The Second Life of Montale, or A Rancor Less Bitter

The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977

The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977
Translated by William Arrowsmith edited by Rosanna Warren
Norton, 2012

Montale’s Collected Poems in this Norton edition is 790 pages, 656 pages of poetry. With the Italian en face, one might prefer that each poem have a page to itself—but think of the trees. It includes Cuttlefish Bones, The Occasions, The Storm and Other Things, Satura, Poetic Diary: 1971, Poetic Diary: 1972 and Poetic Notebook (1974-1977). Not included are two late collections: Other Verses and Posthumous Diary. According to Warren’s carefully worded Editor’s Note, Jonathan Galassi, who provided “revealing versions” of Montale’s first three collections, “beautifully translated” these two late collections.

While Arrowsmith’s translations are useful, and his notes are thorough (I for one am grateful that he has culled the academic criticism in English of Montale, where much of the writing is tedious), what makes this book indispensable is its completeness. Among the pantheon near the summit, with Auden, Eliot, Moore, Pound, Seferis, Yeats (Warren adds Valéry and Cavafy) Montale is the only Modern who changed radically—none broke their style as completely as Montale did, none wrote poems that look contemporary today. ((In her Introduction Warren calls them “the great international moderns: Eliot, Pound, and Valéry, along with Yeats and Cavafy.”)) To hazard a provoking comparison, thankfully still in progress, scan the career of Geoffrey Hill, a great poet who has taken up the tattered Modernist mantle. Like Montale he has broken his style, and this break has been attacked. Why regard this development with distaste, as a lessening rather than a relaxing; or for that matter as evolution?

Briefly, on the general subject of translation: many poets could benefit from a book modeled on Harry Thomas’s Montale in English. Montale has attracted many translators, and many talented poets have struggled to English his allusive Italian. In Thomas’s book certain poems appear in several versions. While it has all the limits of an anthology it is worth owning for Samuel Beckett’s marvelous rendering of “Delta” and David Ferry’s “News From Amiata”, which proves that Montale’s complex narrative poems can succeed in English. Geoffrey Hill has lately translated “The Storm”, Paul Muldoon “The Eel”. But Arrowsmith’s undertaking is immensely ambitious and generous (the best of ambition is generous, not monstrous); and Warren’s contribution is hardly less so. She edited the manuscripts, and persuaded Norton to publish this hefty tome. ((W.W. Norton will publish the Arrowsmith translations of Poetic Diaries 1971 and 1972 and Poetic Notebook 1974-1977 in December, 2012.))

To return to an appraisal of Montale’s late work, his overlooked second life in poetry, I look to Joseph Brodsky’s essay about G. Singh’s volume New Poems, selections from Satura, Diario del ’71 e del ’72: ((Eugenio Montale, New Poems, A selection from Satura, Diario del ’71 e del ’72, translated and introduced G. Singh with an essay on Xenia by F. R. Leavis, New Directions, New York, 1976. The volume is worth looking at for F.R. Leavis’s moving essay.))

New Poems provides an idiom which is qualitatively new. It is largely Montale’s own idiom, but some of it derives from the act of translation, whose limited means only increase the original austerity. The cumulative effect of this book is startling, not so much because the psyche portrayed in New Poems has no previous record in world literature, as because it makes clear that such a mentality could not be expressed in English as its original language. The question of “why” may only obscure the reason, since even in Montale’s native Italian such a mentality is strange enough to earn him the reputation of an exceptional poet. ((From “In The Shadow of Dante”, appearing in Less Than One: Selected Essays, Joseph Brodsky, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, p 104.))

While I see no need to go as far as Joseph Brodsky does here on matters of translation, the question of “why” he poses is merely begged or dogged, he places Montale among the greatest of the Moderns (Brodsky names Apollinaire, T.S. Eliot and Mandelstam), and sees the late work as a natural part of Montale’s development that, if anything, is better than what came before.

Warren’s introduction traces the metamorphosis of Montale’s various Muses. She writes, “But as Montale himself, and Joseph Cary, among others, have pointed out, the real, individual woman, however passionately Montale felt about her, was absorbed into the poetic object.” Significantly, she gives Mosca, the fly, Montale’s wife and the subject of “Xenia”, the status of a Muse, while artfully distinguishing her role in Montale’s work.

While Clizia ruled Le occasioni, and Clizia and the Vixen together inspired La bufera, Mosca came into her own after her death as the Muse of Satura. Unlike the erotic figures of Clizia, the Vixen, and their minor avatars, Mosca is the Muse of Conscience, Irony, and Daily Life, and her critical spirit sustains the poet in his contemplation of the gross materialism and corruption to which his country had been betrayed after the war. ((The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977, translated by William Arrowsmith, edited by Rosanna Warren, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 2012. P xxviii.))

But has no one noticed? While Mosca is a nickname that expresses genuine affection, a fly is a pest, and feeds on garbage and carrion. Shall we call this Montalean irony? Possibly both. As Warren points out, Mosca’s “critical spirit sustains the poet [ . . . ]”. The critical spirit is a pest, nagging the poet who is appalled by deliquescing culture.

Alternatively, Montale’s willingness to use this bit of private mythology traps the critic under glass. That the fly beating his or her life out on the windowpane might, depending upon one’s perspective, be tragic, comic or too insignificant to mean anything? Or is the nickname Mosca so saturated with feeling that it is cleansed of its natural associations? I recall a remark of Czeslaw Milosz quoting Aleksander Wat quoting Andrew Lang: “It is the nature of the highest objective art to be clean. The Muses are maidens.” (( Found in “A Dialogue on Wat between Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan” in With The Skin: Poems of Aleksander Wat, translated and edited by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, The Ecco Press, New York, P 111. After citing this remark, Milosz continues: “And precisely [Wat’s] art is clean in the sense of somehow transcending his subjective suffering.” If this is a definition of cleanliness in poetry, most contemporary poetry is filthy.))

A book could be written comparing the ‘life’ of Montale’s dead and that of Dante’s dead. In “Xenia I”, from Satura, Mosca’s absence prompts Montale to wonder about presence:

We’d worked out a whistle for the world
beyond, a token of recognition.
Now I’m trying variations, hoping
we’re all dead already and don’t know it.

“But one can love a shade, you know, / being shades ourselves.” Nine sections of the poem separate the quatrain from this later couplet, among the most famous of Montale’s claims about our status as beings—never mind our status as persons—and one among numerous echoes of Dante. ((“Xenia I” and “Xenia II,” as well as “Diary of 71” and “Diary of 72,” the poems that make up the present volume, are full of references to Dante. Sometimes a reference consists of a single word, sometimes an entire poem is an echo—like the NO. 13 of “Xenia I,” which echoes the conclusion of the twenty-first Song in the Purgatorio, the most stunning scene in the whole Cantica.” From “In The Shadow of Dante”, appearing in Less Than One: Selected Essays, Joseph Brodsky, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, p 103.)) He can’t mean that we know the merits of a person only after his or her death. He means the converse: that the obituary may give an account of life but it is the furthest thing from life itself. Montale attacks those who are confident they have ready answers to questions that he would not dignify by calling them ‘existential’—see the second quatrain of the first Ossi. ((“Ah, that man so confidently striding, / friend to others and himself, careless / that the dog days’ sun might stamp / his shadow on a crumbling wall!” Arrowsmith, P 31.)) His late work affirms that forgetting is more natural than remembering. In making such a bald statement I gloss Clive James’s essay on Montale in his magisterial Cultural Amnesia. Like many of those essays, the piece on Montale includes a long interlude, so long that the mentions of Montale become digressive from his reflections on the pleasures of forgetting. But he ends with: “ . . . [Montale] would not have talked about the inevitability of forgetting in a way that emphasized the quality of what is remembered.” Because memory is so selective we can’t trust even the little we remember. Hence the poem does not pose the inevitable question of what sort of shade “But one can love a shade, you know, / being shades ourselves” alludes to: shades of what, exactly?

Rebecca West, a valuable critic of the late Montale, summarizes the consensus of critical reception of the late work: from Satura onward the work is “new, different, even alien”; “there is a stronger disposition to criticize negatively, to seek out the frailties and flaws”; “or—another tactic—to show the ways in which these poems are really not so different after all”. ((Eugenio Montale: Poet on the Edge, Rebecca West, Harvard University Press, 1981. P 93.)) West’s comments read like stages of grief, mourning what came before. Joseph Cary, one of the most readable critics of Montale, qualifies his praise of the late work: “Later Montale is richly moving Montale, but only—perhaps I mean mainly—if you know the tremendous achievement of his first three books.” ((Three Modern Italian Poets: Saba, Ungaretti, Montale, Joseph Cary, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2nd Edition, 1993. P 361.)) Harry Thomas is blunt: “Critics and translators, especially American ones, have inclined to dismiss [the late work] out of hand.” Then damns with faint praise: “I like a great many of the poems of this second Montale, and it is my hope that readers of the last quarter of this book will come to like them too.” ((Montale in English, edited by Harry Thomas, Handsell Books, New York, 2002. P xiv.)) Clive James appears to agree with Thomas, but he is more forgiving: “There have been many attempts to translate the masterpieces in Montale’s main body of lyric poetry. All have failed, but at least they have provided a wealth of parallel texts.” ((James, Op.Cit., p 493.))

If Cuttlefish Bones, The Occasions, The Storm and Other Things are canonical, if they have attracted more translators and have received more attention from critics and readers, Montale’s second life, his apocrypha, is the Montale to read and attend to now. If the first three books constitute the main body James and others refer to, we can compare how the late work modifies the overall shape. Even if they are not the largest part of the silhouette, these four late books are essential. I would go so far as to say how we view them determines how we view Montale. Despite its convenience for critics, the standard reading of Montale—he lost the plot, went off the rails—misses the point. The times demanded a different poetry, and he was the poet of his generation with the talent and force to write it.

To describe the late work Montale used terms like retrobottega—the back of the shop—and “the other side of the coin”. But we do not need his remarks when a glance at the titles announces a change. After titles referring to objects and times we have Satura, a miscellany; a pair of diaries (three if we include the posthumous book Galassi translated); and a notebook. The change appears more dramatic because his production accelerated and his output increased. The absurd ‘dilution’ argument has lately been trotted out on Hill.

Satura, the first of the last books, contains some of Montale’s most powerful poetry, as well as some of his longest sequences: “After a Flight”, the three “Thrust and Parry” sequences, “Two Venetian Sequences”, and the moving “Xenia I” and “Xenia II”. Like Cuttlefish Bones and The Occasions, Satura begins with a dedicatory poem. “My you” is addressed to “the critics” Montale allegedly misleads—as if poems are written for critics, as if poets are required to be truthful to critics—or for that matter truthful at all—full stop. As a challenge to our expectations “My you” breaks against our sense of Montale as a bottle of champagne breaks against the hull of a doomed ship.

“Since in art there’s always a balance between the exterior and the interior, between the occasion and the art-object, we must express the object and mask the occasion-source” Compare this oft-quoted remark from Montale’s 1946 “Imaginary Interview” with “Poetry (in Italy)” from the second poetic notebook. We see the continuity of themes, and the seams of the themes, how over time they unravel:

Since the dawn of the century
we’ve argued whether poetry is inward or outward.
At first inward triumphed, then outward
counter-attacked fiercely, and years later
they struck a truce which won’t last long since outward
is armed to the teeth.

Or do we? Arrowsmith translates the last two lines of In limine, the first poem in the Ossi: “Go, I have prayed for your escape—now my thirst/ will be slaked, my rancor less bitter . . .” A rancor less bitter. Not an absence of rancor, not a neutral rancor, not an unqualified rancor— certainly not a sweet rancor, the taste of a typical Italian Amaro—Montale’s curious qualifier invites speculation. But this rancor, however curious its qualifier, appearing so early in his work, is integral to his outlook. At times Montale’s late poetry is rancorous, because he found the world overripe, rank. No wonder he was lost without Mosca’s powers of perception, “your infallible sixth sense, / your bat’s radar.”

The Ossi are full of signs of disintegration, and disintegrating signs. The question: was there unity then, to suffer disintegration? I have no evidence, but I think Montale would consent to be called an Acmeist, at least according to the acerbic definition Mandelstam allegedly offered: “‘a homesickness for world culture.’” ((See Clarence Brown’s introduction to Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, Atheneum, New York, p ix. “In 1937 Akhmatova reports {Mandelstam} offered this definition in reply to a heckler. Recently, this little treasure of a book has been reprinted in the nyrb classics series. In his introduction to Cultural Amnesia James includes a witty gloss on Mandelstam’s quip: “When the doomed poet Osip Mandelstam said that he was nostalgic for a world culture, he didn’t mean that it be a world culture if everyone could live in Switzerland.”)) Montale is the Modernist who got over his homesickness, even as he realized that the cure was worse than the disease. He did not go into exile. Instead of keeping silence he became loquacious; and he was not cunning but cutting, taking the unkindest cuts at himself, and these cuts are telling, while never slipping into an explicitly confessional mode.

The old maidservant illiterate and bearded
buried who knows where
could read her name and mine
as ideograms
maybe she couldn’t recognize herself
not even in the mirror
but she never lost sight of me
and knowing nothing of life
knew more than we
that what’s acquired in life
on the one hand we lose on the other
who knows why I remember her
more than anything or anyone
if she came into my room now she’d be
a hundred and thirty and I’d holler in fright.

“What Remains (If Anything)” is a late poem, from the Poetic Notebook, and one of my favorites. The lack of punctuation, the idiosyncratic line breaks, the grumbling tone. Speaking of New Poems, Brodsky says, “The book is certainly a monologue; it couldn’t be otherwise when the interlocutor is absent, as is nearly always the case in poetry.” ((Brodsky, op cit. P 105.)) Montale’s late poems have a distinct, even peculiar tone, as if he were speaking to himself while wondering what this self to whom he speaks amounts to, and a constant testing of this conditional, testy self. Perhaps the mode might be called the complicit confessional, creating complicity with the reader.

This haunting figure: a servant, illiterate, but also crippled in some way, if she were unable to identify her reflection. Is this a crude way of saying she could not reflect? Was she blind? Or is Montale making a not-so-subtle joke: she is a shade, unable to see herself because she is transparent? In possession of occult knowledge, “knowing nothing of life / knew more than we /that what’s acquired in life / on one hand we lose on the other”. (How far this is from the Biblical, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”) More to the point, Arrowsmith has tweaked the formulaic opposition of ‘on one hand; on the other’, since what is lost is not lost by the other but on the other, as if opposites were impossible: there are only gains and losses, acquisitions and sales. Terrifying in itself, the figure becomes more terrifying to the poet because “I remember her / more than anything or anyone”.

Montale’s work is too large, too various, and too important to dissect here. The critics will have their field days, picking at his remains. Take issue if you must with individual poems, but you cannot discredit the achievement. This book belongs on the shelf of any reader of Modern poetry—because Montale, among the Modernists who survived, is the only Modernist who changed, who remained modern. ((I do not mean to slight those who did not live long. We can’t know how Appolinaire, Mandelstam and others might have developed. Modern poetry would be very different if they had.))

Michael Autrey (© 2012)