William Arrowsmith’s hitherto unpublished translations of the last two volumes of Eugenio Montale’s poems are about to appear from Norton, in a collected edition lovingly prepared by Arrowsmith’s friend and student Rosanna Warren. The volume represents a life’s work for both poet and translator.
By the time Montale reached his fruitful old age, he was widely recognized as a poet who had revolutionized the art in his native Italy and whose voice reverberated among the great international moderns: Eliot, Pound, and Valéry, along with Yeats and Cavafy. With his first book, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) in 1925, Montale both extended the lyric tradition he had inherited from Dante, Petrarch, and Leopardi, and roughened the more recent, nineteenth-century conventions of Italian magniloquence. Each new collection revised the poet’s earlier practice, sometimes savagely, the most dramatic revision occurring with his fourth book, Satura, published in 1971 when he was seventy-five. In each phase, he invented new ways of putting poetic language under stress and of realigning poetry with prose. Montale had also established himself as a voice of conscience, keeping steady vigil throughout the horrors of Fascism and the Nazi Occupation, and the disappointments of postwar corruption and cultural decadence in Italy.
Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa in 1896, the fifth and last child of a well-to-do business family. His father helped to run G. G. Montale & C., a firm that imported turpentine, resins, marine paint, and other chemical products, in 1905 building a villa for family vacations on the Ligurian coast in Monterosso, one of the “Cinque Terre,” five fishing villages all but inaccessible by road. It was a landscape of cliffs, ravines, pelting mountain streams, and the fig trees, cactuses, and small vineyards that wrenched a living from poor soil. Until he was thirty, Montale spent almost every summer here, and this elemental land of rock, sun, and gnashing sea gave him his primary mythology and the imagery of his first book, Ossi di seppia: “To gaze at the cracked earth, the leaves / of vetch, to spy the red ants filing past, / breaking, then twining, massing / at the tips of tiny sheaves” (from “Meriggiare pallido e assorto,” “To laze at noon, pale and thoughtful”).
Montale recreated the harsh Ligurian scenes in a correspondingly harsh language. In his Imaginary Interview from 1946, he links his discovery of poetic voice to his imaginative possession of the landscape in his first fully realized poem, “Meriggiare.” He also associates the discovery of voice with an assault on poetic diction. Alluding to Verlaine’s famous poem “Art poétique”—“Prends l’Éloquence et tords-lui son cou,” “Take eloquence and wring its neck”—Montale asserted, “I wanted to wring the neck of eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.” “I limoni” (“The Lemon Trees”), the poem that opens the main body of Ossi, starts by declaring war on “the laureled poets,” the hyper-literary, classicizing bards (D’Annunzio most of all): “Listen: the laureled poets / stroll only among shrubs / with learned names: ligustrum, acanthus, box. / What I like are streets that end in grassy / ditches where boys snatch / a few famished eels from drying puddles. . . .” Montale’s verbal textures reproduce these famished scenes: his rhymes are dissonant, his metrics irregular, and he goes against the grain of Italian lyricism by clotting his lines with rough, doubled consonants: “mezzo seccate agguantano i ragazzi. . . .” One has to go back to Dante to find such choking sounds in Italian poetry.
“Naturally, the great seedbed of any poetic renewal is in the field of prose,” Montale wrote in the Imaginary Interview. Despite ruptures of style from book to book, the poet remained faithful to this insight throughout his life, and a major challenge in appreciating his last five collections (Satura through Diario postumo) lies in having to discern in each new volume the artistic rationale in poems that seem more and more radically conceived as prose. But he had grafted prose elements into verse right from the beginning.
Another feature of the earliest poems that persists throughout the oeuvre is the sense of metaphysical entrapment. Unlike the other Ligurian poets of the period—Ceccardo Roccatagliata-Ceccardi, Giovanni Boine, and Montale’s friend Camillo Sbarbaro—Montale was never only a regional poet. His Liguria gave him not only gods of sun and sea, but a feeling of imprisonment, of isolation, of being separated from others by a “glass bell,” as he said in the Imaginary Interview, of being deprived of transcendental meanings that the Catholic faith, or any other faith, might have afforded. “Meriggiare” concludes:
And then, walking out, dazed with light,
to sense with sad wonder
how all of life and its hard travail
is in this trudging along a wall spiked
with jagged shards of broken bottles.
Through the poems reflecting the suffocation of Fascism and war, and the later poems haunted by images of birds trapped in nets and of human prisoners, Montale tests the prison walls of consciousness with his only instruments, poetic language and a rigorous skepticism.
The classicist William Arrowsmith spent the fiercest energy of his late years translating the poetry of Montale. His translations of Montale are poetric re-creations of a high order, reflecting Arrowsmith’s lifelong devotion to the art and his particular devotion to the art of Montale. The last two books of Montale that Arrowsmith translated, Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (1973) and Quaderno di quattro anni (1977), published now for the first time, pursue his poetics of reduction ever more grimly. More and more, the poet meditates on the very conditions of his art, as in “Poor Art,” evoking (yet again) bird traps, and the poet’s makeshift paintings composed with “wine, coffee, and flecks / of toothpaste.” Or “My Muse,” in which the Muse has become a scarecrow: “She still has / one sleeve, with which she conducts her scrannel / straw quartet. It’s the only music I can stand.”
Language itself, both private and public, is seen in these late poems as madness, darkness, delusion. Reputation is a latrine. The Muse in Quaderno, in “Fire and Darkness,” can’t even click a flame out of a pocket lighter:
She’s lied too often, now let darkness,
void, nothingness fall on her page.
Rely on this, my scribbling friend:
trust the darkness when the light lies.
And yet, Beckett-like, in these palinodes and snarls, Montale attains time and again a contrarian grandeur, and by a via negativa renews faith in the art he punishes, the logos he outrages and from which he demands so much. Language and art appear in late Montale as broken promises. But they are still promises. Once again, as in “The Eel” of La bufera, out of death springs life, and out of darkness leaps light:
. . . the green soul seeking
life where there’s nothing but stinging
spark that says
everything begins when everything seems
dead ashes, buried stump. . .
We’ll have a few of Arrowsmith’s last translations for you as the week goes by.
Order The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977 here.
For comparison readers might like to consider Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Montale’s three major works, Cuttlefish Bones, The Occasions, and The Storm and Other Things, recently released in a revised paperback edition.
And, read Rosanna Warren on Max Jacob and the poetry of Picasso’s circle in the Bateau lavoir here in Little Star!
Montale’s Imaginary Interview appears in Marco Forti, Per conoscere Montale (Milan: Mondadori, 1976), translation by Rosanna Warren.