can we not, come to think of it, call him our brother?

One arena in which this drama of relatedness is played out is that of the natural world, landscape and seascape. Montale is deeply aware of the nonhuman world of wind, tide, noonday sun, tree, flower, rock-face, and weedy stubble, and of creatures as various as the jay, the hoopoe, the porcupine, and the gnat. His boyhood summers on the rugged coast of Liguria gave him a permanent impression of nature’s energy and vast unconcern, and he turned throughout his life to that ground, that context, for orientation and reassurance. He speaks in an early poem of "the miracle / that reveals the divine Indifference" and then goes on to tell us what it consists of: "it was the statue in the drowsy trance / of noon, the cloud, the cruising falcon." The statue may represent a god, or a hero, or a saint, but here it is only a statue in the drowsy trance of noon, and the human gaze, drawn upward, finds no heaven or angels waiting, just a cloud and a soaring raptor, indifferent to the gaze and bent on its own survival. Freed of the hunger for metaphysical certitude, Montale can see just what there is to see, unimpeded by assumptions, prejudices, or belief systems. As a result, he is a master at evoking the nonhuman material world, in all its interlocking vitality, with few equals among poets of any era.

A second and equally important arena, overlapping the first, involves the relations between the sexes. It sounds too dry and simple phrased that way, when in this poet’s hands the subject produces an endlessly fascinating kaleidoscope of meanings. Both as a man and as an artist, Montale is unapologetically preoccupied, even obsessed, with the lives and sensibilities of women. His fascination with them is in part erotic, but it is also metaphysical and mythical and existential. Thinking about women, being with women, whether physically or spiritually or both, allows this poet to be most fully himself. He loves them as muses, as people, and as aspects of himself. They stand for the heavenly and the earthly all at once. They are spiritual guides and even otherworldly messengers, but they are also bewildering companions, standing for loss and confusion, poignant victims of history and social disorder. He makes them up, he mythologizes them, and he dreams and daydreams about the way they give meaning to the world and to his art. And he continues to do this well into his last years. His famous use of "you," addressing another self in terms of the deepest intimacy, is almost always associated with the dynamics of erotic and spiritual desire for another. Even when the "you" is Montale himself, it is apt to be his feminine side, something other than the apparent speaker.

Since it is particularly difficult to generalize about Montale’s complex feelings in this area, we do better to plunge into the poems and let their accumulation of detail guide our understanding. One poem from his middle period, however, "Dora Markus," may serve as a useful introduction to the way that the Montalean self defines its world both through nature and through women. When first encountering this poem, readers are naturally apt to read it as a love poem, addressed to a foreign beauty who has had many admirers, the poet among them. Montale begins with what appears to be a recollection of a typical landscape/seascape:

It was where the wooden pier juts out
above the sea at Porto Corsini
and a few men, almost immobile, drop
and pull up nets. With a wave
of your hand you pointed at the unseen
land across the sea?your homeland.
Then we followed the canal
back to the heart of town, shiny with soot,
a flat lowland where paralyzed April
was sinking, empty of memories.

And here, where an ancient life
is dappled with a soft
oriental worry,
your words made a rainbow
like the scales on a stranded mullet.

This feels like a powerful memory of a moment with another person, characterized both by intimacy and estrangement. It is set in a recognizable world compounded of urban misery and nostalgia?the canal and the soot might almost have been borrowed from Eliot’s famous Waste Land?but also a certain weird beauty, represented by the pier and the leisurely fishermen and aptly summarized in the rainbow of color on the beached and dying fish. Since the protagonists are in Ravenna and facing Trieste and southern Austria, we may assume that that is Dora’s home; we can also assume from her name that she is Jewish. The speaker seems concerned about her homelessness?like the mullet, she is a fish out of water, so to speak?even as he admires her spirit and beauty:

Your unrest reminds me
of those great birds of passage
who brain themselves against beacons
during evening storms:
your sweetness itself is a storm
whirling invisibly
and its calms are even rarer.
I don’t know how you manage,
exhausted, in your
heart’s great lake of indifference;
maybe some charm protects you,
one you keep near your lipstick,
powder-puff, nail-file: a white mouse
carved in ivory; and so you survive!

The speaker’s emotions are a fascinating mix of admiration and criticism, but his bafflement keeps us from feeling that he ever condescends to his friend and/or lover. When the poem circles down to the carved ivory mouse, a totem and amulet that the speaker imagines (she may or may not actually possess it!), it does so with wonder, not with contempt. The contents of her purse are as mysterious and intriguing to him as the world of storms and lighthouses, rainbows and mullets.

So detailed and convincing is this anecdote, so grounded in what feels like lived experience, that most readers will be startled to learn that Montale didn’t actually know Dora Markus, and that he claimed to have "made that first bit of a poem at the invitation of Bobi Bazlen, who sent me a snapshot of her legs" (Galassi 492). The "truth" of the anecdote, then, is archetypal and fictive, and that is how the apparent privacy and inwardness of Montale’s poems, as suggested above, turn inside out and become instead a mirror of our own experiences. Dora is fictive; she stands for many women, and her bianco topo, the carved white mouse, may or may not have existed for some other woman of Montale’s acquaintance, next to a lipstick, powder-puff, and nail-file. A snapshot of some legs has apparently moved the poet to imagine a world, a relationship, and a complex set of feelings. I say "apparently" because it later becomes clear that the poem existed in notebook form before it attached itself to Bazlen’s "invitation."

Now the story takes another turn. Montale regards what we have seen so far as a fragment, and it gets published (without his knowledge, he tells us) in 1937, having probably been written around 1926, kept in a notebook, and then having Dora’s name added as a title in response to Bazlen’s challenge in 1928. In other words, the snapshot did not inspire the poem, but rather provided a name that could be attached to the notebook fragment and thus be made to feel more "real." But the poem apparently felt incomplete, ending as it did with the amulet mouse and her precarious survival, and the poet took his time addressing that incompleteness, as deliberate in his methods as those men with the nets on the pier. In 1939 Montale added a second part, now clearly felt and understood as a response to the looming shadow of World War Two and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Now Dora is absent from the speaker, imagined as back home in southern Austria, facing both her own aging and the uncertainties of the growing political threat:

Now in your own Carinthia
of ponds and flowering myrtles,
you lean at the brink to watch
the shy carp gaping,
or follow, beneath the lime trees,
the slow kindling of evening
among their ragged peaks
and, down in the water,
a blaze of awnings from the quays and houses.

The evening, extended
over the humid inlet
brings, with the buzzing of motors,
only the cries of geese,
and the snow-white porcelain
interior, tells in the blackened
mirror, that sees you changed,
a story of cool mistakes
etching it in with acid
where the sponge can’t reach.

Your legend, Dora!
But it is written already
in the portraits of those men
with high, weak whiskers
in the big, gold frames;
it comes back in each chord
the cracked harmonica utters
at the far edge of twilight,
later and later.

It’s written there. The evergreen
laurel survives for the kitchen.
Ravenna’s a long way off,
a fierce faith distills poison.
What does it want of you?
Nobody has to surrender
voice, legend, or destiny.
But it is late, it’s always
later and later.

The melancholy aging of a worldly woman here magnifies to stand for the horrific changes Europe was witnessing as the war drew closer. Montale acknowledges Hitler’s Nazism and the anti-Semitism infecting Austria ?"a fierce faith distills poison"?obliquely and in passing. All his attention appears to be trained on the telling details of Dora’s current life in Carinthia, where her legend fades and the civilized world she belonged to begins to fray and crumble. Montale does not congratulate himself on his abilities as a prophet. He simply tries to see Dora, whom he has after all mostly made up out of various women of his acquaintance, as clearly and sympathetically as he can. He erases himself from the picture even as he gives her life and sensibility their appropriate prominence.

In the passing reference to the evergreen laurel (sempreverde / alloro), the bay leaves people pick and cook with, Montale is surely glancing at his great predecessor Petrarch, whose lifelong love for Laura?much punned-about as the laurel, leaf and tree, as well as mythic eluder of Apollo and coronating sponsor of poetry?inspired and constituted the great poetic sequence, known as the Canzonieri (1327-74), which inaugurated the modern lyric tradition. Laura’s death, two-thirds of the way through the sequence, frees Petrarch of his erotic infatuation with her beauty and allows him to retrain his sensibility along spiritual lines. Eventually Laura, sponsoring his transformation from Heaven, merges with the Virgin Mary.

Petrarch tried to concentrate all women in one, while Montale, good modernist that he was, was content to disperse the meaning of women among many representatives, putting a good deal less strain on his devotion and obsession. But that did not mean that the stakes were any less high; Montale was well aware that, as a figure for Laura, Dora Markus could even represent the possibility of contact with the divine. In that sense the unseen land across the sea, her homeland, is not simply the Austrian province of Carinthia (or, Israel, if you take her gesture to indicate another direction, southerly, as William Arrowsmith once suggested); that unseen country is any and every world beyond this one, including the world known variously as Heaven or Paradise or the realm of transcendence.

This possibility is never absent from Montale’s musings; he would like to believe in a transcendent realm or an afterlife, but cannot. Yet the women he meets and empathizes with sometimes seem to hold out that possibility, for themselves and for others, just as Laura did for Petrarch, compounding the erotic with the metaphysical. Arrowsmith put it well: "In Neo-Platonism and Christian mysticism the soul is persistently compared to an exile, a peregrine in the phenomenal world, who yearns to return to his transcendental home, with God or among the gods" (140). This yearning, which Montale shared with Yeats and Blake, among others, inflects his poetry with a curiosity about the possible relation of the physical to the metaphysical that is lifelong, emphatic, and eloquent.

To such poets, the question of the relation of this world to other worlds is never fully resolved; Petrarch would end his life with a sense of certainty that he and Laura would eventually be united in a perfect place, all differences resolved in a blaze of happiness. But Montale’s pilgrimage had no such happy ending. Instead, he had to be satisfied with the dialectic, the dynamic of physical and metaphysical, one that delighted him in its rhythms and vitalities even as it frustrated any desire for transcendence and resolution. This made him, as I have suggested, an unparalleled ironist and an exemplary Modernist.


If Petrarch’s example of compounding the erotic and the spiritual served Montale as a model that he could reshape dramatically, his other great predecessor, more frequently acknowledged, was Dante. In the Commedia Dante’s visits to the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso constitute a claim to reveal the inner nature and hidden structure of reality, the one that lies behind our life of illusion and confusion. It is a grand design and if it has horrific elements, especially as revealed in the Inferno, it is ultimately reassuring in its direction and in its claims for a beneficent godhead, overseeing the entire construction.

Once again, Montale’s Modernist variation is significant: instead of visiting fantastic or imaginary realms, he visits the real world, the one of docks, canals, and piers, of carved ivory figurines, tarnished mirrors, and ancestral portraits. Like Dante, he is hoping to discover an inner order ("sometimes we feel," he writes in the early "Lemons," "we’re about / to uncover an error in Nature, / the still point of the world, the link that won’t hold, / the thread to untangle that will finally lead / to the heart of a truth"). A discovery of that kind would allow him to reassure his readers as Dante did; instead, he ruefully acknowledges: "But the illusion fails, and time returns us / to noisy cities."

The universe will not give up its secrets, and the poet must content himself with satisfactions as insubstantial and temporary as the lemon trees blossoming late in the winter or, in later years, the memory of erotic moments in his youth transformed into spiritual talismans and icons. If he cannot deliver the metaphysical goods, like Dante, he can at least reward himself, and his readers, by finding and creating patterns, likenesses, delights. The order that Dante claimed was God’s, not his, becomes one that the poet acknowledges as a mystery, something of his own making and something that gives at least a glimpse of an order that may exist behind and below the world of change and sense-phenomena. He takes the real world, in other words, and studies it until it begins to seem almost as fantastic and beautiful as the one that Dante imagined. As he works with it, the borders of life and death dissolve and grow confused, as does the difference between outside and inside, carnal and spiritual, sacred and profane, self and world. Traditional faith is not affirmed, but it is invoked and compounded (Montale likes to mix up classical myth, Jewish and Christian lore, and various choice heresies in an eclectic fusion) in order to establish a kind of trust in the nature of things, sea and sky and seasons, a sense of their fidelity and importance; once established, this trust can be lyrically celebrated.


The life behind this art can be summarized briefly. Montale came from a well-to-do Genoese family of importers. He studied singing and thought about a career in music, then served in the army and saw brief action at the front near the end of World War One. In the Twenties he settled in Florence, opposed the Fascists as they came to power, made his living as a publisher and librarian, and began to enjoy a growing reputation as a poet, both in Italy and abroad. In those years he was in love with, among others, a woman named Anna degli Uberti (Arletta), while in his thirties he met Irma Brandeis, an American Dante scholar known in his poems as Clizia. When Brandeis returned to America in 1938, Montale, out of his librarian job for failing to support the Fascists, was tempted to join her. But he elected to stay, and that meant, among other things, his long liaison with Drusilla Tanzi, the Mosca who is commemorated in "Ballad Written in a Clinic" and in his late elegy, "Xenia." They survived the fall of Mussolini and the occupation of Italy, hiding out in Florence, and after the war Montale became an editor and publisher in Milan. He and Mosca were married shortly before her death in 1963. There were flirtations and friendships with other women, before and after, and they can sometimes be traced through the poems; one 1949 poem from La Bufera, "From a Swiss Lake," not included here, carries the name of Maria Luisa Spaziani, a poet he was infatuated with, in the initial letters of its lines, as an acrostic. For the most part, after Mosca’s death, Montale’s last years were rather solitary, spent painting and writing the sketchy poems he himself characterized as inferior goods from the back of the shop.

There was a good deal of travel in his life, mostly around Europe and to the Middle East, and there was a worldliness about him that stemmed partly from his wide reading, active journalism, and perspicuous translating. But he was felt to be, always, a rather reticent and enigmatic individual, enveloped in his sense of irony and his love of privacy. His comments on his own work often proved valuable, if sometimes a little mischievous and misleading, and his readers have felt, and continue to feel, that they come to know him well only as he meant them to, through his words and art rather than by means of biography and gossip.

This selection of Montale’s poetry brings together the long-term admiration of three practicing American poets. Charles Wright and I began translating Montale in the nineteen-sixties, Jonathan Galassi in the nineteen-seventies. Limiting the number of translators, we feel, helps keep the Montalean voice from sounding as confusingly diverse as it has in some other collections. Among ourselves, we have felt we could represent the poet strongly by our own best efforts to capture his work in English. Montale’s music is harsh and beautiful, and my editorial principle in selecting has been to identify those versions by the three of us that best caught that music and/or found its equivalent in contemporary American English. Readers who seek more information, as well as more poems, are urged to consult Galassi’s monumental Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-1954, as well as his Otherwise: Last and First Poems of Eugenio Montale. Readers who want to read Charles Wright’s entire version of The Storm and Other Poems will find it still in print as the first issue in this Translation Series. My own translations have been published here and there over the years, but most of them are making their first appearance in this collection.

I have followed the translations with the initials of the translator and, in two cases, next to mine, those of Vinio Rossi, whose help in my earliest efforts to translate Montale were both generous and invaluable.
Oberlin, August 2004

NOTE: The William Arrowsmith comments are from The Occasions, published by W. W. Norton in 1987. I have also found Arrowsmith’s notes in The Storm and Other Things (Norton, 1985) helpful. Jonathan Galassi’s Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-1954 was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1998, and in a revised version in 2000. For the endnotes, I wish to acknowledge the indispensable work of both Arrowsmith and Galassi, as well as Joseph Cary, Three Modern Italian Poets (Chicago, 1993).

David Young began translating Montale in the 1960s.  He is also widely known for translations of poets as diverse as Rilke, Petrarch, and Miroslav Holub.

Permission from authors: (copyright c 2004 by David Young; Oberlin College Press; FIELD Translation Series)

Click here to read poems from each translator from MONTALE Selected Poems