Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-54 
translated by Jonathan Galassi.
Carcanet, 626 pp., £29, November 1998, 1 85754 425 0
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The entomologist Henri Fabre tells how the cicada’s song is produced by its ‘musical thighs’ and how in Provençal folklore the source of the sound is thought to be the insect’s ‘mirrors’, although he points out that this ‘dry membrane coloured like a soap bubble’ actually dampens the sound. In Provence a singer out of breath or a poet without inspiration is said to have broken mirrors. In ‘Reading Montale’, an essay appended to his translation of the poet’s first three books, Jonathan Galassi considers the old and especially Mediterranean association of poet and cicada and its recurrence in Montale’s poems.

Feeble sistrum in the wind
of a lost cicada,
no sooner touched than done for
in the exhaling torpor

is how Galassi translates the first stanza of ‘Debole sistro al vento’, an early Montale poem which embodies in the cicada’s carcass (‘corrupted leavings/the void won’t devour’) that Provençal condition of a poetry with its mirrors broken. It is, even by Montale’s standards, a stark poem. The image of the sistrum, an Egyptian wire rattle, reduces to its barest essence the vast orchestral range that the poet has at his disposal (figuratively and literally: musical instruments abound in his poems; he was a professional music critic who also studied for many years with the baritone Ernesto Sivori). In ‘L’ombra della magnolia giapponese’ from his third book The Storm and Other Poems (1957), Montale foretells that ‘the empty husk of him who sang will soon/be powdered glass underfoot.’ Here, as Galassi observes, the self-identification is even more explicit. The cicada for Montale has something of that Yeatsian place ‘where all the ladders stop and start’, as the key-word foce (‘estuary’, ‘outlet’) in the last stanza of the sistrum poem suggests. There is, too, the amorous purpose of the cicada’s song, which is not so different from Montale’s own in relation to the elaborate identities of the Muse-like figures his poems address as ‘tu’. It’s not that his poems are simply mating calls but that, like the poetry of the troubadours he learnt from, the attitude to the world which brings them into being is essentially erotic.

The device or mythos – or ‘institution’, as Montale was to claim the critics called it – of the feminine addressee on whom the poet’s fate seems to rest, is present, though less consciously evolved, in the first book, Cuttlefish Bones, which the poet published in 1925 at the age of 29. Its terrain is almost exclusively the Ligurian coast of the Cinque Terre – not, as Galassi claims, the adjoining Tuscan coast. The cicada’s dry, persistent chirruping is the acoustic analogue of this rocky coastline which is not just the setting of the poems but their very condition, their reason for being. The earliest work Montale includes in the book (‘Meriggiare pallido e assorto’) is obsessed with sound. In its first stanza – ‘schiocchi di merli, frusci di scrpi’ – the hard clicking ‘c’ sounds of the thrushes (double consonants are sounded in Italian) and the sibilant rustling of the snake are picked up later with the percussive lines ‘si levano tremuli scricchi/di cicale dai calvi picchi’ (‘cicadas’ wavering screaks/rise from the bald peaks’). The final lines are perhaps too final in likening ‘all life’ to following a wall, harled on top with jagged bottle glass – ‘che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia’ – and yet the alternation of hard and soft ‘c’s, drawing together the whole sound pattern of the poem with subtle menace, shows the phonetic complexity of which Montale is capable even in his early work. It’s these densely textured sound effects that present one of the most formidable challenges to any translator.

A sun-dazzled drought and inertia are described so insistently and precisely in Cuttlefish Bones that they take on the quality of an existential state, a state of entrapment but also of tense expectation. The proem ‘On the Threshold’ exhorts the addressee to ‘watch this solitary strip of land/transform into a crucible.’ The proem serves as a crucible in which the vision is broken down into its constituent elements so as to move beyond a merely naturalistic perspective. It’s only at this point that Montale envisages the possibility of an escape for the ‘you’ of the poem from the walled orto (‘vegetable garden’) which ‘was no garden, but a reliquary’:

Look for a flaw in the net that binds us
tight, burst through, break free!

The meshes of the phenomenal world – of landscape and perception – are also the constraints of the world which the poem has brought into being, and the act of writing gambles on the slender chance of breaking through to an untrammelled realm beyond appearances. Montale’s claim that all his poetry is ‘a waiting for the miracle’ is made in the knowledge that miracles hardly ever occur.

There is a pessimistic cast of mind in all Montale’s work. From the first poems onwards, the tone of voice is resistant, rebarbative, sceptical. No poet is more attached to the use of the negative. His collected poems contain no fewer than 33 poems that begin with the word Non and another 30 which employ it in the opening line – not counting the negative prefixes. He adapts Verlaine’s dictum to explain his own procedures: ‘I wanted to wring the neck of our ancient courtly language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.’ There is an implied rebuttal to D’Annunzio’s rhetorical posturing, but also to the Fascist Party for whom D’Annunzio was such an exuberant propagandist. While Pound, with Fascist assistance, was lording it over a librarian in Rimini, Montale was working as a librarian in Florence, and was dismissed in 1938 for not having Fascist Party membership. But, as Montale confessed, and Galassi’s notes amply demonstrate, he felt the allure of D’Annunzio’s writing as much as he resisted it. One characteristic refusal to be conscripted in any way occurs in a famous early poem, ‘Non chiederci la parola che squadri da ogni lato’, which Galassi translates:

Don’t ask us for the word to frame
our shapeless spirit on all sides
and proclaim it in letters of fire to shine
like a lone crocus in a dusty field.

Ah, the man who walks secure,
a friend to others and himself,
indifferent that high summer prints
his shadow on a peeling wall!

Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,
just a few gnarled syllables, dry like a branch.
This, today, is all that we can tell you:
what we are not, what we do not want.

This impressive English version lacks the formal definition of the original, the lapidary control of its mainly hendecasyllabic lines and the powerful alternate rhymes – all of which ironically contradict the initial statement, unless, in the second stanza, the hypermetric rhyme ‘amico/canicola’, something of a Montale hallmark, could be said to subtly reinforce it. English can’t comfortably render the five nons in the poem, the last two italicised, and the way they add up to an invocation – a spell for closing off illusory worlds. The verb squadrare, here translated as ‘frame’, means ‘square (off)’, and introduces a sense of craftsmanship, especially suited to the quatrain form. But the poem is very sure of itself in its untypical and spokesmanlike use of the first person plural, a communal rather than a royal ‘we’, and therefore not as clearly distinguished from the ‘man who walks secure’ as it might at first appear. William Arrowsmith, who has translated Montale’s earliest books, abandons the first person plural:

Don’t ask me for words that might define
our formless soul, publish it
in letters of fire, and set it shining,
lost crocus in a dusty field.

He also jettisons the simile, but by retaining the word ‘lost’, allows another ambiguity to emerge. Galassi’s ‘lone’ is an imaginative solution, but in the Italian that idiomatic ‘perduto in mezzo’ sabotages the proclamatory word from which Montale distinguishes his own poetry. There’s a similar caustic humour in the image of the confident man’s shadow being ‘printed’ like some poster on a flaking wall. The choice, between the crocus lost in the middle of a dusty field and the counter-eloquence of the ‘gnarled syllables, dry like a branch’, is obvious to Montale.

His second book, The Occasions, published in 1939, after his move inland to Florence and to what he calls the ‘terra firma of ideas, tradition, humanism’, is far less declarative. It moves towards a poetry no less resistant than that of Ossi di Seppia, but far more cryptic. Though Montale sometimes loftily denied the impact of external events on his aesthetics, the fact that The Occasions was written under the worsening conditions of Fascist Italy (the Racial Laws were enacted in 1938) and the imminent threat of war may well have shaped these choices and given rise to an encoded quality in the writing.

But how hermetic are the poems? Arrow-smith appended voluminous notes to his translations. Galassi, too, includes 170 pages or so of notes in small print, quoting from a range of Montale scholars, building onto this already towering superstructure, giving a balanced and lucid discussion of each poem, and supplying the English reader with an astonishing recovery of the intricate fabric of allusions, from Dante and Petrarch, through Leopardi and Foscolo to Carducci and D’Annunzio. Perhaps inevitably some allusions are passed over in favour of more recondite ones. I think, for example, that the first lines of one of Dante’s poems – ‘Così nel mio parlarvoglio esser aspro/com’è ne li atti questa bella petra’ (‘In my speech I want to be rough/as this beautiful stone [-hearted woman] is in her deeds’) – can be heard behind Montale’s great opening from the Mediterraneo sequence: ‘Avrei voluto sentirmi scabro ed essenziale/siccome i ciottoli che tu volvi’ (‘I would have liked to feel harsh and essential/like the pebbles you tumble’). Or in ‘Nell’ombra della magnolia giapponese’ (as also in ‘Clivo’) the file that appears, just before the lines about the cicada’s husk I quoted earlier, is more likely to be a reference to Leopardi’s ‘Scherzo’ (where ‘la lima’ represents the poetic craft he upbraids his contemporaries for not using) than to the stone-grinders in Ecclesiastes which is Arrowsmith’s guess, documented again here.

Joseph Brodsky once remarked of Andrei Platonov: ‘To talk about his pedigree, trying to fit him into this or that tradition of literature is, essentially, to move in a direction exactly opposite to the one in which he himself was moving’. The same is true of Montale. I’m torn between admiration for Galassi’s tremendous labour, undoubtedly helpful to any interested reader of Montale, and a nagging worry that the poems suffocate under the weight of commentary and will seem far more unapproachable to a new reader than they are. Only Ricks’s Inventions of the March Hare offers any equivalent edition in English of a 20th-century poet’s work. Reading Galassi’s Montale is like reading the Commedia in Sapegno’s scholarly edition, although in the case of the Commedia, the need is more pressing, with 700 years of scholarship to account for and much retrieval of historical events and persons to be undertaken. Montale himself, with a defensive reflex, seems to have anticipated his fate in a passage Galassi includes:

The obscurity of the classics, not only of Dante and Petrarch but also of Foscolo and Leopardi, has been partly unravelled by the commentary of whole generations of scholars: and I don’t doubt that those great writers would be flabbergasted by the exegeses of certain of their interpreters. And the obscurity of certain of the moderns will finally give way too, if there are still critics tomorrow. Then we shall all pass from darkness into light, too much light: the light the so-called aesthetic commentators cast on the mystery of poetry. There is a middle road between understanding nothing and understanding too much, a juste milieu which poets instinctively respect more than their critics; but on this side or that of the border there is no safety for either poetry or criticism. There is only a wasteland, too dark or too bright, where two poor jackals cannot live or venture without being hunted down, seized, and shut behind the bars of a zoo.

The reference here is to the final stanza, too brilliantly surreal not to be actual, of one of the ‘Mottetti’ in Montale’s second book which ends:

(under the arcades, at Modena
a servant in gold braid dragged
two jackals on a leash).

The sequence of ‘Mottetti’ is especially elliptical. It moves in leaps and flashes, and yet, like even the most riddling of Montale’s poems, the ‘Mottetti’ communicate directly through what Galassi calls their ‘nervous, astringent music’, ‘their harshness and abruptness’. His sometimes abstruse imagery (the jackals on a leash) is always rendered with precision and immediacy; his voice is intimate, a modulated speaking tone that has an astonishing range and timbre, just as his diction – surely the most inclusive in 20th-century Italian poetry – is equally at home with dialect and literary usage. He leaves a trail the reader can follow – a thread as he calls it in ‘The House of the Customs Men’: ‘un filo s’addipana.//Ne tengo ancora un capo’ (‘a thread gets wound.//I hold one end still’). What’s difficult in his poems comes from a reluctance to make things which are obscure to him deceptively clear to others – hence the frequent images of light, usually flickering or fleeting – ‘lampi’, ‘folgore’, ‘bagliore’, ‘barlume’ as well as the English ‘flashes’, which he uses as a subtitle in his third book to suggest not only the camera, but the fitful appearance of illuminations and signs, sometimes hopeful, sometimes infernal.

In compiling his notes Galassi doesn’t always avoid shedding that excess of light which Montale fears. Following various hints supplied by Montale himself, Galassi claims in his accompanying essay that the poems can be read through like a novel, tracing the writer’s spiritual biography, but anyone who took this advice would quickly feel bored or exasperated. The reader could also do without Galassi’s more speculative notes rehearsing critics’ ruminations on the identity and function of the various, deliberately shaded, Muse-like women who populate the third volume of poems. This anxiety to supplement criticism with tenuous biographical elaborations and to raise the convention of the addressee to the status of a whole poetic system has been one of the more wearying trends within Montale studies. And if Montale could sometimes be accused of collaborating with these aspects of the critical enterprise, he noted on another occasion with terse relief: ‘Per fortuna la poesia non è la narrativa.’

Speaking to his biographer, Giulio Nascimbeni, Montale compared himself to a wine that had grown old, adding that not all wines improve with age: ‘some just go dry.’ The general view of Montale’s work is that it went off not long after his first three collections. Whatever the justice of this claim – personally, I find the disillusioned wit and laconic tenderness of Satura, his fourth book, and some of his subsequent work, greatly appealing – there’s much to suggest that his poems travel badly. No 20th-century Italian poet has been as widely, and disappointingly, translated into English. Vittorio Sereni and Attilio Bertolucci are far more adequately served by translation here. Perhaps the hackneyed notion that the greater the poetry is, the more limpetlike its attachment will be to its original tongue, is true. Unlike the sunflower that Montale wishes to transplant ‘nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino’ (‘in my plot of land burnt by the salt wind’), his diction and modes of perception refuse to be uprooted.

Reading Montale translations, I have a graceless tendency to find the more accurate versions too constrained and the freer versions irresponsibly loose. I’m not sure that the juste milieu Montale recommends for critical enquiry exists for translation. The process inevitably entails losses, but might there not be compensatory gains? Wyatt both translates and radically departs from Petrarch’s ‘Una candida cerva sopra l’erba’ in ‘Whoso list to hunt I know where is an hind’. Petrarch’s seasonal freshness, colour and descriptive specificity are wilfully sacrificed, but the harsh northern climate of the English poem makes the experience of love even more of a psychic steeplechase, and the original more trenchantly secular, politicised and erotic: ‘for Caesar’s I am/And wild for to hold though I seem tame’.

Among Montale’s many translators, Arrowsmith and Galassi are more faithful to the original; Robert Lowell and Jeremy Reed take greater licence. Galassi’s translations ‘sound’ better than Arrowsmith’s and have a more reliable sense of what Montale wrote than either Lowell’s or Reed’s. But only Lowell, in the ten versions gathered in Imitations, manages to make Montale read like a major poet in English:

For years the sirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand;
the sound of your laugh is a jagged coughing;
the compass, a pin-head, spins at random;
the dizzy dice screw up the odds.

There is an unmistakable energy and panache in these lines from ‘The Coastguard House’. The inaccuracies are a small price to pay for the confident possession of the material. But where he joins together two separate poems (which share a similar form) and calls them both ‘The Eel’, translates umida (‘wet’) as humble (‘umile’) and concludes the first part with a question to which the implied answer reverses Montale’s intention, the losses begin to prevail.

Reed describes his versions as ‘independent satellites fuelled by the imagery and having something of the dynamic of the original’, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect too much accuracy. His claim, however, that he has tried to achieve ‘a series of poems in which the poet’s intentions are placed within the context of late 20th-century values’ implausibly suggests that this recent poet needs a little updating, a touch of fin de siècle, to make him more palatable. And too frequently Reed leaves us with serious doubts as to whether he has grasped the meaning of the original before spinning off into his own orbit. Galassi’s translations almost never leave the reader with this doubt. He has a surer feeling for the shape of the whole poem than Arrow-smith, and even if the local details are sometimes more staid, he has a better overall sense of the line as a unit of rhythm. And although the notes are at times exhausting, they remain hugely informative about Montale’s practice and prosody. Galassi’s volume is unlikely to be superseded for a long time.

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