Irma Brandeis, An Italian Letter, Eugenio Montale, The Saturday Review of Litterature, 18 July 1936
THE situation of the Italians in the field of literature (and, indeed, in all the arts), has been a curious one during the past twenty years when, on the one hand, the curve of decline from the Renaissance has appeared to be hurrying toward bottom level and, on the other, a new country has been officially proclaiming and seeking to stimulate a fresh pulse of life in this very sphere. Since the close of the world war modern sculpture, painting, music, architecture, literature have been appearing abundantly in Italy. But there was a false link somewhere; contemporary Italian art has left its proper audience cool and distant—or manifesting at best a certain patriotic enthusiasm entirely without issue. To the outsider one thing at least seems evident: the genius of the Italian people has stopped speaking in these forms; it had, even before the African debate, turned toward the immense practical problems that faced the changed country. The artist was compelled either to quit producing altogether or else to work with a feeling of unimportance, of thinness, of collapsibility. For the most part the result was that he did collapse on inspection. Largely, recent Italian art is expressive neither of contemporary life nor of strong individual reality. And the case of those exceptional artists whose convictions have remained alive, whose hands have retained authenticity in spite of the general drain of attention to other fields, becomes all the more striking. There are some such men in Italy, today. One of them is the poet, Eugenio Montale; among the choice few books, his volume, Ossi di Seppia.
Montale’s writing is hard, intense, empty of all superfluities. In diction it has an entirely natural lack of simplicity, appropriate to its intention. Its images are clipped sharp and hard from the immediate sensuous world. Montale’s phrasing asserts itself in the memory; his words have a taste which you remember. You recognize him. in the atmosphere of the curious concrete world he assembled to clothe the “abstract entities”; in his
Do you ask to halt time over the divergent countryside? Great speckled wings brush past you, balconies thrust out to the open thin, live, blonde dolls, the blades of windmills turn, stiff above garrulous streams. Do you ask to stop the silver bells over the town and the hoarse sound of the doves? Do you ask for the timid mornings of your distant shores?
The experience in which such curiously assorted objects and ideas are juxtaposed is a perfectly integrated one. For here is a physical world whose function is no longer that of background, but which has virtually changed places with man in that it is the mover and man the moved. The unaware, the unfeeling, the unintentional world performs on a single level with the conscious, the feeling, and the willing. The physical scene takes over mood or emotion. This activity in man of the irrational concrete is the personal seal on Montale’s poetry. It colors all that he writes. He tends to view the world in terms of the dissidence between these two kinds of being: between all that is prisoned, questioning but unanswered, tending toward death, and all that is free, unquestioning, powerful, recurrent. Such an opposition is clearly stated in some poems, while in others—the majority and the more successful—it is implicit, an overtone rising from the scene. The poet can find no way out of patterned time, no permanent resting place for the heart, no bridge between desiring and attaining. He does not comment on this situation: he displays it There is no outcry, no emotional overflow. The inanimate world alone shows anything akin to violence; and pity, fear, time, doubt—all the abstractions—take on objective shape. In La Casa dei Doganieri (The Toll-Keeper’s House), one reads:
Years now south wind has harried the old walls and the sound of your laughter is no longer light. The compass runs mad, chance takes it, and the throw of the dice comes always false. You have forgotten; changed time diverts your memory and what was marked there, fades.
and in The Lemon Trees:
See, in these silences wherein things abandon themselves and seem about to betray their ultimate secret, sometimes one half expects to discover a mistake of nature, the dead point of the world, the link which will not hold, the thread to disentangle, which might set us at length in the midst of a truth.
In this Montalian landscape one soon notices the frequent recurrence of the sea, the winds, the marine plants and the reefs of a rough north coast. Yet clearly the sea is not Montale’s subject. It is, rather, his choicest image, his richest source of symbols. And again the further one reads in his works the clearer it becomes that these particular tides and storms have enlarged their usual sphere (just as this particular man has reduced his), to operate upon, or within, the heart and mind. There is repeated allusion to the wind that blows in the heart; an emblem tossed there by the wind, the lake of the heart; and permanence becomes a deep ravine, immobility a growth of binding roots, articulateness the ocean itself, time a measured flow of water. I. A. Richards, commenting upon a similar recurrence of images in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, observes cogently that,
when a writer has found a theme or image which fixes a point of relative stability in the drift of experience, it is not to be expected that he will avoid it. Such themes are a means of orientation.
Montale’s whole seascape is precisely a series of such orienting images or symbols. Their verbal beauty, their immediate effectiveness, must hot stop the reader from seeing where they tend. For their essential effect is never decorative, even where they convey the scene with genius. The rough Ligurian coast is, for Montale, a source of images that serve to express in the greatest possible variety, yet with “relative stability,” the second term of the immobility-freedom dissidence alluded to above. There is no self-consciousness in this usage. Indeed, critical analysis gives it a rather falsifying baldness. It works underground in writer’s as well as reader’s mind. First the sea, the winds, the rocks, and then eventually all moving water and the lesser furniture of the coast take on ulterior significance. So when Montale fuses these sea images with the properties of life they become sharp symbols in his vocabulary. With them he states his whole case in little. And such symbolic structure, at times inconsequential in the early poems, in later works extends its terminology, its intricacy and attains a deeply-rooted, deeply-stirring power.
If at times these poems recall T. S. Eliot’s in sound, it is a limited and superficial resemblance dependent upon use of the prose phrase as a rhythmic unit as well as a certain wanted dryness of tone. But even structurally the likeness cannot be pressed, for, in the small group of poems it touches, Montale’s use of rhyme, assonance, pauses, is unlike Eliot’s, his whole inflection is an individual affair. Grammatically he is almost always complex and highly elliptical. A kind of musical awkwardness, irregularities even in rhymed, stanzaic verse, intensify one’s pleasure in the evident basic rhythmic structure. And a certain harshness, a deliberate astringency of surface, are properties of the true and necessary musical mode in which all the works of this Italian poet are composed.