A Dream in the Presence of Reason

Clive James

Poetry, Eugenio Montale said in his Nobel Prize address, is not merchandise. On that basis he excused himself for having turned out comparatively few poems. Put together, however, they make a volume of impressive dimensions, especially if you count in the fourth dimension, time. Annotated with unimpeachable scholarly patience and critical judgment by Gianfranco Contini and his pupil Rosanna Bettarini, L’opera in versi is the book with a capital ‘b’, or libro with a capital ‘l’, which this great poet, as personally modest as he was vocationally proud, always looked forward to in trepidation and worked towards with confidence. Unless, which seems unlikely, Montale wrote a hill of material in the very year of his death, there is not much that escapes its purview. It contains all the poems, all the variants which led up to the established texts, and a closely relevant selection from the poet’s prose, ranging from pertinent sentences drawn from already well-known articles and interviews to excerpts from letters never before seen in public. If this book is not the first and best way for the average reader to become acquainted with Montale, for the average reader who has become so acquainted it is likely to be appreciated as the ideal assemblage and distillation of everything he has come to know and respect about a great national poet. A national poet and a world poet, since his cultural significance extends to providing a living definition of civilisation applicable beyond any kind of national barrier, including that of language – and now that he is dead the living definition becomes more alive than ever.

When the book with a capital ‘b’ finally materialises, those readers who absorbed its component volumes as they came out are apt to be loud in their admonitions to the younger student that there is something soulless about approaching a poet by way of a tombstone-sized tome, especially when, as in this case, the binding appears to have been carried out in Carrara marble. Such warnings have in them an element of age envying youth, but there is no gainsaying that Montale, the least bombastic of creative mentalities, is an unsuitable subject for monumental treatment. Once through its clinically white portals, however, even the novice will soon realise that here is no sepulchre, although he should equally realise that this is no way to begin. He should begin as Montale would have wished him to, with the individual volumes in Mondadori’s Lo specchio series, starting with Ossi di seppia and being shamelessly ready to employ every teaching aid that comes to hand – including, if possible, one or two live Italians. Montale stripped Italian poetry of its rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean that he simplified its vocabulary. Quite the reverse. The cuttlefish bones, the ossi of his strategically chosen first title, are emblematic not just for their being picked clean but for their particularity.

What Pasternak said of Pushkin’s poetry – that it was full of things – is conjecturally true of all poetry and certainly true of Montale’s, which even at its simplest is lexically so analytic that the Italians themselves must underline words to be looked up later. Students do it with a ballpoint and often with impatience, thereby manifesting in little that temporal frenzy to which Montale opposed himself and all his work, cultivating, and to a heartening extent attaining, a divine detachment. There is consolation in this for the English-speaking reader whose Italian is not fluent. When he buys a copy of Ossi di seppia or Le occasioni or La bufera which has been heavily scored by a student and sold after the examination has been passed or failed, he may possibly make up in spiritual resource for the previous owner’s geographical advantage. While emphatically disclaiming the title of linguist, Montale was a devoted reader in the other European languages, and something of what he undoubtedly got out of them we can legitimately hope to get out of him. He writes the universal language of considered experience. Youth, even when it speaks fluently in the same tongue, finds that language hard to hear, while those who have grown older can sometimes recognise it in a foreign face.

If one is reluctant to let the point go, it is because of a proprietary eagerness to assure younger readers now coming to Montale that the permanent currency which he will in future seem to possess was once actual. He was there. You could buy Corriere della Sera off the news-stand and read an article by him. L’Espresso, while occupying itself as usual with the imminent downfall of capitalism, would devote its colour magazine to some of the Xenia poems and decorate them with the poet’s own drawings. Without benefit of clergy, he made a subtle but immediate impact on everyday Italian life. There were always critical articles about him by other hands but the critic who mattered most was the man himself and everything he wrote in prose was devoted to keeping the space uncluttered between his poems and anyone who might want to read them. He could be an elusive poet and sometimes an outright difficult one, but never wilfully and always in the belief that at least to some extent art had to be possessed in common if it was to be individual at all. Mayakovsky is reputed to have admired Montale’s first poems. Montale conceded that this was just possible, but couldn’t imagine a greater difference than the one between his own voice and that of a man-megaphone. Another difference, which he was too modest to claim, is that it was he, rather than Mayakovsky, who found the natural measure with which to represent a people. He found it not through loudness but through quietness; not by the striking of public attitudes but by the searching of the private soul; not in wooing the future but in cherishing the past. As the decades of variously inflated eloquence succeeded each other, his unique tone gradually revealed itself for what it was – the sound of natural speech.

Natural but compressed, Montale enjoyed insisting that when he wrote at all he wrote easily, without much revision. He said the secret of his way of working was all in waiting for the miracle (un’attesa del miracolo) and that miracles, in these times without religion, are rarely seen. But all this can mean is that he did a lot of composing in his head. The proof is in the variants, which show that the work was not always complete before being set down in manuscript and sometimes went on after the first printing. In ‘I Limoni’, the first full-sized poem in Ossi di seppia and consequently the first poem of Montale’s that most of us ever read seriously, the very first word in the famous first line (Ascoltami, i poeti laureati) was just Ascolta at one stage of the manuscript. In other words, he was merely saying ‘Listen’ in the imperative instead of inviting the reader’s complicity with the intimate ‘Listen to me’ which now seems so prophetically characteristic of his tone.

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